Hi, I hope you’re doing well and that school is off to a good start for you.  I know that where I am the weather has been ridiculous, and we can only hope that the worst is over.  We drove through a spectacular rainstorm this evening, and had to move a tree limb from the road to get home.  That’s a first.

Interestingly, but nothing to do with thunderstorms, I’ve had lots of conversations lately about Coaching Letter #21.  Which is about the difference between performance goals and learning goals.  I am very happy that this idea has drawn a lot of attention, as it’s a really useful bit of research that is relatively unknown in education.  I’m attaching CL #21—again—any excuse.

Just to recap, the research shows that setting a performance goal (so many words typed a minute, so many pounds lost in six months) is useful only when the person trying to reach the goal already knows what she needs to know in order to reach it.  If she doesn’t, the performance goal can actually be counter-productive, leading the person to try multiple strategies and discard them if they do not immediately pay off.  If the person doesn’t know what she needs to know to meet the goal, then she is much better off with a learning goal (I will learn how to lose weight at a healthy rate and keep it off).  A learning goal kicks a person into her own action research cycle—trying a strategy, seeing how it works, making adjustments, seeing how those help, and so on.

Well, it turns out that there is a very interesting corollary to this that affects not just how individuals set goals, but how organizations set them.  We know that there is a relationship between a person’s mindset (growth or fixed—see Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset) and the type of goal she tends to set—a growth mindset is associated with a learning goal, and a fixed mindset with a performance goal.  And a learning goal is typically associated with higher performance.  But if that person’s organization sets a learning goal for her, she will work towards that goal.  The organization, therefore, has circumvented the impact of a person’s mindset on her goal-setting, and thereby on her performance.  The article that documents this research is Seijts, G., Latham, G., Tasa, K., & Latham, B. (2004). Goal setting and goal orientation: An integration of two different yet related literatures. Academy of Management Journal, 47, 227-240.

The attached PowerPoint slide is my summary of the research study—if only everything could be reduced to a two-by-two matrix.  What it says is that when you give a person who has a tendency to set personal learning goals with an organizational learning goal, you can expect that person to improve her performance the most.  But more importantly, when you give a person who has a tendency to set personal performance goals with an organizational learning goal, the learning goal supersedes the performance goal, and the person will improve more as a result.

I imagine that almost everyone reading this Coaching Letter is helping someone set a goal.  So what does that mean for you?  A typical performance goal is something like: 80% of students will meet benchmark on the mid-unit standardized test.  Possible replacements for this are, depending on what the person needs to learn:

  • Learn how to use small group instruction to target specific comprehension skills during the first 20 minutes of literacy block;
  • Learn how to apply the key points from the phonics PD to identify students who need additional support with schwa sounds;
  • Learn how to implement two of the practical techniques in chapter six of Embedded Formative Assessment;
  • Learn how to plan for students to generate more of their own questions for the next inquiry-based unit.

I have no idea whether these are any good or not.  The question is whether you know what the people you are working with need to learn in order to improve their performance.  I know that when I was evaluating teachers, the superstars spent a lot of time talking not about what they did well, but about what they were trying to figure out what to do better, or next.  I would have been an infinitely better supervisor if I had figured out how to help the teachers who did not set learning goals for themselves to do that.  That should have been my learning goal, but I didn’t know enough to pursue that.  (Because I hadn’t started my doctoral program at the time, and because the professional learning I received on how to supervise was scant at best—supervisors of supervisors take note, and call me if you need help.)

One more thing about this.  A lot of people are required to set SMART goals, for one purpose or another.  I used to get really snarky about SMART goals—I would rant that the concept is based on forty-year-old research and why isn’t anyone paying attention to more recent research on the role of goals in motivation and improving performance.  That rant still has validity, but at some point it occurred to me that there is no reason why a SMART goal can’t be a learning goal—that my assumption that it had to be a performance goal was just an assumption.

And in fact, I think that applying the SMART goal format (and for more on that, see this video, which I don’t hate) could lead to a really interesting supervisory conversation.  Especially when it comes to talking about how you will know that you have learned to do something (for more on that, see this video, which I really like).

I think these are big, important ideas, but I also think they are hard to get your head around, so it helps to sit with a thought partner and think through the implications, maybe role play a bit.  The language doesn’t come easily.  So, as always, let me know if you have feedback or questions or want to talk about this more.  Best, Isobel

Stevenson Organizational v Personal Goals
Excerpt from Seijts et al 2004 perf v learning goals
Coaching Letter #21

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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