Where would we be in a society without goals? Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t set the goal of civil and economic rights for African Americans in America? Or if John F. Kennedy hadn’t set the goal of putting a man on the moon? Presidents, athletes, artists, activists, students - all of us need a roadmap to set us on our course to achieve our desires and ambitions. Although not all of these ambitions will ultimately be met, and not all of our desires can possibly be sated, the very act of setting goals allows us to develop a sense of agency, commitment, and motivation, which eventually leads to success both in school and in life.
For young students in particular, the stressors of school combined with the strains of a social life, can make self-development difficult. In fact, it takes many years to feel decisive in our actions and confident in our selves, but when we begin to identify and set goals for ourselves at an early age, we start to develop agency. When a young person develops agency, they are also developing maturity, persistence, and even creativity. Because goal-setting takes self-reflection, when we identify those personalized goals, we defacto identify our weaknesses, and can start on the path of self-improvement. The seemingly simple act of self-reflection can give a young person the empowerment that is often lacking in the other areas of their life. Empowerment can lead to more involvement in class discussions, a greater investment in risk-taking and creativity, and an increased perseverance in subjects such as language learning and math.
The dread of not accomplishing one’s goals convinces many people, adults and children alike, not to set them at all. However, the goal-setting process itself can positively correlate with commitment and thus, achievement. When we set action plans for ourselves, even if the steps are as simple as making our bed in the morning or adding three new words to our vocabulary every day, we are practicing self-regulation. When we commit to these self-imposed tasks, we are more likely to regulate our behavior to achieve our ultimate goals: to be neater or learn Spanish. Setting goals through a written, personalized action plan of small, yet achievable tasks, leads to a greater chance of commitment, which leads to an increased sense of competence and pride. This, in turn, encourages students to set more goals for themselves and eventually leads to a goal-oriented mindset. Ultimately, the metacognitive practice of self-regulation allows for students to internalize their goals and achievements over time and provides motivation in their learning and professional trajectories.
It does not take a great deal of scientific data to convince one that motivation is a huge factor in achieving success. But motivation is hard to come by; when a student has convinced him or herself that she/he is not adept in a particular subject or at a particular skill, that feeling of self-deprecation can itself destroy motivation. Studies have shown, however, that when students set clear, written goals for themselves that are particularly concrete and attainable, they are more likely to develop the motivation that leads to greater success. Specificity is key; when a student has a meaningful engagement with the task or objective, and can identify how and when they are going to accomplish it, they are more likely to be motivated to do so. As motivation increases, performance also improves; specific goal-setting provides for students a structure for organization, prioritization and determination, three important ingredients for long-term success.
Whether we acknowledge them or not, we all have goals. My goal for tomorrow may simply be to partake in more exercise, while my future goal may be to speak fluent Mandarin. The first step in achieving either of those goals is to write them down and to then create a plan of action to achieve them. While both are possible, we must learn to set goals effectively, within a realistic and temporal scope. Eventually, I may be able to achieve both my micro and macro goal, but that begins with self-reflection, commitment and motivation. As Einstein once said, “The value of achievement lies in the achieving.”