Beyond Goals | Scrapping Goals in a Complex, Fast-changing Environment

Lately I've been getting obsessed with Carol Dweck's Growth Mindset work. Not just reading the cool infographics that come out about Fixed vs Growth Mindsets on Twitter and then saying "yeah, hell yeah, I am growth mindset" and then moving on. I'm really reading in depth about this and seriously critiquing my own mindset in different parts of my life. Then, to avoid having to change stuff in my personal life, I promptly shift my thinking to my professional life and consider how school leaders and teachers can be supported to develop Growth Mindsets in themselves and their kids at school. I refer to Dweck's work a lot as I work with clusters that aim to become more future focused about their vision and practices.

Alongside this I've been getting obsessed with Guy Claxton's work. Exploratories! Powerful learners! Get Learning Fit! The importance of resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness and reciprocity in developing our minds to learn. The Learning Power Palette (Claxton, 2002, p. 68) designed with the future in mind with technological innovations changing the way we work, live and play. This and lots of other drivers within and aligned to this thinking all tells us that we need to think very differently about the way we teach and learn. To see more about the drivers and ideas, take a look at my presentation slides here from the recent CPPA Breakfast Session. I've also blogged before about being future focused - there is so much to think about in this space and I encourage clusters to create their own definitions of future focused education from all of the thinking and research available.

The two paragraphs above are where my brain is at. I get led there and all over the place by the work I do with clusters of schools and services. Their thinking pushes mine and my thinking pushes theirs in a wonderfully brainfrying reciprocal way.

Now for the title of this post...

A few of the clusters I work with have been developing their vision and goals for a year or so. Slow hard work that requires a lot of back and forth between deep thinking and playing with ideas and inviting the perspectives of cluster participants from leaders to learners, whānau/family and community. When we developed the thinking about strengths, priorities, needs, visions and goals, we started to get into a messy space. We already knew that education is fast-paced, changing and complex, but at times we were talking about these things called "goals" that felt cumbersome, slow, restrictive and just plain wrong. Kathryn O'Connell-Sutherland, one of the ECE leaders in one of the clusters I work with suggested I read a book called Beyond Goals by Susan David, David Clutterbuck and David Megginson (2013). So I did! It made sense of our situation immediately and here are the key points to explain that:

“the essential weakness of all goal setting endeavours is the attempt to impose closed systems thinking on an open systems reality...The limitations of such efforts at achieving control is that they cannot succeed in any long-term way with an open system reality, which is complex, non-linear, interconnected and ultimately  unpredictable” (Taleb, 2007 in David, et. al., p. 193, 2013).

This quote above aligns nicely with Dweck's work where she talks about learning goals rather than performance goals (Dweck et. al. 1988). Suddenly, as a cluster we had permission to stop talking about goals and to keep talking about beliefs, vision while moving straight into what that looks like in practice. 
In setting goals we can end up with the issue where specificity can underestimate changeability and complexity. It might be a good idea to explore setting “fuzzy goals” instead. Fuzzy goals identify areas of "significance for the person [or cluster] rather than a precise description of what it might actually mean." (David et. al., 2013, p. 196).

In shifting away from specific goals, the cluster can focus more on supporting others to help to set the vision and to cope with change through developing resilience, persistence and creative problem solving. Again, nice links to Claxton here.

David et. al., state that goal setting is more likely to induce conservatism and uncreative thinking. They also advise that if you do set goals, they should be motivators - always subordinate to and in service of the greater complex reality allowing us to consider purpose and values. If you'd been where we have been in the cluster work, your shoulders would now visibly relax! This evidence aligned with our experiences and we could start to let go of the pressure we felt from ourselves and others to set specific goals.

This post is getting too long but you're probably getting the gist of what I'm sharing here. I'll leave you with some thinking from two quadrants in the Beyond Goals book (can't put them here for copyright reasons). One related to long-term goal setting and the other to short-term goal setting. The only quadrant where specificity is recommended in goal setting (SMART goals) is in slowly changing environments with simple problems to solve. Therefore, nowhere in schools, services or clusters in education!

As always, I welcome your comments as none of this is fixed thinking. Always open to shifting my thoughts!!

Guy Claxton and I during his recent visit to Aotearoa


Claxton, G. (2002). Building Learning Power: helping young people become better learners. TLO Ltd: Bristol.

David, S., Clutterbuck, D., Megginson, D. (2013). Beyond Goals: Effective Strategies for Coaching and Mentoring. Gower Publishing Ltd: Surrey, England.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. Ballantine Books