With all that is being written now about mindset, it’s an excellent idea to begin school by having our students set positive goals. More and more K–12 schools are introducing concepts like SMART goals as a way of gradually building students’ capacity to tackle the increasing challenges they are facing.
Developing a SMART Goal
SMART stands for specific; measurable; attainable; relevant (and rigorous, realistic, and results-focused); and timely (and trackable).
Learning how to frame goals as SMART goals and being willing to adjust them to get SMARTer is an important skill that can help every student get off to a better start and have a better school year, this year and into the future.
Here is a practical example, starting with a typical, but not especially SMART, goal: “I will do better on my report card in the next marking period.”
Here is a way to make it SMARTer: “In the next marking period, I will get at least a C on all my math tests, and at least a B on most of my quizzes and homework assignments.”
But it’s not SMART yet because it has no action plan or benchmarks. Here is a pretty SMART goal: “In the next marking period, I will take careful notes and review them at least two days before tests and quizzes so that I can ask the teacher questions about what I don’t understand. I will do my math homework before I do things with friends, and when I hand it in, I will ask the teacher about anything I am not sure about. When I get anything wrong, I will make sure to ask the teacher, or one of my classmates how they got the right answer.”
It’s not easy to write SMART goals. This skill takes time to develop, and it’s especially important to have in place for students at the secondary level. A goal is an outcome, something that will make a difference as a result of achieving it. It can’t be too ambitious to be out of reach, but also not so simple that it does not challenge. A goal has to be realistic with a stretch, requiring effort and focus to achieve it. That’s why goals need timeframes and measurable action steps along the way so that students can keep track of progress and make adjustments as necessary.
Setting Character Goals via Peer Interviews
In The Heart of Education, Dara Feldman recommends that students set character goals as a way to show themselves—and others—that they have the capacity to live a happy, principled life. She recommends the following interview structure as a way to help students set goals (which can also be framed as SMART goals). I have seen the interview work effectively in grades five and up.
Adapt this to your students’ ages and circumstances. For example, you may have to explain about the importance of trust in sharing this information in class.
Begin by orienting your students as follows:
Step 1: At the start of the school year, it’s important to set goals. Ask, “What are some things you want to have happen over the course of this year at school?”
Step 2: It's also important to set goals for ourselves, to become better as individuals. This is known as improving our character. We all have the ability to act in what can be referred to as virtuous ways. Acting in these ways most of the time is good for us and good for those around us. Here is a list of 12 virtues (you can choose to discuss each one, ask students to add to the list, etc., as your time and interest allow): caring, confidence, kindness, courage, perseverance, courtesy, respect, enthusiasm, responsibility, patience, generosity, and truthfulness.
Step 3: As an in-class activity, tell your students, “I am going to pair you up with a classmate (or two) so that you can discuss these virtues and each set a goal regarding a virtue that is most important to you. Once you are paired off (or in trios), please follow this set of interview or conversation questions.”
- Who is someone you admire, either in your life or in history, and what is the core virtue that you think they have followed?
- Find one of your own virtues on the list and share a few words about how you try to live this virtue.
- What is a virtue that you would like to work on to improve your life?
- What are some ways that you can show this virtue?
- How can I help you to do this successfully?
Once one student has answered all of these questions, have students reverse roles in the interview.
Step 4: Make a list of the student pairs and the virtues they are working on. You may choose to share these with your class, or not. At the end of each week, have the pairs check in with one another about how they are progressing on their chosen virtue. Encourage them to problem-solve any difficulties. Consider having them join with other pairs working on one of the same virtues to expand the problem-solving pool. You can also assist as needed.
Step 5: At the end of each marking period, encourage students to self-evaluate their progress on enacting their virtue, seeking feedback from their partner. You can provide feedback as well. Perhaps this can be integrated into the report card process.
Step 6: Provide direction for the next marking period. You can change pairs, allow for additional virtues to be adopted, or other creative adaptations that might occur to you.