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Turning High Expectations into Success

How do we actually achieve those ambitious goals we set at the start of every school year?
illustration of white paper airplanes, with one red airplane shooting skyward

As a new academic year ramps up, so do goals for student achievement, curricular reforms, teacher development, and more. Setting high expectations, though, isn’t enough to guarantee that those expectations are met. After all, many of us set goals for ourselves every year that we fail to achieve.

Here are five research-based tips to help convert goals to growth — for teachers, school leaders, and learners at every level.

Believe it’s possible. We all have dreams. Growing up I wanted to dunk a basketball and be the fastest human on the planet. However, as a slow, overweight kid, I never really believed either was achievable, so I put little time and effort into them. The research on growth and learning mindsets confirms the importance of believing that intelligence and ability are malleable in driving effort and persistence. As you set goals for yourself and others, use stories of struggle-to-success as reminders that achieving difficult goals is hard work, often involving many failures along the way. Setting the expectation for the ups and downs of learning can actually help sustain the belief in the possibility of success.

We need to see periods of stagnation and even regression as natural phases in a long-term growth process, not as evidence of our inability.

Have a plan for what to do next. High expectations are important, but they must be matched with the means to achieve them. In a large set of studies, Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that offering low-achieving students financial rewards for achieving learning goals, or outputs, was ineffective because students often lacked knowledge of the “education production function” (I love that phrase). The kids didn’t know how to get there, and other studies showed that rewarding the “inputs” to learning did have a positive impact. In his book Peak, Anders Ericsson, the expert on gaining expertise, urges those wanting to develop expertise of get a coach to help identify what to work on next. It’s the deliberate focus on incremental challenges that lead to growth and goal attainment (just like in video games and in many of the fitness apps on the market today).

Incorporate a feedback mechanism to motivate and to guide course corrections. Fitbit and other health and fitness devices use progress tracking and feedback to help users stay motivated. It’s easy to surrender on a goal if you don’t see yourself making any progress toward it. Small wins keep us pressing forward, but growth isn’t typically a smooth and steady journey. Some steps forward are easier than others. We need to see periods of stagnation and even regression as natural phases in a long-term growth process, not as evidence of our inability. Being stuck should be a signal to look for help, to seek alternative paths, or to get reassurance to be patient. It shouldn’t be a signal to quit.

Be careful not to confuse goals with measures of the goals. My colleague Chris Weber and I recently wrote a piece about the hazards of over-stressing the measures of a goal over the goal itself. If teachers see the primary goal, for instance, as higher test scores, there’s a very direct path to achievement: give students the answers. If the goal is preparing students for the demands of 21st-century college and career, then giving them test answers isn’t particularly helpful. Ideally you want multiple measures of progress and success, and you need to keep those tangible measures tethered to the broader goals they support. (A similar confusion of goals and measures may have been part of the recent suspension issue in D.C. public schools.)

Learning isn’t a competition to define winners and losers. It’s about constant reflection and recalibration to find the best path to growth.

Be thoughtful about the stakes. What do we get for achieving our goal? What happens if we fail? Daniel Pink, in his summary of the research on what drives us, tried to put to rest the carrot-and-stick approach that dominated thinking about motivation in the 20th century. Pink and other researchers point, instead, to the power of connecting learning to a larger purpose. Nonetheless, punitive consequences like being labeled a failing school, a struggling student, or an ineffective teacher are still around, as are monetary rewards for meeting targets. Accountability matters, but the same consequences for failure or success may not have the same impact with different audiences. If an individual or community doesn’t already value learning, carrots may be a necessary reward to initiate engagement. On the other hand, in a group that already gives social status for learning growth, external rewards or punishments may undercut intrinsic drives. And tying high-stakes external consequences to measures of goals, like test scores, can lead to unproductive behaviors. Understand your audience and match the stakes accordingly.

Setting, sustaining, and ultimately achieving learning goals should be an iterative process. Learning isn’t a competition to define winners and losers. It’s about constant reflection and recalibration to find the best path to growth. Goals provide a target, but without the beliefs and processes to achieve them, we’re bound to be disappointed.

Read more about David Dockterman's career in education technology and media — and learn more about the pathways connecting innovation, failure, motivation, and growth.

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