Sunday, December 2, 2012

On Setting Goals

I apologize for the length of this post in advance.  It has been sitting in my drafts in one form or another for more than a year.  To summarize, I have been struggling to understand why goal-setting is required in my program and many others but seems to consist mostly of filling out required forms.  What would it take for goal-setting to truly be a tool that is useful to learners and beneficial to my organization?

Goal met!  Zion National Park, undisclosed number of years ago.
There is no doubt about it, adult education teachers in my state are encouraged to help our students set goals.  It's on our student intake and update forms, it's an item on my teacher performance evaluation, it's mentioned often in professional development forums, and our funding providers ask for evidence that goals were set and met. Clearly, it's seen as a very important dimension of adult education!

A couple of years ago, when I was exploring the topic of persistence for a small presentation, I learned why goal-setting is promoted in adult education programs such as ours.  Persistence is a term used by some to describe a learner's ability to find a way around obstacles and continue with learning.  Since our learners are adults, life can often get in the way of their personal improvement plans.  When issues arise, choices such as taking classes often get set aside. For many reasons, a learner may find it difficult to get going again later.  But "clarity of purpose" has been shown in studies to help learners persist (references and details from NELRC).  And cultivating persistence can improve retention (learners completing the classes they enrolled in), which can lead to better gains reports for an agency.

I have asked learners to set goals many, many times.  They fill out the form and we put it into their folder, as required.  But not much happens after that.  Yes, I know I'm supposed to develop lesson plans that support these goals, follow-up with the learners and help them navigate obstacles, assist them in reporting, celebrate successes, and guide them into beginning the cycle again. I've tried, but it's far easier said than done.    

When I gave my presentation on persistence, I focused on what the teacher can do in the classroom.  I didn't press on things that might be done at the administrative level because I felt that I didn't have the power to drive such changes.  I included goal-setting as a teacher-level activity and part of my presentation included a review of a SMART goals worksheet.  I renewed efforts to help learners with goals and met with little success.  It eventually became clear that true goal-setting -- where learners set personally-relevant targets, work toward them and have evidence that they succeeded --  must be supported by what happens outside the classroom doors. Effective goal-setting for adult language learners is not simply a teacher-level activity.

Proposal 1: Asking a learner to identify goals is only one preliminary step, and not even the first one.

Learners need to know their aspirations before they can set goals.  I'm sure at one time or another every ESL/EFL teacher has asked "Why are you taking this English class?" and received at least one response like "Because I want to learn English". Inquiring further, we ask "Why do you want to learn English?" and maybe there's a pause.  Some learner needs time to reflect on that. There is always something that gives a learner impetus to sign up for our classes, but sometimes it's at a gut level.  Bringing it out into the light will help them uncover meaningful goals.

The sooner the learner is guided into this kind of introspection, the better.  It can be done at orientation, but why not start even earlier?  Why not blend it into our fliers, web site and other marketing materials?  Imagine this poster:  Image of a real person.  A quote next to this person says, "I wanted to improve my English so I could help my grandchildren.  Now I read stories to them and help them with their homework.  Why do YOU want to learn English?"

Proposal 2: Learners need to know as soon as possible what our program can offer them.  If our offering does not match their aspirations, they should not be enrolled. 

Again, this can begin at marketing.  A civics-based program would not use the poster described above.  Perhaps consider posters in various languages in order to make our offering very clear.  Learners who inquire will already have made a connection between our offering and their needs.

Proposal 3:  Managed enrollment with orientation is a must.

Language programs have varying levels of enrollment management.  There's a full-scale process that includes assessment, placement, goal-setting and orientation.  At the other extreme, there are walk-in programs where learners can appear and disappear without warning.  Our program has shifted from walk-in to slightly-managed enrollment.  Learners can only walk in at the beginning of a month if the class is "open", meaning the teacher determines that there's room for new people.

The less that enrollment is managed outside the classroom, the more that is left to be managed during lesson time.  Is a teacher going to offer well-executed lessons to an ongoing group of learners while simultaneously offering a full enrollment and orientation package on the side whenever a new learner drops in?  Of course not.  Enrollment will be reduced to the required formalities, done as quickly as possible.  Follow up on learner goals?  The teacher is lucky to keep track of their names.

A formal orientation process can make true goal-setting possible. By the time learners walk into the classroom, they should be clear about how the program connects to their own aspirations.  They should be grouped with people who have compatible (not necessarily the same) skill levels.  And they should already have been introduced to a goal-setting process.  (They don't have to have set specific learning goals, just be aware of what the process is and the fact that they will be following it.)  Other advantages of orientation are that the teacher will begin with some understanding of the aspirations of the group, and the group will start together -- supporting each other as they go through the program.

Proposal 4: The learner's short-term goals need to be related to topics scheduled in the near future.

Learners may examine the program's curriculum (or a list of potential topics to be explored over a long period of time) during orientation so they can decide if taking a class will support their aspirations.   But short-term goals should be set in the classroom, based on upcoming topics.  Thanks to orientation, the teacher will have some idea of the long-term goals of each group and (if the curriculum is flexible) may plan topics that are especially helpful.

Proposal 5:  Special consideration is needed for some language learners.

What if the room is filled with learners of many different first languages who can't speak English at all?  What if some learners can't read and write?   Ideas for orientation:

  • forms and other paperwork in languages where need is anticipated 
  • translation software available on iPad or smart phone
  • volunteer higher level learners on hand to help with explanations
  • picture dictionaries with stickies marking potentially relevant pages
  • albums of potentially relevant pictures (preferably photos or very realistic)

Proposal 6: Learners need to transition quickly to owning the goal-setting process.  

If it's truly useful and relevant, then this is a skill that the student could apply to other areas of life.  They need to be free of teacher-enabling as soon as possible.

Proposal 7:  The teacher should be transparently using the same process for his or her own goals. 

This is me: "I'm taking this PD course because I want to be a better teacher."

Oh, brother!  I am eager to improve as a teacher, and I do set goals.  Indeed, the state also requires that our administrators set goals and that the agency define goals.  These are all supposed to be aligned. Let's loop back to my first paragraph now: it seems to consist mostly of filling out required forms.

Many (most?) of us don't own the process ourselves.  Why, then, would our learners buy into our telling them that it's an important life skill?  This reminds me of the Bike Helmet Paradox.

Many times, I see a mother or father riding bikes with the kids.  The kids have helmets on and the parents don't.  I feel that the parents want to send this message: "I am kid-centered. I care about the safety of my kids." However, I think the kids are getting this message: "Helmets are for kids.  When I'm grown up like Mom and Dad, I won't need a helmet."  If bike helmets are for safety, why aren't the parents wearing them?

Is goal-setting a useful life skill or just for students?  What is the message I'm sending?  More on that in another post, and I promise it won't be as long as this one!

Note: this post was edited to fix obvious errors!

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