Goal Setting, Habits, and Motivation

In 2017 I conducted an action research study over motivation and student goal setting with a colleague.  As I started reading Atomic Habits by James Clear this week, it made me want to revisit this research and reflect on it again.

We looked at different types of goals students were being asked to set. We looked at performance-oriented goals and task-oriented goals. We thought about how a goals focus can impact a student’s commitment to the goal. Schunk & Zimmerman (2008), say according to most goal orientation theorists (e.g., Ames, Dweck, Elliot, & Markiewicz; Midgley and colleagues), the purpose of a performance goal is to gain positive judgements of personal competence, whereas the purpose of learning or task-oriented goal is to actually increase one’s competence. Performance goals are often driven by outside influences and how things appear to be. They go on to say that performance goals work better for already confident learners. Learning goals, or as we chose to call them, task-oriented goals will motivate both confident and unconfident learners. Task oriented goals are more inclined to support intrinsic motivation, which can still be influenced from  forces outside of ourselves but are more geared towards helping students become truly engaged for themselves and absorbed in what they are learning or reading about.

In our research we found that the task-oriented goals our students made did have a positive impact on their motivation to read.  We believe this ultimately impacted student independent reading stamina and overall reading performance.  The data revealed that 14 out of the 15 students who participated grew at least one or more reading level. Most increased multiple levels. Teachers ask students to set reading level goals all the time in educations.  We wanted to steer the focus away from the performance goals related to reading levels and focus more on smaller task-oriented goals. We helped students form goals related to the content of their reading and reading choices. They also created goals dealing time spent reading.

I was starting to understand and now more fully understand how we needed to be focusing on goals dealing with the processes of thinking someone must sustain to be a reader. Goals to form habits of thinking based on reading for meaning.

This brings me to  Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning by Ellin Oliver Keene.

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She states, “there is evidence that motivation to read in the elementary and middle school years is related to reading achievement, with more proficient readers being more motivated and less proficient readers being less motivated. I bring this up because that is a factor that influenced our research. I agree with this statement when thinking about how students’ progress through these years of school. When it comes to reading, they are often motivated by the habits their parents helped them form. Habits of enjoying a good story and learning from a good book.  Students motivation to read is linked to success because of learned reading behaviors they are introduced to at school. Behaviors that focus students’ goals to be centered around speed and quantity are often stressed over reading to gain knowledge and enjoy a good story while learning something about people and life. Or being able to read a book at a certain level.

These external and internal motivation as Keene describes it is linked to an outside factor. It is often a person you want to be like or a person you want to impress.  Both Keene and Clear talk about how engagement or continual meeting of goals will not happen or be sustained with motivation alone. Engagement as Keene talks about and identity work as Clear talks about help drive sustained success or learning.

I came out of our research really thinking about goals and what a student has to be willing to do to make chose goals happen. Setting a goal is the easy part. You simply have to voice it, publicly or not. Then comes the hard part, putting steps into motion to help yourself achieve the goal. Identifying and completing these steps is what trips up children and adults.

In his book James Clear talks about goals and systems. He states that he learned the distinction between goals and systems from Scott Adams. “Goals are about the results you want to achieve, and systems are about the processes that lead to those results.” This shares the beliefs of the researchers mentioned above. He talks about how you have to have the right systems or as I say processes in place for habits to be formed and to continuously keep meeting goals.

After the research was completed, we noticed that even when the students voiced their desire to continue setting task-oriented goals for themselves they were not able to. Goal setting did not become a habit for these students even when they saw some success with it.

In our research we did not help our students internalize the system they needed to continually achieve their goals. The system was not in place long enough for students to grasp the processes of what helping them meet their goals.  The system may have been conflicting the system their classroom teachers were putting in place. Also the habits did not have time to form, before we concluded our research. I think when too much emphasize is placed on the goal itself, students do not consciously become aware of the system or processes they went through to achieve their goals or when they do not meet it  they become discouraged instead of thinking about what adjustments need to be made. If we are not aware of the processes, then we cannot repeat them to keep the cycle going.

You may meet some goals by pure desire, but those goals are not something you continue to meet without the right system in place. When you think about winning sports organizations it is the systems, they have in place that help them have continued success, not simply setting the goals to win. The term the “Patriot Way” was coined because of the continued winning the New England Patriots team has done over the last almost two decades.  It was not used to describe their goal setting savvy ( or cheating ways), but the systems and process their players had to buy into and to describe the identity players who came to the organization adopted. The systems that most legendary coaches put into place include goals, but they will tell you success is driven by habits they instill in players and identities their players take on.  I feel that along with achieving mastery over the processes and building a winning system that lead to a cycle of success you have to make adjustments as you go. Winning teams and coaches know how to make with-in the game adjustments as well as out-of-game adjustments. Clear talks about this also when he addresses “bad” habits. I like to think of them as habits you need to shift and adapt to your current situation or students.

I feel we can learn and apply a lot of what Clear says to education. Keene and Clear are on the same wavelength with their thinking. Helping students form habits that set them up to engage in learning are critical.

I want my students to form the habits that lead them to be successful readers and to be successful in life.

My colleague and I were on the right track with our research into motivation. We wanted to help students form reading habits that would help them continue to set and meet reading goals focused on learning, not speed, level and quantity of reading. We knew they needed to be reading to explore the many experiences they may not get the chance to experience outside of a book until they become adults if ever. We want them to be able to learn about life through their reading. The performance-oriented goals will take care of themselves when students master the processes readers go through.

Right now my mind is absorbed with thoughts on how I can adjust my teaching to help my students form habits that set them up for engagement and sustained success by reading for meaning.  As a National Board Certified Teacher in Literacy I see parallels with the National Board’s Five Core Propositions and Architecture of Accomplished Teaching and forming habits, motivation, and goal setting.

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  National Board-Certified Teachers are teachers who go through the process or system above continuously, creating habits of accomplished teaching. Habits all accomplished teachers share. Anyone who has attempted to achieve National Board Certification or achieved understands that the process you go through changes you as a teacher. It build habits that over time lead to the success of your students. You have to understand and commit to the processes of accomplished teaching to achieve National Board Certification. You are asked to renew your certification every five years to make sure that the process has become a habit. At least that is the way I think we have to look at it.

We have to choose the right identity as Clear puts it. We have to view ourselves as an accomplished teacher and understand what the process of accomplished teaching looks like and set goals that fit into that process. Clear states mastery requires patients and that what seems like overnight success is a really the result of lots of hard work and building of habits that merge together to finally break through into some success.

I want to continue to improve my teaching practice and make changes to improve my life.  I will try to share some of the adjustments and habits as I work towards improving instruction.

Troy