How Smart are SMART goals?

In every school I have ever worked at, the following happens:

August/September: All teachers set their professional goals for the year, submit them in writing and most meet with their supervisor to discuss.

May: All teachers meet with their supervisor to go over their evaluation which includes a discussion on their goals to close the loop.

Now how many of you "know someone" who has to ask their supervisor to send them a copy of their goals so that they can prepare for the meeting? How many of you "know someone" who has been either pleasantly surprised by all that they accomplished towards their goals that they forgot about as soon as they hit send on their PD goal setting doc back in August; OR were frantically trying to come up with a reasonable explanation for the fact that they did nothing to work towards their stated goals as they don't remember making them in the first place? 

This artificial dance, regardless of how ineffective it is, continues to dominate teacher evaluation cycles around the world. Now I am not saying that goals are a bad thing, but when the goal setting is forced into an unnatural, artificial timeline it is bound to fail. Let's consider one example:

Teacher A: Just arrived in India for her first year at an international school known for its technology integration. On day one she is introduced to a host of unfamiliar systems that she has never heard of that she will have to use on day 1. Veracross, Haiku, Google Drive, Hapsara, EVB, etc. Panic sets in. Not to mention, INDIA. She just manages to keep her head above water for the first month wondering if it will ever make sense. Then she has to set her professional goals for the year. All she can think about is mastering the virtual grade book system. So she puts that down as her goal. Now we all know that Teacher A doesn't really want to focus on posting grades as her professional development goals this year, but in August/ September it is all she can think of. By October the grade book system is a muscle memory and she discovers PBL. This gets her excited. She wants to explore how this might enhance the learning in her classroom so she throws herself into it. Awesome. Then comes her meeting in May. What were my goals? Oh ya! Great talk...but can I tell you about something that I am really excited about?

We do the same thing to our students. First week of school during advisory. What are we doing? SMART goals. Those 9th graders don't even know what is about to hit them. Neither do those juniors who are just starting IB. A month in their realities are going to start to change drastically as they start to get feedback from their teachers. Along with this change in reality comes a change in direction. Those goals they set during the first week under artificial parameters will likely no longer apply.

Enter my latest obsession, Michael Phelps.

I chose this picture for a reason. I am a biology teacher, and I could actually use his body to teach muscle anatomy. Look at his hand alone. Someone like this does not achieve this level of fitness without dealing with goals from time to time. So why is he successful? What makes a simple boy from Maryland, the most decorated Olympian in the world? Now I admit there are some oddities in the way his body is formed that might contribute to his success, but not without an insane amount of grit and determination...and maybe some goal setting.

This article arrived in my news feed just in time. 

Big Goals Can Backfire. Olympians Show Us What to Focus on Instead.

A take-away from this article:

...a team of researchers from Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania set out to explore the potential downfalls of goal-setting. They found that overemphasizing goals — and especially those that are based on measurable outcomes — often leads to reduced intrinsic motivation, irrational risk-taking, and unethical behavior.

Their answer to this dilemma? Focus on the process. A process mindset as opposed to a goal mindset. but how? 

First, set a goal. Next, figure out the steps to achieving that goal that are within your control. Then — (mostly) forget about the goal, and focus on nailing the steps instead.

This has always been my advice to my IB students. If a student comes to me and tells me their goal this year is to get a 7. My question is how will you go about achieving this. If their answer is study more, I know they will not be able to achieve that goal. You see the key is is to help the students nail down the process and focus on the little victories. With a little (actually a lot) of reflection, this will help them to work towards the forgotten goal.

Goal setting should be a dynamic process. It should not have artificial deadlines. How is it possible that every goal set by every teacher in the world spans 8-9 months? Bizarre ;-)

In the classroom this is very real. When students become too achievement focused, they tend to cheat the process. Just the other day, a student in my class messaged me at night to clear up a misunderstanding before class the next day. This misunderstanding involved a process that he mastered first semester of last year and scored a borderline 6/7 on the test. Not only was it obvious in this chat that he hadn't mastered the concept, at times it was like he had never heard of it. His goal for my class is to achieve a 7. As a result he has mastered achieving a 6/7 on short term assessments by cramming the night before. Unfortunately, none of this sticks. He focused on the goal of a MEASURABLE score rather than the process to alter his approaches to learning so that he can crack the 7 ceiling in the end. While he might be able to get close to a 7 on unit tests, in the end the amount of material he will have to relearn or rather re-memorize for the exam will be too much for the amount of time he will have and he will not achieve his goal.

My students are always asking if they can improve their predicted scores before applications are sent off. My answer to them is SHOW me that you have changed your process. Demonstrate consistently that your victories are not fleeting and superficial. To do this, we as teachers need to help them focus on the process. Identify the target, prescribe the pathway, then forget the target and focus on the process.

I am a member of the Research and Development team at my current school. A couple of years ago, we formed a task force to re-imagine professional development in our current climate of professional sharing and learning through social media, MOOC's and global conferences. One of my tasks was to research and develop an alternative model to what we currently have in place in most schools that I have worked at.  In terms of professional goal setting and professional learning cycles, here is my proposal to solve the issues with current models of teacher evaluation cycles.

If Mikey likes it... maybe we should all take a page from his book and, be like Mike. Phelps that is.

The Impending Technological Singularity: Implications for Education

The new school year is finally here. My seniors have returned ready for year two of our journey together through IB Biology, and along with them come a new crop of 9th graders that bring with them the unfamiliar. Every class is different and over time they develop a reputation that will stay with them throughout their four years whether evidence continues to support these labels or not.

In my first class with the 9th graders this year, something peculiar happened that cannot be ignored. In an effort to establish a baseline of my student's understanding of investigative techniques in the laboratory, we began with an introductory activity that for the past two years has taken our students the full period and then some to complete. This was different. This year half of them finished with time left to cause trouble. The kind of trouble that 9th graders inevitably find themselves involved in with they don't have structures and routines controlling their every move. Again. This was different. I noticed a group of them were deeply involved in whatever was happening on one of the student's computer screens and my imagination went wild. Much to my relief, they were watching him code a game that they all played together. I asked how many of them liked to code, and almost half of them raised their hands and they were competing with each other to explain how this "Choose Your Own Adventure" game worked that they were all involved in. It was clear to me that they were able to speak and communicate in the language of code with the same level of comfort and proficiency that you would see in a person who was fluent in a second language. I am predicting this class will be known as the challenging "Techy" group. I say challenging because I would argue that most teachers will not be able to speak the same language that this group of kids prefers to converse in.

In the past 5 years, we have incorporated some problem-based learning units into the Integrated Science 9 and 10 curricula. What always amazes me the most is the ease with which students access and integrate various technologies to communicate their learning. Websites, infographics, programs, novel presentation platforms, video/multimedia creation platforms. You name it. Their learning curve is steep and fast.

Student infographic from a genetics project.

Student infographic from a genetics project.

 This got me thinking of Moore's law.

Back in the 1960's Gordon Moore of Intel predicted that the number of transistors per integrated circuit would double every 18 months. This was of course based on prior trends, but it has held true for an additional 50 much so that industry has been driven by this predictive metric.

Click on the image to read about the approaching technological singularity.

Click on the image to read about the approaching technological singularity.

In an article in Co.Design, Mark Zucherberg applied Moore's law to the culture of sharing:

We talk about the Moore’s law of sharing, but we never meant that all this will happen on Facebook—it will happen in the world. Our challenge is to make that happen on Facebook. I draw an analogy to Intel. Moore’s law was great for them, because they could point at the world and say, "Okay, in 18 months, someone’s going to fit this many transistors on a circuit board—we’d better be the ones to do it or else someone is gonna eat our lunch!" I look at this the same way. Three years from now, people are going to be sharing eight to 10 times as much stuff. We’d better be there, because if we’re not, some other service will be.

I would argue that there should be a Moore's law of education as well.

The evolution of artificial intelligence and the impending technological singularity has been an obsession of mine for quite some time. In short, the idea is that in developed nations the evolution of human intelligence has begun to plateau and technology is in a position to overtake human intelligence. By combining the two, humans stand to kick start an unimaginable increase in human intelligence which would trigger a technological singularity. Even more alarming is that the predicted dates of this merger between human and machine seem to focus on the decade between 2020 and 2030. My 9th graders will be graduating from high school in 2020.

As an educator, I have to ask myself, "How am I preparing my students for THIS future?". Even more importantly, Educators should be asking, "How are we preparing ourselves to prepare our students for THIS future?"

I encourage you to check out this video, entitle Humans Need Not Apply: 


I have been a Technology Integration Coach at ASB for the past three years. This has given me a unique opportunity to observe learning from many perspectives. The teachers at ASB are some of the best that I have ever worked with. They work tirelessly to understand their students needs through collaboration and data-informed decision making in an effort to personalize the education of each and every student. The problem is not in the teachers efforts but in our systemic metrics. Our school is an IB school. For seniors the focus is on IB scores and college admissions. To prepare them to achieve their goals it takes 25 hours a day. As a result, education as an institution is focused on the slow-to-change systems (IBO, College Admissions processes, SAT, etc.). This does not leave room for a great deal of forward thinking beyond the general trends of higher education. Another unfortunate consequence is that educators in general are much slower at learning and integrating new technologies into their practices than our students. This is the conundrum. If advances in technology are increasing at a pace predicted by Moore's Law, and our students, despite a lack of instruction in this acquisition of knowledge are gaining at a much faster pace than those in charge of educating them, at what point does the gap become too large? At what point does our current educational model become irrelevant? 

As a biology teacher, I often find that biological systems serve as perfect metaphors for any wicked problem we face as a society. The one that best fits this wicked problem is climate change. For years we have been contributing to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the name of progress and innovation. The human species was launched into relevance by the agricultural and more importantly the industrial revolution. The system was huge, the rewards were inconceivable and numerous, and the risks of environmental impact were considered negligible if they were considered at all. Now it is rumored that climate change is real (have you read about the floods in Louisiana this week?) :-) We are on a pathway to destruction and people are still in denial. Scientists all over the world are desperately searching for solutions while the populace continues to ignore the threats in the face of economic hardship. A plea published by the Economist leads with the subheading: 

Global warming cannot be dealt with using today’s tools and mindsets. So create some new ones.

Has climate change gotten too out of hand for us to find a solution in time? Is it too late to change the system?

Let this be a warning to educators around the world. If we don't do something to prepare ourselves to prepare this next generation for a technologically advanced society, will the gap between our level of integration and our students level of integration become too wide? Will we become irrelevant? We owe it to our students to look beyond college admissions and IB exams. It is time for education to change our curve before it is too late.

Game On!

What started two months ago as a manipulative plot to get my seniors to prepare for IB exams has turned into an epic quest:  to annihilate Lida the Mango (#1 in the world in biology) in a battle of wits while accidentally preparing for exams of course. The QuizUp biology topic update has finally gone live and my students  couldn't be more excited... or sleep deprived.