Building Agency Via Effective Goal Setting

January 3, 2017

Alix Horton, NTN Literacy Coach

Here come the resolutions! It’s that time of year when everyone’s thinking about what they’d like to achieve in the next year.  And it’s also when we ask students to set goals for the next grading period or semester. And it might be the time when you’re considering what you’d like to accomplish as a teacher as well.

Unfortunately, the typical practice of goal setting or making resolutions can actually be counterproductive. Setting a goal and visualizing accomplishing it can make us feel at a subconscious level as if we’ve achieved the goal already- reducing the amount of effort and learning we’ll do to achieve that goal.  And goal setting is pointless if students (or teachers) don’t believe they can get better or don’t have the skills to manage their learning over time.  At New Tech Network, we call having the tools and techniques necessary to improve and maintaining a growth mindset having agency (check out a great agency rubric here). Goal setting isn’t helpful if it doesn’t build agency.

What’s a teacher to do? Give up on goals altogether? Fortunately, there are two simple tweaks to the goal setting process that will help you and your students activate, rather than deter, the development of agency.


First, I’d encourage you to start with having students reflect on a time when they have worked hard and did learn something in the previous semester. The more concrete you can make this, the better- whether that’s having students reread writing they did 4 months ago and compare it to their writing now, or asking them to look at their rubric score from their first versus most recent project. This is a way to do what I call “catching kids growing,” and I think it’s an essential step in activating growth mindset. I say that because we as educators (and I include myself in this) tend to teach kids about growth mindset, but that’s only a start- especially if students believe we are teaching them about growth mindset just to get them to do more work. “Catching kids growing” provides students direct evidence of growth mindset in action.

Second, I’d recommend using “WOOP” (or a similar) goal setting process. WOOP stands for wish (goal), outcome (what achieving the goal will mean), obstacles (to achieving the wish), and plan (for overcoming those obstacles). WOOP goal setting uses mental contrasting, a process whereby the person setting the goal imagines possible obstacles to achieving the goal, and how to overcome those obstacles. It’s been proven to be a more effective way to set goals; I think because it’s an agency activating process. First, it acknowledges that achieving the goal won’t be easy- it won’t just magically happen as a result of setting the goal or some intrinsic strength or skill.  At the same time, it suggests that achieving the goal is possible- it will just take work. It also builds students’ learning management skills, as they consider where they might struggle and what they might do as a result.

Goal setting can be a really valuable process- if we do it in such a way that it supports, rather than inhibits, the growth of agency.

Read more from Alix at Literacy for Living.

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