Spring 2018

Goal Setting

Destination: Zeroing in on Teaching and Learning Priorities

A goal can be defined as “the object to which effort or ambition is directed; the destination of a journey . . . . An end or result towards which behaviour is consciously or unconsciously directed “(Oxford English Dictionary, 2010, p. 517). A goal may also be “defined simply as what the individual is consciously trying to do” (Lunenburg, 2011, p. 2). And yet a goal involves “. . . conscious behavioural intention that channel our energies or motivation to help us attain future objectives” (Muchinsky, 2000, p. 350) which leads towards progress and sustains performance (DuBrin, 2012).

As an organization the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) (2016) decided one of the goals for the new Vision for Learning would be the provision of required information and “resources to collaborate and share experiences and successes in applying deep learning in the classroom” (p. 13). Once the goal was articulated a great deal of effort and follow-through was required since, “it is virtually axiomatic that if there is no commitment to goals, then goal setting does not work” (Lock, Latham, & Erez, 1988, p. 23). Hence, the TDSB asked stakeholders to “. . . find new ways to improve collaboration between educators to help ensure we have an ongoing, productive dialogue on the best ways to improve the learning environment for our students and set the right achievement goal” (The Toronto District School Board, 2016, p. 13).  A clear request such as this can be challenging, invitational and energizing especially given goal setting theory of Brudan (2010) as follows.

“Goal setting is about setting priorities and zeroing in on teaching and learning priorities” (Newman, 2012, p. 13). “Begin with clear statements of the intended learning – clear and understandable to everyone, including students” (Chappuis, Chappuis and Stiggins, 2009). Often, we develop goals “to know what we are trying to achieve and to be explicitly clear about our path toward success” (Newman, 2012, p. 16). Goal setting may lead to the “use of new learning partnerships between students and teachers, increased adoption of deep learning tasks, and use of digital learning tools and resources, [as] students are becoming actively engaged in their education and in the learning process” (Toronto District School Board, 2016, p. 10).

Accepting and committing to a goal involves “adherence to the goal, and resistance to changing the goal at a later point in time” (Tubbs, 1993). Observing goal setting theory and practices when working with students “. . . helps to stimulate and motivate students, as they have greater control of their learning, are able to connect to and explore the real world [authenticity] during the learning process and can set personal learning goals based on aspirations” (Toronto District School Board, 2016, p. 10).

Coaching and Feedback: Values

Coaching and feedback can influence commitment (Erez, 1995) and values are “believed to be fundamental components ingrained in a person’s make up and are determinants of attitudes and behavior” (Coombs-Richardson & Tolson, 2005, p. 266).  “A singular human value can be associated with how one acts, thinks or responds, as the value upon which the decision is made surfaces” (Ryan, Schruder, & Robinson, 2013, p. 3).

Values (enduring beliefs) guide action. Therefore, “for a change in motivation to take place there must be a desired goal and one’s beliefs (including self-efficacy) must support the change” (Hannula, 2006, p. 170). The goal must complement personal values and within this decade educators need to “. . . focus on building goals for student achievement, equity and well-being, [since] it is important to support deep learning practices and rich technology integration in the classroom and to continuously work towards removing obstacles to student learning” (Toronto District School Board, 2016, p. 14).

Conditions: Goal-Setting Tools

Goal setting is a global challenge as evidenced by the work of the Education Review Office in New Zealand who revealed that schools that were most successful at meeting or exceeding their targets combined two key processes: Developing clear, challenging and achievable goals and promoting team processes to advance progress towards achieving these goals, such as collectively deciding on key actions for reaching specific targets (Sinay, Ryan, & Walter, 2016).

Holmberg (2014) claimed “effective leaders, therefore, need to develop a vision that can provide distant goal together with specific challenging goals to help implement the vision” (p. 16). So, if targets are unrealistic it “may ultimately demoralize key actors and stakeholders” rendering the end goal unobtainable (Hanover Research, 2014, p. 3).  Start slow, adjust as necessary . Yet, if goals are not challenging enough stakeholders may not be fully motivated to achieve results (Sinay, Ryan, & Walter, 2016). Aligning goals is a balance of challenge and realistic targets that can be disassembled into smaller units to more easily track what is achieved (Hanover Research, 2014). Grant and Stronge (2013) suggest “goal setting is particularly effective under the following conditions: the goals are proximal rather than distal (goals are oriented to the here-and-now rather than to some ultimate goal for the distant future […]), the goals are specific (but not too specific) rather than global, the goals are challenging (difficult but reachable rather than too easy or too hard)” (p. 7).

The Ministry of Education in Ontario suggests it is crucial to ensure people “either […] believe their current resources are sufficient […to meet the goal] or they are confident they will be given the additional expertise and support they need” (Ideas into Action Bulletin 4, p. 4). Holmberg (2014) found goals were more attainable when implemented within a supportive framework that provided teachers “with feedback, direction, monitoring and communication” (p. 16). Outlining a clear target as well as key steps for measuring progress and achievement of the goal is important (Sinay, Ryan, & Walter, 2016). Goals need to be operationalized-connected to key actions and strategies by being made public, given a timeframe, a description of how they will be accomplished and a means to be monitored and evaluated (Rader, 2005). Holmberg (2014) believes improvement goals can sometimes be “specific in what they want to achieve; however, they lack measurability and descriptions of how to achieve them. This creates broad and often abstract  goals that are at risk of remaining empty promises” (p. 14). Monitoring allows one to adjust targets or strategies accordingly to ensure success and Detert et al. (2000) point out: “one common element of failed reforms is the fact that innovations rarely have performance goals attached to them which are measured and assessed over time” (p. 159). 

In sum, there are many important factors that determine whether or not goal-setting will be a successful part of school improvement planning:

  1. Goals must be specific and clearly communicated to stakeholders
  2. Goals must be challenging yet obtainable
  3. Long-term targets should be broken down into shorter-term objectives
  4. Teachers and other stakeholders should be involved in the creation of goals, strategies and key actions to ensure they are attainable and to increase motivation to achieve them 
  5. Goals should be tied to the current capacity of the system and be linked with strategies/actions that provide people with the resources and tools necessary to successfully achieve them
  6. Articulation of goals needs to include the objective and detailed steps for how to track progress towards goals and evaluation of outcomes

(Sinay, Ryan, & Walter, 2016).

The consequence of successfully achieving goals leads to the desire to improve further, the creation of new goals and motivation and commitment to succeed again.

Note: This article is a truncated version of a longer version cited as: Sinay, E., Ryan, T. G., & Walter, S. (2016). Research series on school effectiveness and school improvement: Goal setting. (Research Report No. 16/17-05). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Toronto District School Board

Thomas Ryan is full professor at Nipissing University, Schulich School of Education in North Bay, Ontario.
Erhan Sinay is research coordinator with the Toronto District School Board.
Brudan, A. (2010). An introduction to theory in management performance: Goal setting theory. Retrieved from http://www.performancemagazine.org/an-introduction-to-theory-in-performance-management-goal-setting-theory/ Caputo, A., & Rastelli, V. (2014). School improvement plans and student achievement: Preliminary evidence from the Quality and Merit Project in Italy. Improving Schools, 17(1), 72-98. DOI: 10.1177/1365480213515800 Chappuis, S., Chappuis, J., & Stiggins, R. (2009). Supporting Teaching Learning Teams. Educational Leadership, 66(5), 12-16. Coombs-Richardson, R., & Tolson, H. (2005). A comparison of values rankings for selected American and Australian Teachers. Journal of Research in International Education, 4(3), 263-277. Detert, J.R., Kopel, M., Mauriel, J., & Jenni, R. (2000). Quality management in U.S. high schools: Evidence from the field. Journal of School Leadership, 10(2), 158-187. DuBrin, A. J. (2012). Essentials of management. Mason, OH: Cengage South-Western. Erez, M. (1995). Goal-Setting, Goal-Orentation . In N. Nicholson, P. Audia, and M. Pillutla, (Eds). Blackwell Encyclopedic Dictionary of Organizational Behavior (2nd. Ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Grant, L., & Stronge, J. (2013). Student achievement goal setting: Using data to improve teaching and learning. New York, NY: Routledge. Hannula, M. (2006). Motivation in mathematics: goals reflected in emotions. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 63(2), 165-178. Hanover Research. (2014). Best practices for school improvement planning. http://www.hanoverresearch.com/media/Best-Practices-for-School-Improvement-Planning1.pdf Holmberg, S. (2014). Principal’s goal-setting and actions while managing: An explorative study of locally-created goals and principals’ actions while managing their schools. (Masters thesis). Uppsala Universitet. Locke, E.A., & G.P. Latham. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist 57(9). 705-717. Lunenburg, F.C., (2011). Goal setting theory of motivation. International Journal of Management, Business and Administration, 15 (1). Retrieved from http://www.nationalforum.com/Electronic%20Journal%20Volumes/Lunenburg,%20Fred%20C.%20Goal-Setting%20Theoryof%20Motivation%20IJMBA%20V15%20N1%202011.Pdf Muchinsky, P.M. (2000). Psychology Applied to Work. USA: Wadsworth. Newman, R. (2012). GOAL SETTING to achieve results. Leadership, 41(3), 12-38. Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013-14). Ideas into action bulletin 4. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education. ISSN: 1920-5651 (online). Oxford English Dictionary. (2010). Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). (on-line). Oxford: Clarendon Press. Retrieved from http://www.oed.com:80/Entry/79557 Rader, L.A. (2005). Goal setting for students and teachers-six steps to success. The Clearing House, 78(3), 123-126. Renando, C. (2016, September 19). The anatomy of a New Year’s resolution: Goal setting psychology by Gary Latham and Edwin Locke. Retrieved from http://www.sidewaysthoughts.com/blog/2011/01/the-anatomy-of-a-new-years-resolution-goal-setting-psychology-by-gary-latham-and-edwin-locke/ Ryan, T.G., Schruder, C.R., & Robinson, S. (2013). Selected concurrent pre-service teachers: An analysis of values. Issues in Educational Research, 21 (1), 23-59. Sinay, E., Ryan, T. G., & Walter, S. (2016). Research series on school effectiveness and school improvement: Goal setting. (Research Report No. 16/17-05). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Toronto District School Board Toronto District School Board. (2016, Septemeber). Our vision for learning: Our Educators’ Guide to School Improvement and School Effectiveness. Toronto: Author. Retrieved from http://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/docs/A%20Vision%20for%20Learning%20in%20TDSB_August%2031.pdf Tubbs, M.E. (1993). Commitment as a moderator of the goal – performance relation: A case of clearer construct definition. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 86-97.

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