There are two key assumptions underlying education. The first is that the people we work for have a plan. Whether it is our team leaders, our principals, the VCAA or the Department of Education, we like to believe our work is part of something bigger. Even my students seem to have faith (often misguided) that I have everything worked out ahead of time.
The second assumption is that the people who work for us can’t be trusted, and this leaves me obligated to constantly monitor my students’ progress – just as I am monitored by those above me, less the system’s gears grind to a halt.
In the modern business nomenclature, this process is called ‘cascading goals’, made possible by the yearly ritual of goal-setting – a euphemism stolen from sports leaders who at least didn’t pretend they weren’t just playing games.
These goals must be specific, timely, realistic, achievable and measurable. Otherwise, they will only cause extreme anxiety for our managers or leaders, who would be left with no way of measuring a teacher’s application of high impact teaching strategies (HITS). This, in turn, would leave principals with no way to show that their annual implementation plan (AIP) is on track – and then how would DET know if the Framework for Improving Student Outcomes (FISO) was even working? God only knows what this would do to NAPLAN results!
What exactly is ‘winning’ in the context of education, anyway?
And so, in this and many other ways, our time is diverted away from teaching and assessment and into the more important task of composing what can best be described as corporate poetry. We finalise these odes to efficiency with end-of-year reflections; narratives of our inevitable ‘goal delivery’ to accompany our statistics, which show just enough ‘wins’ not to appear too successful.
But what if it’s all meaningless and we are focusing on the wrong thing entirely?
In their bestselling 2019 book, Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall list this goal-oriented system as their ‘number 3 lie’. There is no research, they found, to support the assumption that cascading goals have any positive effect. Indeed, from big multinationals to small government agencies, the only thing goal-setting does is distract employees from what they really should be setting: values.
Goals keep us navel-gazing as we turn the gears, but values make us question what the machine is for. This kind of talk has fallen out of fashion in a world where we are all a bit embarrassed by such utopian thoughts. We scroll past the ‘vision and values’ on our school’s website and get on with the job of implementing our piece of the subdivided plan. Doing so makes us ‘team players’ with the obvious implication that only good teams win.
But schools are not ball games – and what exactly is ‘winning’ in the context of education, anyway?
If we don’t know why we’re doing something – beyond achieving ‘better results’ – how can we expect our students to know?
It seems like a simple question whose answer should come from above. But this is exactly what’s missing in most school meetings and hard to find in the latest DET policy or updated study design. It is also often absent in our classes. If we don’t know why we’re doing something – beyond achieving ‘better results’ – how can we expect our students to know?
In my own classes, I’ve found that these discussions are exactly what students are hungry for. Instead of shutting down the inevitable ‘what is the point of this?’ attack, I try to give an answer – and if it is one I truly value, then that magical moment of engagement happens, and we are back on track. If I can’t find an answer, it usually means I need to change my plan.
We keep telling students that the future is changing, but we don’t give them the skills to change it, only the tools to measure their success once they get there.
If we started to think beyond result graphs and rankings, then it might be possible to have conversations like this in all schools. And if that happens, then goals, ‘smart’ or otherwise, would become as irrelevant as how many words per minute a teacher types or the number of students per day they speak to, because we would again be heading someplace meaningful.
We might even trust each other enough to get there any way we want to. Now that is a goal worth setting.