It is very common for schools to use S.M.A.R.T. goals to help students develop self-directedness and improve their academic performance. This practice is not only in line with the student-centeredness that is one of the main characteristics of modern education, but also based on theories and professional practices that have been widely accepted for decades in many different fields and industries.
Yet, many educators would admit that, as important as they think that goals-setting is, and as much as they believe that students need a scaffold such as the S.M.A.R.T. framework to set effective goals, the reality is that S.M.A.R.T. goals-setting does not really work in their school: students go through the motions of the exercise because they have to, not because it is meaningful to them, quickly filling out with superficial answers a form that will never be looked at again until it is time to “reflect” and evaluate their progress--another artificial exercise that is little more than a useless bureaucratic requirement.
Such bad experiences are so common, it might be time to ask: does the problem lie in those particular implementations, or is the S.M.A.R.T. goals framework itself to blame? And if so, how can it be improved or replaced? Some might object that S.M.A.R.T. goals can work, as they have seen in individual classes or homerooms. While this is certainly true, those successes are likely attributable to exceptional educators who manage to make the exercise successful despite its inherent limitations. To understand these limitations, we first need to briefly remind ourselves what S.M.A.R.T. goals are.
Back in 1968, Edwin Locke theorized that, to improve performance, goals-setting needed to meet the following requirements:
Then, in 1981, George Doran proposed the now famous “S.M.A.R.T.” acronym. To be effective, goals should be:
One might have noticed an important difference with the acronym as it is commonly used today:
The important difference is that S.M.A.R.T. goals originally had to be “assignable”, while they now have to be “accessible.” Rather, since “accessible” in the current acronym is little different from “realistic” in the original one, “assignable” has really been replaced with “relevant.” The explanation is quite simple. As is obvious from the title of his 1981 article, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives,” Doran designed this framework from the point of view of a manager assigning goals to his team. S.M.A.R.T. was never supposed to help people set their own goals--something that is so hard for most students and which explains why S.M.A.R.T. goals-setting usually fails.
Much the same can be said about Locke’s original goals-setting theory. Although it has been confirmed to be effective through countless studies and real-life applications, its effectiveness is arguably limited to professional environments in which goals-setters already have the required skills to select and pursue their own objectives. Nothing in either of these theories was supposed to teach anyone how to develop the self-directedness that is necessary for goals-setting to be effective.
True enough, S.M.A.R.T. goals might induce greater focus, effort and persistence, as Locke theorized. However this is only true assuming that they have been set by people who are truly motivated to make progress and are already able to commit to specific and challenging goals. As a matter of fact, the constraints of the S.M.A.R.T. framework might make it more difficult for students to develop self-directedness when they do not already possess the corresponding skills. Thus, the requirement that goals be “specific” and “measurable” makes it likely that students will set extrinsic goals which they are not truly invested in and have a hard time committing to. Yet, developing self-directedness is precisely the main goal of goals-setting exercises in a school context. Consequently, we need a better framework than S.M.A.R.T. in the world of education.
A potential replacement I would like to propose is W.I.S.E. goals-setting, an approach that adapts a traditional Tibetan practice to the modern educational context with its focus on students-centeredness, holistic growth, and cultural responsiveness:
Contrary to S.M.A.R.T. goals-setting, which jumps to specific and realistic objectives, W.I.S.E. goals-setting starts with a wish. Such aspirations may, at first, appear to be quite vague and idealistic; but what matters is that they are authentic and highly meaningful. In the Tibetan tradition, such aspirations are found through meditation on such questions as: “what is it that I value deeply?” “what is it that I really want?” However, this does not have to be the case and can take many different forms depending on the students’ cultural backgrounds and personal beliefs: individual journals, group discussion, prayer… Likewise, the articulation of a concrete end-goal is not as important as the process itself, which helps students develop self-directedness through greater self-awareness. Thus, in line with the Tibetan practice, students may simply wish to visualize their undefined ultimate goal as a glowing distant light. Alternatively, they may want to think of a role-model who is an inspiration to them.
A wish becomes an intention once we resolve to take responsibility for our actions and take charge of our lives, setting ourselves in a specific direction. The difference with a S.M.A.R.T. approach is quite clear. The aim, here, is not an external objective, such as a reward or even a level of performance, but rather a certain version of ourselves that we intend to become. More precisely, it is a certain pattern of behavior that we want to enact and make our second nature. For that reason, the goal is not a specific outcome, but a general rule of conduct that we decide to follow.
According the W.I.S.E. approach, implementing an intention requires mindfulness, i.e., careful attention to appropriate and inappropriate actions (do they go in the right direction? Are they in accordance with the rule?) as well as proper and improper incentives (do they reinforce the right kind of actions?) In the Tibetan tradition, a commonly used metaphor is the cultivation of a plant, which involves planting and watering a seed, nourishing the soil and pulling weeds. An important idea, here, is that W.I.S.E. goals-setting is not a one-time decision, but rather a constant exercise in self-transformation that requires rethinking our behaviors and reshaping our environment.
The most important component of self-directedness and effective goals-setting is, arguably, the ability to follow through on the original intention and persist in its direction. Once again, the Tibetan tradition provides a useful daily practice that is easily adaptable to different cultural contexts. The idea is to develop a habit of checking with oneself at the end of every day in order to reconnect with the original intention and take stock of both failures and successes. When did we manage to follow our own rule of conduct? When and why did we deviate? Through this exercise (which in the Tibetan tradition takes once again the form of the meditation, but which could be turned into journaling, praying, discussing, or whatever suits a particular educational context), students should be encouraged to take time to celebrate their achievements, reflect on their benefits, as well as plan ways to avoid future shortcomings.
As brief as it is, this description of W.I.S.E. goals-setting hopefully makes it clear that this approach is both more meaningful and more likely to succeed than the common S.M.A.R.T. framework. Helping students develop self-directedness, it could not only enable them improve their academic performance through the acquisition of crucial life-long skills, but do so in a way that is highly culturally responsive and supportive of their holistic personal growth.