Thinking Critically About Goal Setting
A five-step process can help teachers and administrators collaborate effectively with students on setting and achieving goals.
As educators, our efforts center on helping others grow and develop. This means that we have ambitious goals for our students, colleagues, and communities. While we often have more direct control over making progress on our personal goals, helping others achieve ambitious goals is often part of what makes our experiences as teachers and leaders impactful and meaningful.
Just because we dream big for others doesn’t mean those dreams will become a reality. Ambitious goals require strategic plans. When our work is centered on the development of others, we can fall into the trap of being too narrowly guided by our own values and perspectives, and, as a result, fail to acknowledge and honor the very people we’re trying to serve.
The WOOP framework—wish, outcome, obstacle, plan—is a psychologically grounded strategy for setting and working towards goals. Inspired by this strategy as well as continuous improvement processes and critical perspectives, we propose a five-step process to show how educators and leaders can turn their goals into action, while also thinking more strategically and critically about decisions along the way.
Step 1: Set the Goal
Educators constantly set different types of goals for students, colleagues, and communities, including academic and social and emotional goals for students or professional goals for colleagues. For example, as teachers, we may have a goal for students to build their collaborative mindsets and skills. As leaders, we may aim to cultivate a more collaborative culture among our teaching staff.
When setting a goal, it’s important to consider the “why” behind it. Why is collaboration important? Whose perspectives and priorities does this goal reflect, and whose does it overlook? Nobody appreciates having goals forced upon them. We feel respected and seen when we feel ownership over goals as well as the process through which they were established. Therefore, as teachers and leaders, we can work to co-construct goals with those whom they directly affect.
Step 2: Visualize the Outcome
While our goals may start off broad, it’s important to eventually get more specific. Visualize how the goal is to be achieved. What do you see and hear? Returning to the example in Step 1, what does it look and sound like for students to collaborate, or for teachers to embrace a collaborative culture?
It’s also important to investigate where our visions of success come from. Consider, for instance, how your own identities, background, and experiences shape how you think about collaboration. For some, collaboration may look like efficient delegation of tasks where every student carries their own weight. For others, it may be more about disrupting inequitable patterns of participation by creating opportunities for everyone to contribute their unique perspectives and experiences in service of generating new ideas and insights. Engaging in clarifying discussions with students and colleagues helps build a common vision.
Step 3: Identify the Successes and Obstacles
To turn your vision into reality, begin by looking for the bright spots. Recognizing existing successes not only honors the efforts and strides that have already been made but also boosts motivation and confidence in our ability to achieve goals. Ask yourself: Which student or teacher groups are successfully navigating the challenges of collaboration, and what, specifically, has helped them do so?
Next, identify the obstacles. They might be personal or interpersonal, such as nervousness about sharing an opinion in a group setting, and also structural, like physical or technical constraints that make it difficult for people to find time and space to work together. Be sure to ask others what obstacles they’re seeing and experiencing, too. Different people are likely to have different ideas about what’s really getting in the way.
Consider how you yourself—as a teacher and leader—may be both a support and an obstacle to the goal, as well. You may realize, for instance, that your own discomfort with uncertainty and giving students choice often leads you to design teacher-led rather than student-centered, collaborative activities. While it can take courage to explore how you might be an obstacle, it’s an essential step if you are serious about helping facilitate real change.
Step 4: Create a Plan
Effective plans include strategies for building on existing successes as well as addressing the barriers that get in the way.
To build on successes, consider the conditions that supported them and how you can replicate or scale those factors. For example, for a particular teaching team that has a rich history of engaged and equitable collaboration, explore ways to re-create the conditions that made it possible. You might discover that these teachers share a common planning period, have had opportunities to build trust and relationships over time, or have classrooms that are physically close to each other.
At the same time, consider how to effectively address the barriers. You may, for instance, discover that your students’ perceptions of each other—who is “smart” and who is a “leader”—are preventing effective collaboration and equitable participation. To address these obstacles, you can create a plan to design group-worthy tasks that provide students with multiple entry points to learning and implement status interventions to actively disrupt status hierarchies in your classroom.
Step 5: Collect Data, Reflect, and Try Again
Your plan is like a hypothesis; it’s your best guess about what will get you and others closer to the established goal. As you implement your plan, treat it like an experiment. How do things begin to unfold? Think about data that you can collect along the way to round out your observations and check your own perceptions of what is happening. For example, you might create a survey asking your students or teachers how effectively they feel their teams are collaborating and how respected they feel by their peers.
With the data in hand, take time to reflect on what you’ve learned. What worked well, and where did your plan fall short? Adjust your plan based on what you’ve learned and try again.
While these steps are laid out in a linear fashion, you’re likely to jump back and forth through this process as you clarify or redefine your goal, gain more perspectives from those experiencing successes or challenges, and try out different plans.