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Wednesday / November 22

Help Students Reflect and Set Goals for Powerful Learning

Reflection is the stickiest glue for the brain. When students take time to consider what they have learned and how they have grown, the learning is longer lasting and much more impactful. As John Dewey has written, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Goal setting is equally as powerful. People who set goals achieve more in life, in work, and in school. Goals refine a learner’s focus, putting energies into just a few outcomes, channeling their work and sharpening its influence.

Combine reflection and goal setting and you have a powerhouse merger that transforms learning. When learners reflect and then intentionally set goals from those reflections, beautiful things start to happen. Learners:

  • Invest deeply in their own learning;
  • Recognize strengths and next steps and seek out opportunities to learn;
  • Ask for specific feedback customized for their personal growth;
  • See daily learning as part of a larger journey to meet a goal;
  • Build ownership and agency;
  • Nurture their own growth mindset;
  • Learn a whole lot more with greater depth of understanding and joy.

This merger of reflection and goal setting is possible in four surprisingly simple steps.

Start with reflection.

While reflection can and should happen any time, you may want to start this cycle off between one unit and another. Provide time for learners to jot their reflections in open, non-graded experiences. You may want to start with some reflective questions that help the student consider what s/he has learned over time and imagine where s/he would like to go next. This may mean that you share either the essential questions, enduring understandings, goals, or any other significant parts of both units. Some examples of reflection questions include:

  • What was significant learning for you in the last unit?
  • What did you learn about yourself as a learner (or writer, reader, social scientist, mathematician, or whatever the subject area)?
  • What was your favorite mistake and what did you learn from it?
  • What feedback did you get from your teacher or other students that was important to you?
  • What are strengths you noticed about yourself?
  • What are next steps in your learning journey?
  • Looking ahead to the next unit, what are some challenges you imagine?
  • What strengths can you bring to meet those challenges?

These are just a few questions you may ask. I am sure there will be others that come to you when working with your students. Just keep them general enough that there is not one correct answer and there is space for learners to think deeply about where they have been and where they are going.

Move to goal setting.

If your students have not set goals for themselves in the past you may want to share a list of goals that they can choose from. Many teachers will ask for the student to choose a goal and then the teacher will also choose a goal for him or her. The more students are used to designing goals, the less support you will need to provide. When setting goals, think “the goldilocks rule.” Not too broad, not too specific; just right. Here are a few “mentor goals” that may help as examples:

  • Write using informational details that teach about my topic clearly to my reader.
  • Read for the bigger messages the author is trying to teach me.
  • Use both my reading and math strategies to solve real world problems.
  • Use different social scientist lenses (sociologist, historian, geographer, archaeologist) to build an understanding of life on the Nile in Ancient Egypt.

A few important qualities to notice about these goals. They are all written in kid-friendly language, not language a teacher might use in lesson plans or unit designs. This is key if students are going to be able to really own their goals. Also notice the word “will” has been left out. A goal is a target and once reached there is no need for “will.” And finally, keep in mind that these goals can be revised. As learners work to reach a goal, they may find themselves expanding or narrowing the goal along the way.

Make a plan.

A goal without a plan is just a wish,” according to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince. Therefore, students should begin, once they have chosen a goal (or two or three) to plan out how they will reach those goals. Some ideas to share with learners as they make the plan:

  • List what you know you need to still learn in order to reach your goal.
  • What strengths and knowledge do you already have that will help you reach the goal? How do you plan on using this?
  • What do you imagine having to do first? After that?
  • Who can help you reach this goal? Specifically, what will you need from him or her?
  • What are important habits you will draw on daily to help you reach your goal?

You will probably have some other ways of making a plan depending on your students, the subject area, and the unit itself. Think of this plan as something that will be revised throughout the journey toward the goal(s). As students learn more their plan will become more detailed and refined.

Reflect on the goals and the plan often.

This step is crucial in making the reflection-goal merger successful. As often as possible, students should revisit the goals they have set for themselves. My favorite time is right before students head off to learn, in whatever content you are teaching, and at the end of the learning time. In other words, bookend daily learning experiences with reflection on goals and plans. Ask students to look at their goals and plans and set intentions for their work. As one student that I work with said, “I think about all of the goals that I didn’t add intentions to when I was younger. I could have accomplished so much more!” A few ideas for wording that can help students build intentions when reflecting:

  • What can I do today that will help me work toward my goal?
  • What feedback do I need in my work toward my goal?
  • Study the plan. What adjustments can be made to customize the plan with all I have learned and done thus far?
  • What are my intentions for the work time today? Tomorrow?
  • How am I doing in working toward my goal and what can I do differently?

This reflection work can be done individually, in partnerships, or in small groups. It may be just three to five minutes at a pop or a mid-unit reflection time that lasts much longer to adjust the course toward the goals. Just remember that it is imperative to keep the fluid interaction between reflection and goals present throughout a unit.

This amazing, cyclical, and transformative process learners take to consider where they have been and where they want to go–the cycle of reflection into goal setting into more reflection–is one of the most powerful experiences you can create in your classroom. Give it a try and watch, with awe and pride, your students growth right before your very eyes.

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Written by

Patty McGee is a Literacy Consultant whose passion and vision is to create learning environments where teachers and students discover their true potential and power. Patty’s favorite moments are when groups of teachers are working with students collaboratively in the classroom. She does her best literacy research by practicing on her two children. Prior to her work as Literacy Consultant, she was Coordinator of Professional Learning in Literacy with the Northern Valley Curriculum Center. Previously, Patty was a fourth grade teacher, a Library Media Specialist, and a Literacy Coach. Patty received her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education at Loyola University in Maryland, an Associate School Library Media Specialist certification through Rutgers University, and her M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership through Montclair State University. Patty has also studied literacy and literacy coaching through Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and Iona College. She has received the Milken Educator Award (2002), worked as a consultant for Workman Publishing, Scholastic, and Corwin, and served on several committees for the New Jersey Department of Education. Furthermore, she has been an adjunct professor at Montclair State University and presenter at the ILA, NCTE, ASCD, and Learning Forward national conferences. Patty is the author of Feedback That Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing.

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