4 indispensable frameworks for successful goal setting

“If you have built castles in the air,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

In his own metaphysical way, Thoreau was expressing what every entrepreneur, school leader, artist, and anyone else with a lofty goal has learned from experience: Successful goal setting involves much more than simply identifying where you want to end up in the future. Rather, it’s a process of growth, constant adaptation, and gradual improvements that begin as mere attempts but eventually become evidence of mastery. Brick by brick, you build the foundations under those castles in the air.

In education, goal setting is crucial for giving a purposeful direction to student learning, especially at all the interim points throughout the school year when you are both looking back at how far students have come and trying to gauge how far they still need to go. By setting and tracking goals within the SMART framework and using the formative assessment cycle, responsive planning, and the zone of proximal development to drive growth and mastery, you can give your students the support they need to build their own castles.

1. Get SMART

Like organizational leaders in many fields, school administrators have found that the SMART framework helps teachers and students develop “sticky” goals and a solid plan for reaching them. The framework gives students a challenging but realistic path toward significant progress and outcomes.

Goals developed under the SMART framework are:

  • Specific: Targets a well-defined area for improvement
  • Measurable: Has clear indicators of progress and success
  • Achievable: Balances ambition with feasibility
  • Relevant: Shows how a goal is part of a bigger picture
  • Time-bound: Sets a realistic timeline for completing the goal

While the SMART framework helps optimize the strategy driving students’ learning goals, there’s one more critical part of the process: accountability. Accountability gives goals their substance, and it injects a healthy dose of urgency into the task of setting and working toward them. Without raising the stakes in this manner, it can be a little too easy to lose sight of our goals, and we don’t try as hard as we could to gather good information about our progress.

To hold yourself and your students accountable for the progress you’re making together, you’ll want to check in frequently to see how they’re doing and make on-the-fly adjustments as needed. That’s where the formative cycle enters the picture.

2. Track progress with the formative cycle

A feedback loop based in a formative approach can be highly useful in a goal-setting framework, especially when you’ve already laid the groundwork using the SMART method.

As Chase Nordengren notes in Step into Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency, “By bringing assessment information into student goal setting, teachers reflect to students how a core classroom activity (assessment) relates to them. It also has the potential to contribute to the mindsets that lead students to metacognition. Throughout their schooling, we encourage students to be investigators: to use the scientific method, critical thinking skills, and reasoning to understand more about what they don’t know and find solutions to emerging problems. Bringing the same ideas to bear on their learning requires that they have access to a body of evidence about that learning that they can understand and use to better understand themselves.”

The formative cycle has three steps:

  1. Clarify where you want to go. What are you aiming for? It can help to think about grade-level standards when tackling this first step, though for some students, goals will challenge them to move beyond their grade or even be behavioral.
  2. Elicit evidence of where you are relative to goals. How far has a student come toward reaching their personal learning goals? That’s a key question to answer over the course of the school year, when you still have time to make adjustments. You can answer it to some extent from your own observations and intuition, but high-quality assessment data will give you the precise information you need to modify your whole-group instructional approach and develop targeted interventions for kids who could use extra support.
  3. Provide feedback that closes the gap between where you are and where you want to be. After the goal-setting and information-gathering activities in the first two steps, this is the crucial stage that closes the formative cycle. Here is where you figure out how to feed the data you’ve gathered into your own customized plan to position students for success. This often includes modifying the goals you’ve set or adding new ones, thus ensuring that the formative cycle is continually refreshed and remains relevant.

3. Give your formative assessment a boost with responsive planning

In education, an effective way to optimize the formative cycle is to build responsive planning into the process. As Brooke Mabry writes in “How responsive planning can strengthen your formative assessment practice,” responsive planning with an end goal in mind “challenges us to undertake our practice with more intention.” You may find there’s a lot of overlap between responsive planning and formative assessment, but you’ll probably also see how these complementary approaches support and build on each other.

In practice, responsive planning means creating a student-centered plan in which all assessments, instructional activities, and tasks are tailored to students’ learning needs and preferences. A responsive plan comprises four steps, the first three of which are meant to occur before instruction, with the fourth taking place during instruction:

  1. Identify the desired learning outcome.
  2. Determine evidence of learning.
  3. Plan instruction at grade-level standards.
  4. Teach the lesson, then respond and adjust in real time.

For details on these four steps and examples of how they can be applied in the classroom, read Brooke’s blog post.

4. Get in the zone

The formative cycle helps identify where each of your students is academically, what they need from you, and what their sweet spot is for learning—a place that is both comfortable and challenging. This sweet spot is the zone of proximal development, or ZPD. A student in their ZPD is nestled in their own gap between what they can do now and what they can’t do—yet.

Along with the in-class assessments you administer throughout the school year and interim assessments such as MAP® Growth™, the formative cycle plays an important role in helping you determine each student’s ZPD. Once you’ve clarified your goals and measured students’ progress, you can use this information to continually adjust the instructional scaffolding you provide to each student. Read “The zone of proximal development: The power of just right” to learn more about this key concept.

Keep it up: Why momentum matters

We’ve all seen how even the most well-meaning goal-setting activity needs a healthy dose of follow-through to produce lasting results. We may initially feel inspired by our goals, but it’s human nature to drift back to our comfort zone and customary way of doing things. That’s why repeated, deliberate practice is essential. That can be a big ask of teachers who already have full plates, but it’s certainly preferable to spending valuable time on a goal-setting process that doesn’t get the follow-through it needs to succeed.

Interested in a deeper dive into the ideas explored in this post? Check out our guide, “Using growth and mastery for school planning and goal setting,” and Step into Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency, available from Corwin publishing.

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