Is it Better to Encourage Students, Teachers, Policymakers, & Innovators to Set Small or Grand Goals?

“If you are thinking of solving a problem that you can solve in your lifetime, you are thinking too small.” – Wes Jackson (Land Institute, World Future Council, and lost of other stuff)

Nearing thirty years after the fact, I vividly recall a debate with my high school social studies teacher (John Shimkus, who is now a US congressman from the Illinois). I remember many conversations with him, and continue to be grateful for his willingness to diverge from what some might consider standard teaching practice at the time: student input on co-creating an ancient history course with a student teacher, his willingness to deviate enough to tell fascinating stories about his training exercises on the way to becoming an Army Ranger, allowing me to pursue a wonderfully engaging research project entitled “Did Hitler Meet the Clinical Criteria for Insanity?”, teaching fascinating military strategy as part of our history units on the world wars (what do you expect from a West Point graduate?), and much more. Just as important to my learning was how I often felt like he treated me and others as peers in the marketplace of ideas. As such, there was one particular day when we debated about the proper use and role of goals in life.

He contended that goals are best broken up into small, achievable, sub-goals. They should be challenging, but achievable. Your success in one goal will motivate you to take on the next goal, eventually leading to mastery of something otherwise too overwhelming to take on in the first place. I accepted the logic behind his thinking, but this was long before I started reading about and studying books and research on motivation and goal-setting. As such, I mostly spoke from personal preference and experience. Small goals didn’t motivate me, I explained. In my experience, I needed to start with a grand vision and goal, something that might seem entirely impossible to others. I needed a moonshot. Then, and only then, I could start thinking about the steps to making that vision a reality (which might, of course, include smaller goals). I remember articulating my idea this way. “I want to shoot for the stars. I might reach them. I might not. Even if I ultimately fail, if I set that grand of a goal, I’m far more likely to do something truly remarkable along the way.”

Thinking back on the debate, I didn’t actually disagree with Mr. Shimkus. It just wasn’t inspiring enough for me. I am and have always been addicted to meaning, purpose, and impact…but in a sometimes undisciplined way. And in full disclosure, my position represented a character trait that I carry with me to this day (even though I acknowledge its significant dark side). Namely, I take on too much. I fail at more things than I succeed. I lean on the inspiration of a grand dream, vision, or goal to inspired me toward the discipline and work needed to make it happen. I also get drawn into and distracted by too many grand goals. Along the way, I learn more than I ever imagined and find this approach taking me to incredible places (literally and figuratively).

This brings me to the opening quote from Wes Jackson. “If you are thinking of solving a problem that you can solve in your lifetime, you are thinking too small.” I treat this as a proverbial truth, not an absolute one. I’m sure that Wes Jackson has set out to solve small problems in his life and work, and that he has achieved many of them. Yet, the proverbial truth in such a quote is that there is something powerful and compelling about taking on massive and seemingly insurmountable problems. In fact, the nature of problems in our modern world begs for us to set goals bigger than what we might think achievable in a single lifetime. Such goals move many of us in ways that do not happen if we settle for that which is merely achievable in a 60 to 80 year timeframe.

Part of what intrigues me about this mindset is that it demands that we think beyond ourselves. It is not just my personal quest. It calls for a broader view and good, solid, systems thinking. This is often a collective quest, greater than a single person. It calls for a legion, or maybe a tribe, to make significant progress.

Not everyone thinks this way. I know many who are not as inspired by the larger-than-life quest. They are more interested in the present-day experience or smaller-scale goals. In fact, I see ample wisdom in that, and have even embraced it in some areas of my life. Jacques Ellul is likely the original source of the well-known quote, “Think globally. Act locally.” It is about being inspired by a global vision for good, but then it draws us to think about how we can each contribute to that global good by doing something positive in our own family, local community, or other sphere of influence.

Yet, some people do not seem to need the global thinking at all to find motivation, meaning, and ultimately fulfillment. They play their role. They build meaningful relationships. They develop character that is important to them. Maybe they articulate it as having their small contribution to a better world or benefiting others. Maybe they don’t.

There are undoubtedly benefits and limitations to these different ways of thinking and living, and we can become quite passionate in defending our particular take on the subject. No matter where one ends up, however, this topic has important implications for education. Any attempt to convince every learner to set goals so big that they can’t be achieved in a lifetime is a setup for disappointment. The same is true for the one who drives us to focus our attention on the present, small, achievable goals. It will work for some and not for others. There is more wisdom in finding ways to honor and celebrate the benefits of both approaches, along with a few more that I’ve not even thought to include. Yet, there are some cautions and suggestions that I offer along the way, especially for those educational innovators and policymakers in the crowd.

  1. Beware of :thinking big” shortcuts. That is how we end up with ill-informed policies and practices forced upon others, usually with unwanted and unexpected consequences.
  2. Beware of “small thinking” nativity and addiction to keeping everything simple. Simple is good, but what we do impacts others. Even the most pragmatic and here-and-now minded person can benefit from a crash course on systems thinking, because what we do locally can and will have a global impact.
  3. Your local effort can and will have a larger impact, even if you do not want or expect it to do so. This is especially true in education. The law of compounding interest applies, I contend, to the impact of any educational innovation or experiment that involves more than a couple learners. What you do will have consequences, some of what will be favorable, and some will be hard (or impossible) to predict.
  4. Beware of demonizing the other perspectives. If you are a big picture person, learn to use it, but there is no need to contend that everyone must become like you. The same is true for the pragmatist or realist who is tempted to judge the big picture thinkers as do-little dreamers or egomaniacs. Instead, consider how we can learn from one another, celebrate the benefits of each, and discover the value of supporting and maybe even working with one another.
  5. If you are a big picture thinker, invest time in learning about systems thinking and strategic planning. It will amplify your impact.
  6. Learn to appreciate the less efficient pathway from one destination to another, from one goal to another. The serendipitous has its place for many journeys in life.

Set small goals. Set goals that are larger than life…your life. Forget about goals altogether and just focus upon cultivating values and experiences that are important to you. A robust educational ecosystem will have room for these and many other approaches among learners.

Do I crave student praise and affirmation more than I crave student growth and development?

Young people are not the only ones who want to be recognized, praised, and celebrated. We can seek that as teachers as well. We want students and parents to value us, to talk about the difference that we are making. This likely comes from a place of wanting to know that we are investing ourselves in something important, something that makes a difference. Yet, if we are honest, is this really the difference that we want to make? Or, is the real difference, transformation, and growth in the young people? Having a good and positive relationship is important, but the most rewarding moments in teaching come from students losing sight of us as teachers, getting adsorbed in what they are studying, reading, learning, and creating. They gain confidence. They become more capable of doing things on their own. They need us less, and we can stand back, proud of their accomplishment and excited for what comes next for them. It is not about us.

When my daughter was twelve, she started to write fan fiction. I had not read her writing for several months. When she shared the beginnings of what she hoped to eventually become an book-length manuscript, I almost cried. It was not perfect, but it was good. Instead of writing that the girl’s hair was wet, she wrote about the girl sitting on the bench, her hair sticking to her jeans in the rain. Immediately, it conjured this image of a girl leaning over, trying to protect herself from the rain. I did not help her. My wife did not help her. She did this herself, and I could not be happier. My daughter does not attribute her growing writing ability to a teacher or parents. It is not that she is ungrateful, but none of this is about praise of some great writing teacher. It is about her growth and development. She wants to tell stories the inspire people, that gives them joy, the stirs their imagination. She is ready for the sometimes harsh feedback of the fan faction community, because she wants to improve the story, and she understands that this community, also interested in writing, is able to help her do that.

When I first imagined being a teacher, I had this dream of being some sort of sage-like figure that students admired. Students loved to gather around as I shared proverbs, stories, and offered life-changing illustrations. Yet, very little of these early musings had much to do with what students learned. It was all about me. When I started teaching, I measured the success of the day by how affirmed I felt, not by how much the students were learning, their engagement, or any other sort of student-centered subject.

I still get caught up in that at times, but I now believe that what happens inside of students is the more important part. That is why I appreciate the idea of a teacher as “guide.” Imagine a tour guide who made the entire tour about himself. He wowed and entertained people, but they never really experienced that which they were touring. The guide became a distraction more than one who pointed people to the good stuff. I contend that the same thing can and does happen in classrooms all over the world.

There is nothing wrong with people respecting or admiring a teacher, but I’m more convinced than ever that teachers motivated primarily by praise and affirmation will rarely have the impact of teachers who have the self-confidence to make student learning the true focus.


7 Reasons Why the Best Education Books Are Rarely the Bestsellers

The more I scan the Amazon bestsellers in the education section as well as some of the other major lists, the more I come to believe that the best education books are rarely bestsellers. There are exceptions to this. Some incredible books about education absolutely become bestsellers, and that is encouraging. However, they do so despite some of the trends, not because of them. Here are seven reasons why.

Bestsellers tend to stretch but not break the system.

We want to be stretched, but only so far. If there is a central truth that risks disrupting the system altogether, we would usually rather ignore it. Exceptions are often education books that get a readership outside the normal audience. They are books that connect with and reach a group that knows or lives the brokenness of the system. I put books like Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in this category.

Bestsellers keep it concrete.

Even though some of the most important issues call for an examination of the theoretical and philosophical, many of us would rather settle for a simple 10-step guide or at least something straightforward and concrete. The issue might be complex, but we still want and hope for a simple solution. In the absense of that, we will settle for a reciple. There are exceptions, books that draw from theory and reserach to highlight a very practical and lived experience, but those are also the books where the authors come back in five to ten years to talk about all the ways that educators are misusing or misunderstanding their intentions. We see that with Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind as well as Dweck’s Mindset.

Bestsellers use or create buzz words.

We love buzz words in education, and we buy the books that use the latest ones. In fact, it sometimes seems like a recipe for success is choose a few buzz words, add some inspirational stories, include a list of tips, and you have a bestseller.

Bestsellers are about the celebrity educator as much as what they wrote.

There are many wonderful exceptions to this, but oftentimes it is just a matter of people who have a great following, they write a people, and those followers take if from there.

Bestsellers bow to the sacred cows.

There are some things that you can challenge in education and others that you cannot. There is only so much openness to full and candid discourse. Any challenge to certain existing power structures will immediately put you on the “do not buy” list, although this sometimes works out too. When there are enough people outside of the system who resonate, that can be enough to start a movement.

Bestsellers do not bother with too much research.

Again, I am thankful that there are some great exceptions to this, but many of us in education do not want to bother with the hard stuff. We are all about following your instincts even if the research, sometimes even when the research, indicates otherwise.

Bestsellers get their by great marketing.

There are wonderful education books that do not release through top publishers with larger budgets, or they are not written by well-known personalities who have a large pre-existing audience. As such, they just don’t reach a large audience. That does not mean, however, that they couldn’t reach a larger audience with the right marketing strategy.

I realize that these are broad generalizations and, like I mentioned at the beginning of the article, there are some encouraging and wonderful exceptions to this. However, that is not my main reason for writing this. Instead, I write this article because I have been incredibly blessed to discover lesser known education books that have changed the way that I think about teaching, learning, and education as a whole. Some of them were bestsellers of a different era. Others never reached large audience. That doesn’t take anything away from the fact that they are insightful, even important, books about education. As such, I invite others to join me in doing the extra work to seek out books that might not be praised at education conferences, highlighted in bestseller lists, promoted among colleagues, or even known by others. The majority is sometimes wrong, maybe even the majority of the time. How will this influence your reading habits?