Happy New Year!
I was going to avoid talking about New Year’s resolutions, because the topic seems so clichéd. But then I would be giving up the opportunity to talk about the way we should be thinking about school and district improvement plans—because they have a lot in common with New Year’s resolutions.
First, of course, there is no shortage of advice on New Year’s resolutions. A good example is this guide from the New York Times, which must be the most comprehensive ever to appear in a newspaper. I agree with most of the suggestions, but I want to talk about a couple of things particularly salient to educators interested in performance improvement. And because there’s so much to say, I’m splitting the discussion among two or three Coaching Letters.
First, advice on New Year’s resolutions, just like most improvement plans, starts with goals. But I think it is possible to focus too much on goals. (You may want to take a look at this post from James Clear, if you haven’t already.) Yes, they are significant, but not always for the reasons we think they are. They focus our attention on what is important, and give us a way to measure progress.
We tend to make a big fuss about whether a goal is SMART—but having a SMART goal is only more likely to make the achievement of the goal a reality if you already know how to meet the goal. Did you know that the whole idea of SMART goals is based on research that was done in the 60s? And that it was done with people doing technical work like typing?; it is indeed true that if you give a typist a SMART goal, he is very likely to meet it, thereby increasing his productivity.
But the fact that we even have to set goals—personal resolutions or organizational improvement goals—is evidence that we don’t know what we need to know to achieve the goal. If we did, we would be meeting it already, and it wouldn’t merit becoming an improvement goal. If I knew how to quit smoking, I would have done it already. If I knew how to run a 10K under 25 minutes I would be racing every weekend. If I knew how to teach every kid to read, they would all be reading. The goal itself is diagnostic.
Focus instead on how to reach your goals. But you probably don’t even know enough to do that well. So you have to do some research, which takes two forms: somebody else’s, and your own. If I want to run faster, I pull up articles on how to do that, which is somebody else’s research. And then I have to run a series of experiments, which is my own research. Because knowing how somebody else did it is not the same as my being able to make it work. But at least I know it can work, and I have to figure it out. That figuring out may be hard and take a long time.
What this means is that a school improvement goal, or a New Year’s resolution, written at the beginning of the year and treated like an autopilot—just give it directions and wake up 20 minutes before wheels down at Heathrow—is really doomed to crash. You don’t know enough at the start of the process to determine everything that needs to happen in order to succeed. Life, like teaching, leading and coaching, is an action research project, and you have to get really good at learning how to learn.
This is a really great time to be thinking about what it’s actually going to take to meet your goals; your theory of action, or your strategy. If you’re a coach, you should be asking good questions about this. If you’re a supervisor, I understand the temptation to focus your feedback on the goal, but there is more benefit to putting on your coaching hat and asking questions about the process. And if you are working on your own New Year’s Resolution, goals are great, but hope is not a strategy.
I wish you all the very best for this coming year. Please let me know how else I can be helpful.
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106