Who Stole My Goals? (Why Corporate Mumbo-Jumbo May be Threatening the Education Revolution)

A while back, I discovered a hilarious ‘education jargon generator’ – at http://www.sciencegeek.net/lingo.html

It allowed me to generate phrases like:

· Maximise integrated interfaces, or:

· Empower impactful convergence, or:

· Mesh competency-based synergies, or even:

· Recontextualise meaning-centred engagement structures

This jargon generator had me uncomfortably amused for about 10 minutes. Until I realised what was making me uneasy about it: this is simply empty business-speak translated for an educational environment.

More and more, school leaders are starting to sound like managers who have spent too much time at the Popular Psychology or ‘Leadership’ sections of the local bookstore. You just know they’ve read ‘Who Fondled My Cheese’, ‘The Wolf and the Porcupine’, ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective Ferrari Salesmen’, or whatever the next snake-oil hack calls his next pile of drivel.



Moreover, the spread of this gobbledygook may actually be preventing real and meaningful change in our schools. (A point I will return to shortly.)

They may mean well. Principals are ultimately human resource managers, and it is a fundamental part of their portfolios to ensure that their underlings are motivated to do their jobs well. However, fewer and fewer of them seem to realise that this politically correct mumbo-jumbo is mostly empty-headed and meaningless business-speak dressed up as watertight business acumen. As a result, schools are being contaminated with the ugly blight of corporate gibberish.

‘Goal-setting’ is the mumbo-jumbo Offender-in-Chief at schools. Teachers are told to set annual goals for themselves and then strive to achieve those by their next performance review. On the surface, this seems such well-advised strategy, that most people would find it difficult to find fault with it. What is so wrong about setting goals? (We’re even teaching it to our children now.) My answer is this: ‘Setting goals’ is a meaningless and potentially dangerous pursuit. Here’s why:

  • Goals are set badly. Goal-setters often either get stuck on the minutia of a specific goal, or get overwhelmed by them 1. This may discourage intrinsic motivation and even encourage desperate, unethical conduct.
  • Neuroscience tells us that the fear of failure often makes us cling to known, comfortable patterns of behaviour 2. Thus, setting goals can often make us afraid of possible change and cause us to go into self-preservation mode. This is particularly true when we have failed in the past. Compound this and you start to get some serious declines in organisational productivity 3. (Not to mention an abandonment of the kinds of true innovation we need in our schools.)
  • Annual goals are mostly too short term 1. They encourage superficiality and year by year revision, and consequently are forgotten as easily as New Year’s Resolutions.
  • There is often too much of an overlap between personal and professional goals – especially where teaching is concerned. Our jobs are so personal to us, that if we fail to meet a goal that has our personal well-being tied to our professional performance (such as ‘be more patient’), we end up being doubly-depressed.
  • Many people are incapable or unwilling to put themselves through the depth of introspection required to identify the facets of their work which need improvement. As a result, aspects of their professional conduct which need remediation are seldom correctly identified.
  • As a rule, managers do not remember the goals that employees set (unless they look them up). Hence, there is no real day-to-day accountability on either side to actually meet these goals.
  • Some people think that simply chanting their goals over and over is enough. I blame garbage like Rhonda Byrne’s ‘The Secret’ for this tendency. In what world does ‘visualising’ what you want make it reality? (Unless you’re two-years-old and still believe in Santa.) Yet many, many people fall for this sort of bunkum. Is it any wonder that they fail to meet their goals?
  • Rewards systems for those who somehow manage to meet their goals are either non-existent or inappropriate, often leading to unhappy staff, and negatively affecting a school’s atmosphere. Add to this the fact that some people will simply set goals to impress, either having seen through the process, or through sheer dishonesty, and you end up with something that the naïve proponents of setting goals most certainly never envisioned.

In schools, the negative consequences of the goal setting process might actually mean that teachers start to resist much needed educational reforms. Demotivation, dishonesty, superficial lip-service to professional growth and the resistance to change which often stems from the very process of ‘actualising’ goals may well be to blame.

So how do we do it differently? I think we need to make the move away from ‘goal-setting’ as a means of provoking change, towards a more general reinvigoration of attitudes. The only way that we can begin to make large strides towards offering a truly meaningful twenty-first century education to our students is to reimagine what it is we are doing. Some teachers are inherently like this – they are highly motivated (despite the goals someone wants from them every year). They love what they do and are ready to try to make every day a spectacular one because they think about what they do, and they have the needs of their students at the forefront of their minds.

Essentially, I think we need to encourage a shift in perspective – particularly for those who have been dizzied and disassociated from having to set goals every year. Towards this end, I would like to see school leaders encouraging regular deep reflection sessions by asking questions like:

  • ‘Are you the teacher you imagined you would be when you started teaching?’
  • ‘Why do you teach?’
  • ‘Which of your core beliefs as a person inform the kind of teacher you are?’
  • ‘How does education need to be different now than it was ten years ago?’, and…
  • ‘What lessons would you like your students to remember learning in your class ten years from now?’

This can be done in group sessions or individually. Alternatively, they could ask teachers to keep a ‘Great Moments’ diary or something similar in which they record, on a daily basis, the groovy moments of their teaching day.

These are just two ways in which we can begin to address attitudes instead of actions. To my way of thinking, this is what we really need if we are to kick-start the education revolution. Teachers will implement their own changes if they are inherently motivated to do so. And the only way this will happen is if they are encouraged to refocus their mindset away from weakly imagined annual goals towards a systemic shift. What this would do is to refocus a teacher’s energies towards the things that matter. Leaders may even notice a few re-awakenings and a new tendency to discover and implement a range of new methodologies, without fear of failure. All that now needs to be done is to find a way to grow and support this tendency, and to make this attitude the dominant one. It is not a coincidence that good teachers do this very thing for their students; we want more for our young charges than for them to ‘survive’ in the world – we want them to change it for the better.

But please, please keep goals out of it.

Please feel free to add your thoughts below.

Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/SeanHCole

1 – Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting – Ordonez et. Al (Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 09-083, 2009 – Revised 2012)

2 – Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work – Ray Williams (Psychology Today, 2011)

3 – Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money (and what to do instead), Aubrey Daniels (Performance Management Publications, 2009)



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