For our final episode on student agency, we thought it was time to help our students set some better goals. So, we brought in Chase Nordengren, senior research scientist at NWEA and author of the forthcoming book, Step Into Student Goal Setting (Corwin, Jan 2022). He's joined by 3rd grade teacher and education innovator Amanda Thornton to discuss how goal setting, with clear learning intentions and plenty of scaffolded support by teachers, can lead to high learning growth and more student agency. As always, there are plenty of tips, actionable strategies, and stories from the classroom. Thank you for joining us this season!
Jacob: Before we start today's episode, I'd like to talk about why this season has been so important to me. This season, we've explored student agency from so many different angles and perspectives. We've dug into many of the factors that influence student ownership in their learning journeys, and the various ways educators can create connections and opportunities for students to gain belief in themselves as learners. Along the way, we've shared plenty of practical tips and expert advice for building effective student-centered instructional practice. But why? The fact of the matter is, equipping students with the belief in themselves to advocate, to set goals, and to take action for themselves in their own learning journeys represents a sort of holy grail in our efforts as educators. After all, lifelong learning can't reliably take place for any of us if we don't teach students how to navigate learning with intention and impact. Further, these ideas of self-efficacy, action orientation, and ultimate agency in our lives, it transcends notions of schooling, as these things play out every day for us in our private lives with ourselves as we dream, as we wrestle with our ambitions and our hopes, and in our lives in community with one another, in what the MacArthur Foundation terms our search, our pursuit of a just, verdant, and more peaceful world.
Welcome to the "Continuing Educator." I'm your host, Jacob Bruno. As humans, if we're doing it right, we never stop learning. That's true of students, it's true of adults broadly, and it's certainly true of us as educators. We've created this professional learning podcast with that in mind, as we share these conversations we have aimed and continue to aim to provide insights for your classrooms to help inform your teaching strategies. We endeavor to share research and perspectives that can help you grow your practice and show you what success can look like. While our learning never ends, as the old adage goes, all good things must come to an end. I say that now because this is the final episode of season two of the "Continuing Educator." And, oh, what a season it's been. As a reminder, this season on the "Continuing Educator," we have been squarely focused on building student agency. The episodes and guests we have had have been truly terrific. And we appreciate all of the outreach and thanks we've received from you our listeners. Thank you. We're honored you have joined us as we've explored student agency from so many different angles and perspectives these past few months.
We began our season talking with two outstanding teachers, dissecting what student agency is and how to give students a sense of efficacy and ownership in their learning, regardless of grade level. We've continued throughout the season speaking with practitioners, thought leaders, and researchers, exploring how to give students a say within their learning journeys, exploring the role that equity, supportive environments, and culturally responsive teaching can play in laying the groundwork for agency. We've explored the role of student agency within mathematics and ELA. We've explored building agency with emergent bilingual students. We've dug deeply into building student agency with a lens of accessibility. And in our latest episode, we explored the concepts of formative assessment or responsive teaching and learning, and the emerging concept of assessment empowerment as powerful levers to equip kids to have and recognize their own agency in their learning.
These many conversations have been dynamic, informative, and offered a lot of perspectives and insights to help influence student ownership within your classrooms. If you've missed any conversations, I encourage you to loop back and listen where the topic is most relevant to you. In addition, know that you can always go to our blog, "Teach, Learn, Grow" for additional insights, resources, ideas to support you in your classroom. Here in the eighth and final episode of this season, we're gonna explore the practice of goal setting with students as a catalyst and critical experience in building student agency. And I'm so excited to have this conversation. Let's jump in.
Today, I'm happy to welcome my first guest, Dr. Chase Nordengren. Dr. Nordengren is a senior research scientist at NWEA where he supports the services teams with primary and secondary research that drives instructional improvement. His research includes the development and execution of needs assessment and program evaluation services for partners, supporting school improvement processes, and thought leadership on formative assessment and student goal-setting practices. With an insatiable curiosity, Chase works closely with leading scholars around the globe, including Dr. Tom Guskey, turning theory into actionable practices to drive instructional improvement. He received his Ph.D. in leadership, policy, and organizations in K-12 systems from the University of Washington as U.S. Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences pre-doctoral fellow. And my favorite tidbit, Chase is about to publish his first solo book with the good people at Corwin Press. Germane to today's topic, Chase's book is entitled, "Step Into Student Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency." Chase, welcome.
Chase: Thanks, Jacob, happy to be here.
Jacob: Glad to have you. It is fitting to end this season as we began it with the voice of a practicing and effective educator at the table. I am pleased to welcome my second guest, elementary educator extraordinaire Amanda Thornton. Amanda or Mrs. Thornton as she is known to her third graders is an educator at South Ridge Elementary School in Ridgefield, Washington. Amanda has a master's of education and learning and technology, a master's of science in curriculum and instruction. She's a Google certified teacher and trainer. Amanda is an educator dedicated to her own learning and to that of the students she serves. Amanda gained some local notoriety during the pandemic when she saw that her students were very afraid last fall when they talked about COVID-19. Amanda leaned in and field-tested a project-based science curriculum unit focused on the coronavirus pandemic, developed by the team at the University of Washington's Goodlad Institute for Educational Renewal, along with OPEN Phys Ed. Amanda's efforts to help her students meet their fear with knowledge has an element of agency at the heart of her efforts. Laudable as all of this is, the reason I'm most excited to have Mrs. Thornton here today is because I hear daily how terrific an educator she is, how she challenges and supports her class. And how do I hear this, you may ask. Mrs. Thornton is my daughter's outstanding third grade teacher, and I'm so glad to welcome her today. Amanda, welcome.
Amanda: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.
Jacob: Well, friends, let's get after it. I wanna approach this topic of goal setting and student agency, first with a question to you, Chase. What does goal setting do for students?
Chase: I think the primary thing that goal setting does is introduce this whole host of topics surrounding student agency and social-emotional learning. So it's an opportunity or a mechanism to bring to students a way of thinking about, "What do I wanna do with the rest of my life? What do I wanna do the next couple months? And how can I make connections between those things that I aspire for, wish towards, and the things that we're learning in the classroom on a day-to-day basis?" So it's about bringing relevance and agency together in some neatly, digestible ways that kids can understand and that really resonate with them.
Jacob: That's great, Chase. I appreciate that. Amanda, what would you add to that from your perspective?
Amanda: Just going off of that, breaking up this big idea of "I wanna do this thing, and that seems really, really hard right now" into the bite-sized pieces of, "Okay. I actually can get there one bite at a time. I just need to figure out what those steps are."
Jacob: Appreciate that. You know, I'm curious for both of you. We think about goal setting with students. Is there an age that's too young to begin this conversation, as Amanda as you say, kind of breaking apart from where I am now to where I need to go, breaking down those steps? Amanda, let's start with you.
Amanda: I think that you can set goals with any kids who are doing really anything academically, whether that is fifth graders. I've worked on goal setting with kindergartners before. They really can understand that process of "I wanna do this thing. Let's figure out how. What are the steps that I need to take to get me there?"
Jacob: Chase, what would you add?
Chase: I couldn't agree more. One of my favorite anecdotes from a teacher that I spoke with in preparation for writing the book was about a first grader she had who was really interested in frogs, and he was tired of reading all of these kind of "Dick and Jane" style storybooks about frogs. He wanted to read like the big, heavy texts that would teach him everything he needed to know about amphibians. Now, is that kid gonna care about frogs two or three years from now? I don't know, and honestly, it doesn't really matter that much. What his teacher was able to do was use that interest in frogs as a motivator to get all of the reading skills that he would be able to apply, not just to reading those books about frogs, but to any kind of nonfiction text.
Jacob: Chase, you bring up an interesting point, in the moment, the student had an interest in frogs, makes me think about the kind of the old adage of relevancy in our instruction certainly that seems to translate to goal setting. I'm curious for both of you. What would you view as some best practice steps in setting goals with students?
Amanda, why don't we go to you first?
Amanda: Sure. When I think about things in the classroom, even around goal setting, the thing that I really like to focus on is authenticity. So one of the first steps I take for myself is thinking about as an adult in the real-world when I am doing real-world things, what are goals as an adult. Is it making a to-do list, and I'm gonna cross things off? Is it learning something new and setting that, "Okay. I wanna be able to do this thing. These are the steps I'm gonna take. I'm probably gonna need to find a class or an article on this"? Things like that. So I always think about what is the authentic way to bring that goal setting into my classroom because I don't want to teach kids a method of setting goals that they're gonna walk out the door of 12th grade and never use again.
Jacob: Excellent. Excellent. Chase, expand.
Chase: I love that notion of authenticity, Amanda, and I think closely related to it is the idea of talking about goals frequently and having those frequent check-ins with students. You know, it can become a lot more of an abstraction if you're setting a goal for a student that takes them a year or several months before they see any progress. The teachers that I've seen that have been more successful with goal setting have had those month-to-month or even week-to-week check-ins where they're looking back at the goal, maybe they're making some adjustments based on what the student learned that week, and helping make those regular and frequent connections between what's going on in the classroom and what the long-term objectives are that the student has.
Jacob: Chase, you name that, and it makes me wonder...and I don't know. Does this change by grade level or as kids get older, the recursive cycle of making goals and revisiting them? You mentioned month-to-month or even week-to-week. Is there a best practice that, you know, either maybe you found in your practice or, Chase, through your research that kind of speaks to the cadence of making and checking on goals with students?
Chase: I think the more frequently, the better. One of the things that I've discovered in work with teachers is that formal process can really get in the way of the frequency and, as you mentioned, Amanda, the authenticity. So, leaning toward the informal and frequent is probably better than the formal and infrequent. There are a lot of different ways to approach this in terms of, you know, what specifically happens in the conversation, what personally you bring to the conversation, how you approach it with students. I think the keys are really find as much time as you can to check in with students frequently and bring that authentic life experience. Bring your own work in setting goals for the things that you wanted to achieve and show students that this is not just an empty exercise, but it's something that they will be able to apply in their lives outside school.
Amanda: Yeah. Going off that, I also really like to give kids ownership of their goals and have them think about, "How do you learn? How do you work? What are you gonna need to stay on this goal? Do you need to come check in with me every morning think about who you are as a person?" You know, especially third grade, do you need that reminder every morning, or are you a little bit more kiddo who's to yourself kind of in your head, and you would rather process it by yourself? Because some of my kids I've had, they don't wanna talk about their goals with me. It's really stressful for them. So I really like to give kids ownership and encourage them to advocate for what they need, even when it's with their teacher.
Jacob: I'm so glad you bring that up, Amanda. That has been a topic that's come up through the conversations all season, frankly, but I love that you're bringing it in, you know, from the real-world perspective of your classroom, this idea of, if I can say, and hopefully, I'm, you know, synthesizing correctly, that part of goal setting isn't just about achieving an academic bar, but also there's an element of getting to know yourself as a learner. So there are these other elements of building self-efficacy and self-knowledge within the goal-setting process. Is that a fair summary?
Amanda: I think so, absolutely. If I'm setting a goal that I wanna learn about something, and one of the steps that I take is to read five textbooks on it, and I'm not somebody who can learn from just reading, I'm probably not gonna get to my goal. And so knowing what kind of a learner I am or, you know, what kind of goals I have is really gonna help me know how to get there and be able to advocate for what I need to get there.
Jacob: It's great. Chase, other things you might add there?
Chase: Yeah. Coming back to the theme that we started with around setting goals early, one of the things that early elementary teachers especially bring up in our conversations is, you know, early elementary kids don't always achieve all of their goals right away. And that's okay. That's part of the learning process. They're in those early grades, especially picking up on skills about how they learn best, what's a goal that's actually is attainable. Those are life lessons that, you know, need to happen sometime, and the sooner that they happen, the more prepared kids are to be more successful with goal setting in later grades.
Jacob: That's helpful. It makes me wanna pause for a second and, you know, ask the question, Chase, I know you've done a lot of research, Amanda, I know you're an avid student of professional learning and the like, what does research say about the power of goal setting?
Chase: I like to say that goal setting is one of those instructional practices that is hiding in plain sight in research. If you look at the work of someone like Dr. John Hattie, who has attempted to categorize all of these research meta-analyses on effective instructional practices, goal setting gets named, but it's also embedded in so many of the other practices that are listed there around conducting formative assessment, around having frequent conversations with students, around building student agency. So the way I like to think of it is that it's kind of an applied practice for taking all of these ideas and research that are fairly abstract that may be difficult for a third grader to wrap their mind around if it's presented to them in just such a way, and give a path really that third graders can begin to think about, "Well, how do I take ownership of my learning? How do I frequently understand what it is I've learned and what progress to make next?" It's kind of a life hack, if you will, to getting into some of those more complex practices of metacognition.
Jacob: Amanda, how does that resonate with you?
Amanda: I would completely agree. It really is kind of the introduction to metacognitive thinking and thinking about your thinking. What's going on in your head? What do you need to get there? We talk a lot in my classroom about brain science, even though they're only in third grade, because they find it really helpful to know what's going on in their head and to make decisions based off that knowledge. And one of the things we talk about a lot is your neural pathways and how they get strengthened, and what our habits, and how do we learn new things. And so even just knowing that and having that knowledge, even though it's not related necessarily to goal setting, that knowing the research of their brain is really helpful to them because then they're like, "This isn't some worthless thing that I'm tracking and trying every single day. I know what's happening in my brain when I do this."
Jacob: I can attest to how many nights this school year my daughter's come home and talked about decision-making in her brain and what's happening when she's learning. So I appreciate that certainly as a parent and a professional. Thank you. There's an element here. I'm curious, I'm gonna turn the page for a second, how important...I'll start at the younger grades, but then, Chase, we'll go to you for the broader spectrum across K-12 around making goal setting...making goals visual for kids. Amanda, we'll start with you. What does that look like for you in the primary to intermediate grades?
Amanda: In the primary to intermediate grades, we do a lot of things with visual pictures, especially when you've got a lot of English language learners in your class, things even just like color in the emoji of where you're at now, where you want to be, filling in charts and graphing their own progress on things so that they can see where they started and where they want to get to. And I think the visual is really helpful for them, especially talking about, you know, younger grades, we still have a lot of non-readers. And so without that visual, some of the stuff that we can throw at them isn't even accessible, and if I'm not giving you something that's accessible, you're definitely not gonna be successful at achieving whatever goal we're talking about.
Jacob: Chase, what's your read?
Chase: Yeah. I think that absolutely is the foundation of a data literacy practice that makes sense, you know, not just to support goal setting, but to support success in life. So, what we see in the older grades is I would say a version of that that's just a little bit more complicated and sophisticated, right? As kids grow into the older grades, they're able to keep something like a data notebook that carries their assessment results over time and allows them to interpret those results in the right way. You know, whether for better or worse, assessment results still carry a lot of power and influence in our culture in the way that parents and family members understand how students are doing in school. And so I think building these kinds of early forms of data literacy about what those scores can show and what they can't show is a real contributor to helping students own the results of their learning and be able to talk about them in ways that respect the nuance and the differences that every student brings to the table.
Jacob: Is there an element here across grade levels that also kind of plays into self-actualization, self-worth as a learner? I kind of think about the model you share, Amanda, around, you know, making a graph. In my graduate studies, Dr. Ron Beghetto, who's done a ton of work on creativity in education, tells the story of his teacher in elementary school in the best of intentions had everybody make a math race car, and they put them around the classroom. And as kids scored certain, you know, degrees or completed things on their assessments and the like, their cars moved. And it became such a demotivator for him. His little car hardly ever moved, and the class nearly lapped him. It was kind of a humorous but also kind of a poignant story of how when goal setting and/or visual cues such as these aren't...they don't achieve the results they're after, it can actually be a demotivator. I share that. I hope Dr. Ron Beghetto doesn't mind me invoking his name and his childhood trauma here in this story. But can you talk a little bit about some of the echo benefits around self-actualization that can come from goal setting done well? Open question, whoever would like to jump in.
Chase: I'm happy to. I think one of the ways that researchers think about this is the difference between what they call mastery orientation and performance orientation. So, mastery orientation is, "I learn this for myself. I learn this to get better at something to understand more about my world." Performance orientation is, "I learned this to beat someone else...be better than someone else, please someone that I wanna please in my life." And research has routinely shown over and over again that encouraging mastery orientations over performance orientations is what actually motivates students to learn more and experience more success because it doesn't have that self-defeating quality because students across the achievement spectrum can experience success by meeting their own goals and by achieving something new that they didn't learn before. So the way I'd reimagine the race car activity is, you know, imagine instead of that track modeling where students are in an achievement continuum, imagine you're monitoring when students are able to achieve their goals. And so students across the achievement spectrum are celebrated, not based on where they are relative to each other, but how well they were able to achieve relative to themselves, the kinds of growth that they were able to accomplish.
Amanda: I would say going off that too, I think your classroom community is really important aspect of that. If you build a community that understands...you know, going back to brain science, we also talk all the time in my room about how everybody's brain learns things differently. We all have different talents. We all have different areas that we're really strong in, and we have areas that are so crazy hard for us and will be crazy hard for us forever. I don't allow the word easy in my classroom ever. It gets to be a really big hot point because some of my kids like freak out if it's in a book, but it's, again, that idea that just because something's easy for me, doesn't mean it's easy for you. One of my favorite things the first time it happens is I'll always put like an algebra problem up on the board that's got like a square root in it and like fractions they haven't seen yet, and I'm like, "Okay. So go ahead and solve this." And they always freak out because they're [inaudible 00:23:42], and that's scary. And I'm like, "Well, why can't you? It's easy for me. I can solve this pretty fast. Why can't you?" And so sometimes even having that example for them. But I think taking away that idea and building a really strong community that we all learn things differently is really important with goals.
And then I also always build in the idea of consent even when it comes to sharing goals. I always ask kids before sharing something or if they want to share it themselves, and a lot of them are afraid at first. But once we've built that community that supports each other and is really open and understands that some people have difficulty with some things, I see that my kids get a lot more open and they do wanna share their goals, and they do wanna hear from their peers either support or, "Hey, I was having a lot of trouble with that too, and then I did this. Maybe you could try that because it really helped me." I think it's important to share them and have them out there, but I think there's a way to do it that still gives kids like confidence and ownership and the ability to not share if they don't want to.
Jacob: I am so glad that this conversation went this direction. You know, all season long, we've been talking about student agency, and I guess there's this underlying implicit personalized nature of it. I guess we have touched on that. We've even touched on the environment. But, Chase, you first introduced this idea of not in competition with one another, but in reference to one's self. That is extremely powerful. And then, Amanda, this idea of ownership and consent, you know, coming together so that as students become more confident in where they're at, where they're going, and the steps they're taking to get there, the agency that they're also developing to articulate that to self, to teacher, to parents, to others in the community. I just need to take a moment to pause and say that is a really powerful idea for us to be intentional, our practice around those. I'll yield for any feedback there. Am I synthesizing correctly? Anything you would add to that synthesis and the importance that I'm kind of gleaning from what you both have just shared?
Chase: I think that's right. And I feel like we can't overemphasize how valuable talking about cognitive science in the brain is in all of that. You know, it would be crazy to try to start learning how to cook cookies and not understand how sugar works. But I feel like I got all the way to graduate school before I really understood like how does the brain work. And how do you actually like interpret and synthesize information? It seems to me, you know, inherent to the process of empowering students to actually show them how do people learn things. And what are some of the ways that you might be able to pick up and synthesize this information?
Amanda: I would say even adding to that, too, sharing failures. I fail openly in front of my kids all the time and even with goals because one of the really important skills that I personally have noticed teaching is that idea of, "What do I do when I don't make it?" What do I do when I fail? How do I get back up?" And so even that like adding that into the classroom. I talk about all the time things that are really hard for me. I am not a math and science person at all, makes it really ironic that I've done so much in science so far, but that's just not how my brain works. And I think sharing that with kids and being like, "But look at all these things I can do. And even though I'm not super great at math when it gets harder, like I'm a pretty good math teacher for you guys, right?" Just things like that and showing them too, "It's okay. You're gonna be okay. You're gonna fail at things, and you're gonna pick yourself back up, and you're gonna be okay. And I'll be here to help you out and figure it out."
Jacob: I'm glad you named that, Amanda. We see that play out in, for example, the shifts in mathematics, so the shifts in ELA. We've named that before in this season even in terms of creating supportive environments wherein building student agency can take place. The resonant power of modeling, "What do we do when we don't know, or what do we do when we didn't get it right?" you know, echoed here in goal setting, I think is really poignant. It leads me to thinking...and, Chase, I was, you know, glancing at...or Chase, it leads me to think I was reading one of your blogs earlier in preparation for this podcast, and you mentioned one of the things we as educators need to do. And I'm curious the extent to which you'd extend that to students, to Amanda's point, is in goal setting, practice patience, and perseverance. Can you say more about that?
Chase: Yeah. Patience and perseverance. The first thing I would say is in reference to educators practicing that patience and perseverance, and Amanda has alluded to this, right? That's how you model that for students, right? So you show them by providing anecdotes from your own experience by letting them into your world that you will be okay if things don't work out and things don't work out right away. For students, that's obviously an acquired skill, but it's a skill that can only really be acquired through practice, right? Another one of my favorite anecdotes from teachers is a second-grade teacher who had a student who really wanted to read "Harry Potter," and, you know, surprised, surprise, he wasn't able to pick up "Harry Potter" on the first go and make his way successfully through the book. But having the opportunity to actually give it a shot and to fail gave him a perspective on what he was working towards, and it gave the teacher the opportunity to lay out for him, "What are some of the steps in reading fluency that will take you through, not just in this grade, but in the grades to come that will get you to a place where you will be able to accomplish this goal?" I think it's a great example of giving the student that long-term trajectory and then stepping it back into some of the shorter-term steps that will help them keep motivated to keep working there.
Amanda: Yeah. I would say that taste of success is really important in there like you mentioned. One of my favorite strategies I use in reading instruction is I have a lot of graphic novels that are the graphic novel version of chapter book series, so that my kids who aren't quite there yet like, "Oh, I really wanna read this "Magic Triad" book, but it's just too hard." It's like, "Well, have I got something for you because they've got it in a graphic novel form." So, even my kiddos where it's not quite accessible yet, they can look at the pictures. And even like that feeling of, "I really want to do this, and I can't quite do it yet, but I got this version of it that I can kind of do for now." That like taste of success I find really helps to encourage them to, "I'm gonna look at this book, and I'm gonna enjoy it, and I'm gonna look at the pictures, and it's gonna be great. I'm gonna keep working because this reaffirms in me. I really wanna read these books, and I'm gonna figure out what I need to do next to get there."
Jacob: I appreciate you both so much for kind of spelling these things out. I'm gonna stick with that topic for a moment because, you know, we've just been speaking about the personalized nature of goal setting, the personalized nature...all season we've been talking around building student agency deeply personal activity. I wanna ask directly, what is the role in both of your views of student choice? Amanda, you have things in the classroom you're trying to accomplish for all kids relative to the standards and the curriculum that you are teaching. Where does student choice fit in for you in this concept of, or in the practice of goal setting and building student agency? We'll start with Amanda, and then go to you, Chase.
Amanda: I have a lot of student choice in my classroom partially because my district, and I personally have really been focusing on universal design for instruction this year. I've seen kids flourish because of it, and it has really encouraged me to just keep adding it in everywhere I can. So we do a lot of activities where kids get to choose how they respond to new learning or how they want to show me their new learning, if they wanna take a video, if they want to record themselves talking, if they wanna draw it out. So we have all sorts of choices there. I allow children to pick any books from my library. I don't set them at a certain level. I don't organize my books by, you know, FMP or Lexile levels. They get to pick whatever they want because I think that it encourages them. Like we were saying, you know, if I pick something that's too hard, I'm not there yet, but I do have some strategies I can use to read that book. I can look at the pictures. I can find the words I do know. But even just being able...being given it freely and getting to pick it, that might be the thing that encourages me like, "Nope, I'm gonna really work on reading this year, and every time I have small group, I'm gonna be focused and try my hardest because I really do wanna be able to read this." I try to put student choice in anywhere I can. If I could have students pick all day what they were doing, I would.
Chase: There's so many great things I feel like we could pull out of all of those examples. The two that immediately come to mind is, you know, first of all, what I've had a couple of teachers call choice within constrain or choice in moderation, right? Oftentimes, when we have this conversation, we feel like choice is this kind of all or nothing between either we don't let students make any decisions, or we let students have this kind of free-for-all. I think what a lot of Amanda's examples illustrate is that you can set the learning framework in which students make the choice. So, Amanda has chosen the library from which students can pick whatever they want. The second piece that I think is really important there is allowing students to make meaningful choices. In a lot of activities, we kind of give students these cursory, "Well, you can be in the red group or the blue group. You can be the lions or the eagles." Research says routinely that those kind of choices don't really pay off. What pays off is choices that have meaning for students' lives, have meaning for the kinds of activities that they get to engage in, the things that they get to learn about, all of the kind of substantial decisions that are about, you know, "What is the next hour, day, week of my life gonna look like?"
Jacob: There's a lot for us as educators to sit with with both the experience and the recommendations you both have provided around student choice and really all of this. There's an element here. And full transparency. My background in this area really generates from the work of Rick Stiggins and Jan Chappuis, which builds on other work, right? We think about Roy Sadler's questions, "Where am I now? Where am I going? How will I get there?" Certainly, John Hattie has used those same questions within, you know, some of his thinking. They're everywhere, right? I am curious about how you see...to me, those seem like quintessential or foundational questions in this effort for goal setting. How do you think about those questions within the context of what we've shared so far, between student choice, between deep student ownership, and the acts of goal setting?
Chase: I wonder sometimes if some teachers have this fear that if they give away this kind of...these choices to students in meaningful ways that their role in the classroom will get lost that somehow they'll be less of an educator if students are more in charge of their learning path. And I think that couldn't be further from the truth. What I think a lot of these strategies indirectly point towards is a different kind of relationship between teachers and students, one where teachers are, you know, I like to use the phrase, directors of learning, someone who provides the expertise, the guidance, the coaching that makes sure that students are engaged in productive learning activities that are helping them achieve the standards that are helping them grow year over year and month over month, but are leaving the decisions about how that gets done increasingly in the hands of students. Now, obviously, that's gonna look different at different grade levels. It will look different at different developmental levels for students. But that is ultimately what we're striving towards. We're striving towards a world where a student can be given the objective and the general parameters and really set for themselves the path of how they're gonna accomplish the learning to get there.
Amanda: Yeah. And I think, too, the biggest thing I think it communicates to kids, especially our younger kids, is you matter. It doesn't matter if you were 7, if you were 8, if you were 18. You have incredible thoughts in your brain, and you have incredible ideas of how to do things. And it matters, and I wanna hear it. And it doesn't matter if it matches what my thought was because it's not mine, it's yours. And so giving kids that choice and that agency in the classroom teaches them, "I matter. I'm smart. I think about things differently than other people do, and I get to share that and learn how to share that." And like they just get so excited.
Chase: That choice to participate, to engage in class ultimately belongs to students no matter what a teacher does, right? It is ultimately up to the kid whether or not they're going to come into a learning experience. And so I think as an educator, you have the choice to be open and inviting to students engaging in that process or to be closed off to it. And that open inviting strategy is always going to bring more kids to the table of learning.
Jacob: I love that. It makes me think for a moment...sorry. I love that, and it makes me wanna pause for just a second and say to two people that, you know, no goal setting deeply with students. There's a lot here for those that are new to goal setting that this may sound a little uncomfortable for my practice, right? So, I guess my question to both of you is for those that are new to goal setting in a student ownership way, not "Here's where I need you to be. Here's where you are," but really introducing these ideas of choice and agency, what advice do you have on the right places to start? And I'll ask you to wear a hat. Amanda, your hat is obviously the elementary level. Chase, I'll ask you to take the middle secondary level on where to start, even though there may be commonalities, I recognize that. But Amanda, do you mind if we start with you?
Amanda: Yeah. One of my favorite places to start is usually with behavior goals for my entire class just because I think that is the thing, and it is the least abstract concept when it comes to younger kids because they know what their behavior is, and they can tell you what they were doing, what they were thinking when they did it, what they wanted, why they did it. And so I think it's a really easy place to start, and it's a place that your entire class can start together because we all have things that we can work on. We all have things that we can practice, and none of us are perfect. And so I really like to start there. I do whole brain teaching, and I use the super improver wall, and behavior is always where I start with goal setting with my kids just because I think it's a really great way at the beginning of the year to introduce routines as well and what my expectations are in our classroom. But like I said, it's very base level. Everyone can participate in it. Everyone can set some kind of goal and set a goal that they can see improvement. And I think that's a really easy way to start it off, too, that is not overwhelming to educators who are trying to also get test scores and figure out their, you know, curriculum and their content coming up.
Jacob: I would imagine that also as the echo benefit of reinforcing the kind of community you need in the classroom, right, the direct connection from self to community of, "If I behave this way or, you know, reach this level, then our whole community works better." Is that a fair assessment as well?
Amanda: Absolutely. It opens up so many conversations, whether it's, you know, how is what you're doing right now affecting the people around you? Do you think you're helping their learning, or are you hurting their learning right now? Is that okay? But also can open up conversations of, "If I see a friend is having a really hard day, how can I help them? What are things that I can say? And how can I say it without being like sounding bossy or sounding mean?" There's just so many really good conversations and really helpful social-emotional conversations that can come from those goals.
Jacob: I believe we talked about that recently in our parent-teacher conference, right? How this kind of thinking and goal setting helped my daughter, right, kind of work in community in her table with her peers. So I appreciate that. Let me just say as a parent, Amanda, thank you for your work there. Chase, to you, and again, I asked you to wear the middle secondary lens, but again, feel free to go global. What advice do you have on where to start in goal setting?
Chase: Yeah. I think, you know, at the secondary level two really important things are happening at the same time. Number one, kids are starting to develop a much stronger sense of their own identity. They're starting to make that future orientation, you know, not just, "This is what I wanna do as a profession. This is the kind of school I wanna go to. But also what kind of values do I wanna have? Do I wanna be a leader? Do I wanna be the kind of person who advocates for my community?" The other thing that happens is they start to openly question a little bit more why what they're learning in school matters. You start to get questions about, "Why do I have to bother studying the French Revolution? What is this gonna mean for my life?" I think a great place to start with goal setting at that age level is starting to connect those two things. So having open and honest conversations with students about the kind of person that they wanna be, the kinds of things they wanna achieve. And then helping them understand the connections between the short-term learning objectives of that day's lesson or that unit and those broader ambitions. Again, not just focused on, "What kind of career do I wanna have? What kind of school do I wanna go to? But what kind of person is this learning gonna empower me to be? And how can I connect this learning to some of the resources that I wanna draw on as I become an adult?"
Jacob: Chase, I'd like to turn to you for a moment. I mentioned in the introduction you have a book coming out soon on student agency to the point of the questions, you know, I just asked from Sadler to Stiggins and Chappuis to Hattie. I know Hattie has named your book as the go-to book for goal setting. So I'd be remiss if I didn't pause for a moment and have you talk to us a little bit about your book. If I'm interested in goal setting, what is covered there? What are some things you would share with our listeners about step into goal setting?
Chase: One of the things that I'm really passionate about is helping to translate research into practice. And I think one of the things that can be scary about research for teachers sometimes is the feeling that in order to reap all of the benefits of an effective instructional practice, they have to follow a study to the letter and do the interventions described there in exactly the way they described. And if they vary from it any little way, they're not going to experience the same benefits for kids, or even worse, they might hurt kids. So, one of the things that I really try to focus on in the book is bring to bear all of this research that we now have in the area of goal setting in student agency, in neuroscience, in cognition, and try to extract the meaningful lessons from it, not to be overly rigid and say that this is the way that you must perform goal setting, but here are some general principles. They're principles that are echoed across multiple strands of research in multiple ways. They're principles that I heard echoed back to me in the several conversations with teachers that I had to form the basis of the book. And here are a couple of examples of ways that you might apply that principle in your own classroom.
One of the great things that I think we've heard from Amanda today is just how personal and unique a goal-setting practice can be, and ultimately, the most effective practice is going to be one that's authentic, that's tied to your experience as an educator, that's tied to your personal teaching style, that's tied to your personality, that's fun because it's injected with who you are. So my hope with the book is to provide the tools and the references necessary to understand the principles that that should include, and then also provide an invitation for you to really make it your own, to draw in the aspects of your existing practice that will really help support making goal setting, not just this other add-on, this other thing that I have to do, but part and parcel of the day-to-day classroom experience.
Jacob: That's outstanding. And, of course, I've been able to read it already, but I look forward to our listeners to be able to engage with it as well. Amanda, i'll turn the table a little bit and provide you a chance. What questions about goal setting would you have for Chase?
Amanda: Oh, my goodness, I'm so excited about goal setting that you asked me that, and I'm just got like 100 that popped into my head all like one time. I think my biggest question would be, do you think that there is a better way to be able to convey to kids goal-setting in their brain? How do we talk about it more so than just...? You know, like I said, we talk about the neural pathways, but goal-setting isn't necessarily a habit. Not all goals are habits. So is there a better way may be to explain to them what's going on in a way that they can then use?
Chase: It's a really fascinating question that I will try to answer as best I can. There's a new frontier here of research, I think, that hasn't been conducted yet that would tell us exactly how this process plays out in the brain and how exactly our brain interacts with goals. I'll tell you one analogy that I think is really accessible to folks now is talking about fitness goals. So, you know, everybody's got access now to these Fitbits, and Apple watches, and all of these accessories for tracking their steps. One of the things I learned in doing the research for the book is that this idea that everyone should get 10,000 steps is a myth, and it was a myth that was used to sell pedometers in Japan in the '70s because the Japanese kanji [SP] symbol for 10,000 looks like a man walking. It really doesn't have any stronger scientific foundation than that. What researchers are now finding is, you know, not surprisingly, the amount of steps that a person should take varies from person to person based on their age and their health and all those other factors. I think that's a way of talking to students about something that's familiar in their life and then also making that connection back to their brain to say, you know, "You are starting from a different place than all of the other students in this room than all of the other students in this school. And as a result, you know, the kind of thing that will lead you to progress is probably gonna look different than your friend sitting next to you. And that's okay. What's important is helping to make the process and build that muscle over time so that you've got the experience that will help you be successful with not just this specific goal in this week, but the goals that you set throughout the rest of your life." I don't know if that's helpful or not.
Amanda: No, it's so helpful. I'm already thinking about how we're gonna talk about it tomorrow.
Jacob: That's great. I love the 10,000 step myth. That's wonderful. We're gonna continue with pepper the researcher. So, Amanda, I'll take...I was a high school math teacher. So I'm going to think of my question while you think of your next one for Chase. But Chase, you referenced earlier that kids ultimately get to make the decision whether they engage or not in the classroom. We have these moments in teaching that interactions with kids, be they the agony or the ecstasy of a particular learning experience, they stick with you. And I remember a student who I cared about, smart kid, great kid, but at this stage in his high school career, he gave up. And I saw the moment he gave up. It haunts me, frankly. And so my question for you is how do I engage in goal setting with a kid that doesn't want to engage, or God forbid, a kid that seems to have given up on themselves?
Chase: So I'm gonna make a confession here. This may come as a shock to you. I hope you're prepared for it. You know, I was a fairly good student. I've got a certain number of years in school, but there were days that I did not wanna go to school. There may even have been days where I pretended to be sick not to go to school. Those experiences hopefully are a source of empathy that I can draw upon to say there is a difference between motivation for schooling and motivation for learning. And there are certainly aspects of the way that we do school that don't always draw out the motivations of learners. So my approach for thinking about that student is not to make that confusion to believe ultimately as I know all of us do that every student has a desire to learn something. Every student is aspiring towards something. And the trick is not how to move a student from not aspiring to aspiring. The trick is to understand what is it that makes them tick. What is it that is motivating them into the next stage of their life? And how can you talk about academic content in a way that helps them understand the link between those two things?
Jacob: To you in a second, Amanda, just one more question as we stick with this kind of high school frame, which is different obviously than elementary. As a high school math teacher, you know, some classes I'd have 35 to 40 kids in a class. I would have well over 100 kids in a day. How do you recommend, Chase, that as that census of kids, as the number of kids I'm working with daily grows, how can I make goal-setting manageable in that environment?
Chase: It's a great question, and it brings us back to this notion we were talking about earlier, I think, of educators as managers of learning. You know, throughout these series, you've talked about the benefits of student agency for students, for their learning, for their self-image, for their ability to self-actualize. I think student agency is beneficial for teachers as well, and one of the ways that it's beneficial for teachers is cutting down on some of the busywork. I would say the more that students are in charge of setting their own path, making their own decisions, setting their own goals within the, you know, constraints that you've articulated, the less time that teachers spend filling out worksheets for students, trying to track data on behalf of students, doing all of those little things that make the prospect of a process like this unmanageable for a very large class size. The more of that work that you can turn over to individual students, the more it will not only give them agency, but give you the opportunity to step back, take a breath, and actually see the forest for the trees.
Jacob: Oh, wow, I appreciate that. Quick follow-up, do you think that this becomes a stepping stone to the concept of student-led conferencing?
Chase: Absolutely. Student-led conferencing or three-way conferencing as it's sometimes called involving students' parents and teachers is a big part of that. As a kind of example in a bottle, imagine the conference process. It can be overwhelming for teachers to try to plan out the points that they're gonna discuss in conferences with 50 or 60 groups of parents. If students are tasked with the responsibility of setting the agenda for their student-teacher conference, teachers move into a stance where they're more of the reviewer, the feedback provider, the source of additional information. That takes away a considerable amount of the burden from what is ordinarily a pretty cumbersome process.
Jacob: It seems to also kind of play into this notion of transitioning the teacher from transmissional to guiding, right, guiding the process, and that's powerful. Great. Amanda, do you have another question for Chase?
Amanda: I do have another one I thought of. I was thinking about my students, especially my students who receive a lot of services, whether that might be special education services, speech services, things like that, my kids that have goals thrown at them all the time. You know, they have a goal for this and a goal for that. They are very aware of what they are because either their teachers are talking with them, or they have to sit through meetings where those goals are discussed. What are some other like authentic ways that I can present goals to those kids still but not in a way that's gonna get them so burnt out when they have so many goals that they might not even have ownership in that are already being thrown at them?
Chase: Yeah. It's a great question and one that if we were going to design an educational system from scratch, we might rethink some of this kind of shared terminology so that we weren't confusing kids so much. I think one of the ways to play it is to, again, talk about your own personal experience and the world in which you work. So, we all have, for better or worse, a combination of goals or targets we're meant to achieve that are our decision, and some that aren't our decision. We also have a mix of those goals that are long-term and those goals that are short-term. And so I think there's an opportunity with all kinds of students but especially students who have IEPs or who have other kind of long-term formalized goals to talk about some of those differences, to talk about the difference between a long-term learning target and the shorter-term question of, "What am I gonna go after this week or this month?" And, you know, certainly, don't sugarcoat it. Don't mislead them into thinking that those goals or those targets aren't important because they are very important. They're a part of life for all of us. But to build that student agency in the short-term so that they can see that it is possible to both accomplish the goals that have been set out for them and recognize some of the benefits of going down that process for the things that they wanna accomplish for the kind of person that they wanna be.
Jacob: What a beautiful notion. I wanna thank you both for this conversation. This has been truly enlightening, and I think there's no better topic to end a season focused on student agency. We think about this concept of building lifelong learners, and you both have provided such great insights in how to help students develop the skills, the agency, the efficacy to make lifelong learning an intentional act, right? Not an accidental lifelong learning, learning hard lessons again and again but setting goals, setting aspirations, be it to your point, Amanda, at maybe the introductory levels, behavioral to academic, and the echo benefits that provides for us beyond. One more comment from each of you before we wrap? Amanda, something you would leave with our listeners today as they engage in goal-setting practice in their classrooms?
Amanda: I would just encourage you to be really authentic with your kids. Talk about how you set goals in your life. Talk about where those goals have been wrong. But also, too, when we talk about authenticity, thinking about giving kids the power and the knowledge to understand what they're doing and making sure that they understand that first, and not just focusing on the goals, and the end product, and we gotta get there. Let them know why. Show them the why.
Jacob: Thank you, Amanda. Chase?
Chase: I'd say alongside that, start with little steps. Every little effort that you make in helping students set goals about something, whether it's their behavior, whether it's academics, whether it's something else as part of building that culture of learning is the first piece of influencing how students think about what they wanna learn, what kinds of learning are important, and the toolset that they're building to help get them there.
Jacob: I love it. Thank you both for taking the time to join us today on the "Continuing Educator." Your insights, your voice is absolutely critical to what we're trying to do here. And thank you for listening to the "Continuing Educator." It's been a great season. We hope that we've provided a lot of ideas to inform your practice and to improve the teaching and learning in your classrooms. To all of our listeners, thank you. We hope you've enjoyed this season. We'll have news on our next season soon, but until then, follow NWEA on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn. Follow our blog, "Teach, Learn, Grow" for more valuable professional learning insights. If you'd like to talk with us about student agencies specifically or any other teaching and learning ideas, needs, etc., related to professional learning or perhaps not, get in touch with us for a session at your school, your district, or just a formative conversation. Please reach out to your NWEA representative. If you don't have one, please reach out to me, Jacob Bruno at jacob.bruno, B-R-U-N-O, @nwea.org.