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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Provide ‘Voice’ and ‘Choice’ When Students Set Goals

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 17, 2017 14 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can we use goal-setting with our students?

In Part One, Dr. Sanée Bell, Kevin Parr, Rita Platt, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman and Matt Renwick share their ideas. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sanée, Rita and Kevin on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Regie Routman, Laura Robb, Dr. Lynell Powell, John Spencer, and Jeffrey Benson contribute their commentaries.

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman is an educator who collaborates with principals, teachers, and students in underperforming schools to increase and sustain reading and writing achievement. She is the author of many books and resources, most recently Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). Her upcoming book is Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for ALL Learners (Stenhouse, 2017). She can be contacted on her website:

Goals are our learning intentions, and they must consider not just required curriculum and standards but also students’ interests and needs. As one middle school student told me, “Teachers need to mold lessons to kids; don’t mold your kids to your lessons.” Goal setting for and with students is crucial but only if the goals we set are meaningful and lead to increased student learning, engagement, and even enjoyment. Ideally, we set learning goals with our students and ensure they understand, value, and can accomplish these goals with minimal support. Ultimately, of course, we want students to be able to set their own worthy goals.

Goal setting by itself can be a waste of time, especially if the goals set are trivial and squander students’ learning time. Some schools require goals be posted in every classroom every day and that students be able to state these goals. However, just because goals are posted and correctly stated doesn’t mean student learning will increase in meaningful ways. Our goals mirror our beliefs. For instance, if we believe students learn best through skills-in-isolation instruction, our goals will reflect that and will not advance learning much. As an example, if our goal is for students to complete grammar exercises on commercial worksheets, there is no research showing that such exercises lead to increased understanding and application of correct grammar to real-world literacy tasks. As well, too often, we set goals because they can be easily measured, but easy measurement such as movement through book levels or scores on a test do not necessarily address purposeful student achievement.

One of the most productive ways to use goal setting is through conferring and interacting with students one-on-one, in small groups, and whole class. In the course of every day teaching, expert teachers continually notice and name what students are doing well and assess what demonstrations, shared experiences, and guided practice students need to productively move forward. That ongoing, formative assessment includes useful and actionable feedback that learners use to reinforce existing goals, revise current goals, and set new goals. All of that meaningful goal setting requires that we educators are highly knowledgeable and conversant with research-based practices, and that our beliefs and practices are in alignment schoolwide. As well, goal setting and school culture are interconnected. Students, and we educators, are more likely to achieve goals in an upbeat, positive, trusting culture where we feel safe, valued, and encouraged to raise questions, voice our opinions, and set our own worthy goals.

Guidelines for setting and achieving purposeful learning goals:

  • Goals and expectations are meaningful, clear, and transparent and can be articulated by students as well as teachers.
  • Goals are often written with students in student-friendly language.
  • Success criteria are defined and visible, demonstrated, practiced, and discussed so that students know what the end goal “looks like” and “sounds like” and believe they can “get there.”
  • Ongoing assessment, which includes giving students opportunities to revise work to improve it, is a vital part of a goal setting culture that is fluid, not fixed.
  • Goals include development of qualities such as stamina, a positive mindset, collaborating well with peers, self-checking, and self-evaluating.
  • Useful feedback, which relates to the instructional goals and focuses first on strengths before needs, is essential.
  • Some student choice is provided within the required goals; rigid requirements can take away learners’ initiative and energy.

Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb, teacher and coach, has written more than 20 books on literacy. She is the author of Vocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts (Corwin, 2014) and published two books in 2016: The Intervention Toolkit for Shell and for Corwin, Read Talk Write:35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction:

Make Reaching Goals a Reality!

It’s New Year’s—time to make resolutions! Our goals are often ambitious: For example, to lose weight, we walk several miles a day, work out four to five times a week, and/or dramatically curtail our calorie intake. Several weeks into the new year, however, most of our goals have been placed on a back burner. Soon they’re totally forgotten.

At school, we often ask students to set learning goals in order to reach a benchmarks in reading, writing, or a content subject. However, like our own goals, students’ goals frequently go up in a puff of smoke and vanish. Though we set resolutions and goals with a strong resolve to meet each one, many fall by the wayside, never to be attained.

Why does this happen? Often because we set goals without negotiating them with students and designing a plan that outlines how to reach them, along with a schedule for monitoring progress.

Make Negotiation Part of Goal Setting

When you negotiate goals with students, you involve them in the process and give them ownership. Here’s how I negotiated focusing an independent reading goal with Rosa, a fifth grade student.

Rosa was working on increasing her reading stamina. When I asked her to set a goal, she was able to concentrate on a self-selected book for 10 to 12 minutes. “I’m going to read and focus for 30 minutes, " she said.

“Your goal shows a lot of enthusiasm for reading, and that pleases me. Can you aim for 30 minutes but start with more reachable times?” I asked.

Rosa remained silent for a couple of minutes and then said,

“I want to get to thirty, but maybe 15 and then 20 minutes is better.”

I nodded. “You’ll move from 15 to 20 minutes quickly because you can concentrate now for 10 minutes. Then you can aim for and meet the 30 minute goal.”

Notice that instead of handing Rosa a goal, I posed a question to provoke her thinking. I wanted her to reflect and make the decision. Our next step would be to discuss the five steps for setting goals, so Rosa could develop a plan that she’ll revisit and update until she meets her goal.

Five Steps to Setting Goals

Having students set goals creates a desire to attain the goal, but desire, alone, won’t sustain their efforts. Students need to follow the five steps below to plan and achieve a goal.

  1. Set the goal and write it in your reader’s notebook.
  2. Determine what needs to be done to reach the goal. Record your thoughts underneath the goal.
  3. Assess the amount of time needed and how to monitor progress.
  4. Work to meet the goal.
  5. Revisit the goal, update and adjust your plan, and note progress.

Completing these five steps can make the difference between meeting and abandoning a goal. A good example of this is the story of Luke, a sixth grade student.

Luke Invests in Meeting His Goal

Every year, Luke wanted to improve his punctuation and usage, but struggled. However, once Luke used the five steps, he became invested in reaching his goal because he had a supporting plan that included bi-weekly reviews of his progress.

Luke’s paragraphs, essays, and journal writing had excellent content. However, they consistently contained run-on sentences and missing words, commas, and end-of-sentence punctuation. At a recent conference, I asked Luke to review the writing in his folder and set a goal. “I need to proof better,” he said. “Got lots of run-ons and punctuation mistakes--need to fix those.”

“Excellent goal,” I said. “Think for a moment. What you need to do? And how much time do you think you’ll need to reach your goal?”

Luke felt he needed to read his writing out loud and listen for missing words and places to put commas and periods. He was able to explain how to identify run-on sentences, and said, “I just need to rewrite them.” Luke wrote his plan in his reader’s notebook, reviewed it, and figured he needed three weeks to revise and edit two paragraphs and a recently completed essay.

Twice a week, Luke revisited his goal and reflected on his progress. He successfully revised and edited both paragraphs in two weeks. Halfway thought the third week he re-negotiated an extra week for the essay; I happily gave it to him because Luke recognized that the longer piece required more time to reach his goal. Using and internalizing the five steps moved Luke to meeting the learning goals he negotiated with me because he had a concrete plan to follow, review, and adjust.

Luke’s Plan

Read writing out loud.

Listen and look for missing words.

See where end punctuation goes—commas, too.

Find run-ons—rewrite them.

Read out loud again. Fix more.

Check progress on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Monitor and Celebrate!

Stay involved and monitor students’ work as they strive to meet a goal. Encourage them to negotiate more time to work and for one-on-one support if they need it, as well as to adjust their plans and schedules as necessary. Ask students to point out what worked well and what didn’t, and to express their feelings about meeting the goal. Join them in celebrating their successes, because positive feelings toward learning boost self-confidence and self-efficacy. By doing all this, you’ll create a community of learners who take responsibility for their goals and work hard to meet them.

Response From Dr. Lynell Powell

Dr. Lynell Powell is a professional learning specialist with Virginia Beach City Public Schools focused on the implementation of personalized learning. She is also passionate about bringing joy to schools. You can visit her website drjoyblog.com:

Student goal-setting is an excellent strategy for promoting ownership and agency in the learning environment. When students partner with teachers to create academic, behavioral or personal goals, they are more likely to become committed to the learning process because they’ve had a say in how that process will suit their needs.

As with any structure, students become increasingly independent over time and with consistent implementation. Teachers should begin by introducing the purpose of goal setting, connecting the fact that it is a skill that transcends the classroom. Eliciting information about students’ prior experience with setting goals is a way to engage students in the discussion. A powerful story can set the stage for a class brainstorm on the benefits of goal setting. A few important benefits to highlight are:

  1. Increased in motivation

  2. Improved focus and concentration

  3. Gains in achievement

  4. Greater self-confidence

Goal setting is a process. A great way to model that process is by collaborating with students to create a classroom goal. Use a structured protocol so that all students are active participants in identifying the classroom goal. Next, discuss options for reaching that goal and monitoring and reflecting upon progress. Allow students to use this model to create a behavioral, academic, or personal goal and provide them with an opportunity to work with peers to gather feedback.

It is most important that goals are visible so that they can be revisited, discussed, and assessed. Simple goal-setting templates can evolve over time as students gain a stronger understanding of how to articulate their process. Students need multiple opportunities to discuss their goals and plans to accomplish it. A further step is to have students collect evidence to support how they are working toward their goal. Remember, the purpose of goal setting to for students to gain a better understanding of themselves as learners. It is a key strategy to help promote metacognitive development.

Response From John Spencer

John Spencer is a former K-12 teacher and present professor. He is the co-author of Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student:

We all know that goal-setting is important. We want to see students become self-directed and driven toward mastery. However, too often, students aren’t given the opportunity to create their own goals. Case in point: a few years back, my administration required us to have students set reading goals and chart their own progress. That sounded like a great idea, but it quickly became another task for students to accomplish, because the process didn’t respect student agency. We, as teachers, set the goals based upon benchmark standardized test scores. These numbers were arbitrary at best.

On the other hand, when students set goals for projects, they paid closer attention to their progress. Here, they had the opportunity to decide on the specific goals, the metrics they would use, and the way they would monitor the progress. Students owned the entire process from goal-setting through reflection. If we want students to engage in authentic goal-setting, we need to provide student voice and choice on the entire process.

Response From Jeffrey Benson

Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 40 years as an educator, from elementary school through graduate programs. Benson is the author of Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD) and 10 Steps to Managing Change in Schools (ASCD), and the co-author of Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices That Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life (Corwin), with Rachel Poliner. Connect with him at his website, www.jeffreybenson.org.

This text is adapted from the Rachel Poliner and Jeffrey Benson’s book, Teaching the Whole Teen, EverydayPractices That Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life (Corwin, 2016), and is applicable to students of all ages:

Students can be motivated by working on short-term group goals. Working on group goals will also help them learn about setting goals for themselves. Periodically a short-term goal can help the group recommit to an aspect of their larger agreements. Critically, the goals are not about things that are being done for the students, but instead are markers of collective effort. For instance, “Take us on a class trip each term!” is not a goal they accomplish through their actions; however it may be reward for achieving a class goal. Offer the following statements as examples that students might write for work effort goals, social goals, and procedural goals.

Work effort: By Friday, we’ll help everybody find a reading book that they really want to read. This week we help each other get all our homework done.

Social: We’ll have a good laugh once a day. We’ll go the full week without anyone being interrupted when speaking.

Procedural: This week, we’ll be consistent about plugging the laptops in to be recharged. All week, we’ll use our procedures for putting away supplies at the end of our class so we can leave on time.

The rewards for achieving their goals depend on the age and the characteristics of the group, everything from time to chat on their own or play a game, to an increase in independence, a letter to parents, a schoolwide announcement, or a visit from the principal to provide direct praise.

Thanks to Regie, Laura, Lynell, John and Jeffrey for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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