Hi, I hope you are doing well. I see on Twitter that a lot of schools and districts are holding retreats and meetings to talk about goals and write plans for the year. So here is a collection of resources to help think about that.
I know from my work with educators in multiple roles that they frequently get the message from their supervisors that the goals matter more than other parts of their plans. For example, I have had many principals tell me over the few years that the only parts of their plans that they receive feedback on are their goals. This is not helpful—see the paragraph immediately following this one. The power of a goal is that it directs attention and signals commitment—and having done that, focus should shift to how the goal is to be met, and what capacity needs to be built in order to implement the strategy, and how the organization is going to learn from its efforts to implement in order to improve its strategy.
Coaching Letter #20 is about how goals are not as important as the strategy required to meet them; in addition, we tend to be overconfident about meeting goals, and underestimate how hard it will be to meet them. (Reading this coaching letter, by the way, makes me realize how much I have learned about writing them in the last couple of years. It took me a while to figure out what the topic sentence of this coaching letter should have been). See also this fan-favorite post on prioritizing process over outcome from James Clear, before he was famous for his book Atomic Habits. And this post from Education Next—I don’t love the language, I think that inputs and process are different things, but the author seems to conflate the two—but the message is sound: that outcome measures don’t tell you everything about the success of a school system.
Coaching Letter #21 is a continuation from #20, and focuses on the difference between performance goals and learning goals, which I wrote about as one of the most important big ideas in the canon of organizational development. And here is the link to the one-page excerpt from Seijts et al (2004), which is where I learned about this big idea in the first place. Performance targets are only helpful when the person already knows how to meet the goal, which means that the task you are asking them to perform is purely technical, and how often does that happen in education?
Coaching Letter #51 makes the connection between personal goal-setting and organizational goal-setting, which should make all leaders everywhere think about a) how they think about goals and b) how they think about growth and fixed mindset. (Mindset, it seems, has run its course, as these ideas seem to do—I don’t remember the last time I heard it referenced, whereas a few years ago everyone was reading and talking about the book. This is a shame, although the idea was frequently misused—listening to one set of educators blaming another set of educators with whom the first set disagreed for their “not having a growth mindset” was getting old). People who set learning goals are more likely to be successful than people who set performance goals, and organizations can leverage that relationship by asking their employees to focus on learning goals.
There is an article in the latest issue of HBR that is about the danger of confusing metrics with strategy—that paying too much attention to the target causes people to lose sight of the real goal. This is otherwise known as Campbell’s Law, which I wrote about in Coaching Letter #87. Goals and the metrics used to hold people accountable are frequently indistinguishable, so just as not everyone should be paying attention to the same data, not everyone should have the same goals. Rick Stiggins broke down three levels of data—organizational, program, and classroom—and it helps to think of goals the same way. At the organizational level, there should be goals around high level outcomes, such as graduation rates and literacy scores. But at the program and classroom level, the goals should be about implementation and/or learning how to implement what you expect people to do in order for the organization to meet its goals.
The large majority of readers of the Coaching Letter start school next week. I wish you all the very best for the coming school year. My Twitter feed is also full of photographs of well-organized and cheerful classrooms, complete with deep and meaningful quotations on the wall, ready to welcome bright and hopeful students. I feel like I should be able to add to these messages of inspiration, so I borrow a line from the greatest of Keanu Reeves’ movies, The Replacements: “I wish I could say something classy and inspirational, but that just wouldn’t be our style. Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever.” (You have to imagine Keanu Reeves saying it.) To me, teaching has always been about conjuring something amazing that couldn’t be predicted from the resources devoted to it, and I think that’s why I like that movie so much, even though you could write what I know about football on a matchbook. In any case, good luck. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Coaching Letter: StevensonCoachingLetter.org