What’s the plan?

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It is important for students to acquire the capacity to set goals and plan for the achievement of their goals.

Goals in this instance need not be academic. Students can be taught to consider what they might like to achieve academically, socially, physically or in any endeavour they value.

It is common for parents and teachers to ask students to set academic goals, as though a child should want to take ownership of something that feels imposed. Whilst some students do thrive on academic challenges, many do not.

Teaching about goal setting as a means of creating an inner culture of achievement must start with the child and the child’s interests.

Once a child knows how to successfully set and achieve goals, then they can be taught to set goals around the things they find less interesting or harder to be intrinsically motivated by.

Teaching children how to set and achieve goals

School-aged children must firstly be taught to clearly articulate what they would like to achieve in anything they do.

This opening takes the premise that achievement is important. It also gives the message that achievement can be conscious rather than inadvertent or incidental.

In this way, a focus on goal setting is a focus on self discipline and developing intention.

It is interesting to watch how students initially articulate their goals. It is common to hear the following: “I would like to… win in netball (or soccer)”, “do better in my exams”, “remember to bring my phone charger” or “get a B on the piano exam”.

Whilst each of these may sound like well-articulated goals, each is not particularly well verbalised or even helpful.

The goal “I want to win at (team sport)” is not useful because the achievement of this goal is not within the ambit of the student. This type of goal depends on numerous other people and many uncontrollable variables, including the weather.

It would be better for the student to make a statement about their personal contribution that can be achieved, such as “I would like to score two points this year” or “I would like to learn to pass more accurately”. These are more clearly defined goals and also do not depend on others for their successful realisation.

The goal “to do better in my exams” is a general statement of intent. However, it is actually not useful because it is far too general.

It would be better for the student to be more specific, such as saying, “I want to get 60% (or more) in Maths” or “I want to get 82% in English”. Specificity is very important for helping to focus effort.

The goal “to remember to bring my phone charger” is very specific but also not very challenging. It can easily be managed through a phone reminder.

A more useful goal may be to utilise the technology better such that entry of important things into electronic calendars and reminders becomes routine.

The requirement that goals be challenging or require some effort is important. This can be seen in the final statement “to get a B on the piano exam”.

To understand why this goal is poorly articulated it is important to understand the ability of the person who stated this.

The student can actually get a B with minimal effort, so this does not actually represent a challenge at all. Indeed the student who articulates very easily achievable goals may well fear hard work and/or failure.

A fear of failure can cripple structured practice and can allow a person to “know they could do it” without ever proving they can – everything remains possible but for effort.

Fear can make people evasive of being pinned to clear goals.

Accountability as an important and intrinsic part of goal setting

Accountability occurs when people reflect on goals achieved or when they reflect on a goal not achieved or not achieved to the standard desired or aimed for.

Reflecting on what we do, and adjusting what we do over time, is a feature of growth and indeed an essential aspect to a lifelong education on the path to wisdom.

Whilst the articulation of goals does not guarantee that they will be achieved, the non-articulation of goals will almost certainly ensure that goals are not achieved. This leads to an important, but not often stated, aspect of goal setting.

It is very important that people of all ages learn to state clearly what they want to achieve. They need to set goals that represent a challenge but that are achievable through some disciplined effort.

Goal setting then becomes imbued with meaning. It is not a silly or glib ‘bucket list’ of achievables that a person ‘does’ and crosses off, in a hurry to ‘do’ rather than imbue. Goal setting should become an attitude that creates statement of intent empowered by purpose.

As such, goals may be articulated in the short term but may, despite challenges and set back, be achieved over a longer term than initially desired. On the journey towards realization, maturity and wisdom are born.

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Mohan was a high school teacher for 26 years. He is currently Academic Leader at Potentia Tutoring, a lecturer in education at university and author. He is also CEO of the Australian and Global tutoring associations.