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.