Goal-Directed Learning: helping students find their own pathways to success

Most of us, if we are reading this, are in positions of trust. We have been through interviews, often rigorous, to select us as being the most suitable for our role, and as a result have a degree of authority delegated to us to enable us to fulfil our duties. We have KPIs, whether they be financial (revenue and profit-driven) or perhaps academic (% A*-C for our classes, subject area, or school). These keep us focused on the task in hand. Efficient systems work through a series of accountabilities: I am responsible for area X, and will succeed or fail based on how well I perform in this area.

Our roles are governed by a series of goals we work towards: to get our class through their GCSEs with the highest grades possible; to increase our business area’s revenue and so on. How we get there is largely up to us. This is particularly the case in high performing systems: strong leadership creates an environment which allows individual workers to play to their strengths, all the while held closely to account for outcomes. High autonomy and high accountability are the hallmarks of the best systems.

So why is it that we operate an entirely different system at the student level? A one-size-fits-all curriculum, a series of lessons ending in the same assessment task taken at the same time by all, terminal examinations that allow little room for creativity or flexibility, pitched to the middle? Surely, with the proliferation of digital tools in our schools, we should be moving towards goal-directed learning, with students moving incrementally along a pathway, often choosing the way in which they reach this goal, rather than always learning the same material as everyone else in the same way at the same time.

A good analogy to use here is Google Maps. I live in Reading in the UK. I want to get to Cambridge. I put the route into Maps and it gives me 2-3 alternatives. I might decide I want to avoid the M25 as much as possible (wise), or perhaps go on a shorter but slower route. I have that choice, but will still end up at the same point in the end. I may also decide to avoid certain times of the day as I know it will take me twice as long to get there.

We can apply this rationale to learning. If students are allowed to choose the way they reach a goal, for example deciding to learn materials via screencast rather than always via face to face lessons, and by giving them some choice as to when in the day they learn (as some learn better in the mornings, some in the afternoons) they are far more likely to learn what they need to move them on, towards higher goals and greater rewards. If, for example, they knew they needed to cover off four topic areas in their maths course by the end of the week, and had some autonomy over how they achieved this, wouldn’t they feel more empowered and self-directed as a result? We know that one of the most significant factors in a person’s happiness is the degree to which they are in control of their fate. And yet we remove this wholesale from our students. It seems frankly bizarre now that we have the tools at our disposal to change this radically.

If we move from curriculum plans towards curriculum maps, with goals students can choose their own pathways towards, we will give them an autonomy we so value in our own lives, whilst still holding them closely to account for the end result.

Isn’t it time we considered this in our schools?

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