Developing a life goal is more than performing a series of steps. Rather, it is an experiential process that requires time, self-awareness, experimentation, and reflection.
My attention to these questions was initially prompted in 2009 while attending a presentation at the Center for American Progress. The U.S. Department of Education was floating a proposal to require a “college proficiency” rate — a measure of how well students are doing the year after high school—i.e., whether, where, and how successfully students are enrolled in college. High schools, they said, would need to report their CP rate along with their graduation rate.
The discussion focused heavily on whether high schools adequately prepare students for college coursework, although the presenters admitted that there was little data on why roughly a third of college freshmen drop out after their first year. Was it a lack of academic preparedness or something else? In the Q and A, I raised the question of social and emotional preparedness. What about helping students develop skills in managing time and multiple priorities? Regulating their emotions and adapting to change? Resolving problems and overcoming obstacles? How might possession, or a lack, of these skills affect the proficiency rate? I found myself suddenly surrounded by attendees wanting to talk. Social and emotional learning (SEL) was clearly striking a chord.
Since then, I, along with two other curriculum developers, have worked with teachers from across the county on how to best develop SEL skills in high school students. For the past two years we have concentrated on preparing students in grades 11 and 12 for the transition to college and the workforce. I’d like to share a few key things we have learned from this endeavor.
Why Am I Doing This?
One, students need to have reasons for graduating high school and attending college — reasons that they freely chose and embrace, not ones they adopt from others by default or resigned compliance. These reasons need to have personal significance for them and resonate an emotional level. In “Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation,” Edward Deci (1995) provides research-backed findings on the importance of autonomy — i.e., acting in accordance with oneself, being free and volitional in one’s actions. In a cleverly devised set of experiments, Deci and Richard Ryan found that students who were autonomous were more likely to engage in solving difficult puzzles, persevere in the task longer and relish the challenge than less self-directed students. Daniel Pink later helped popularize this approach in the bestseller “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” (2009)
Yet when we look at motivational strategies employed in many high schools, we often see extrinsic tactics: the use of fear (becoming a drop out), adult-centric reasons why graduation and college will be good for them, and exhortations to comply with requirements and others’ expectations of them. Yes, there is plenty of praise and encouragement, but this is not what intrinsic motivation springs from. To become motivated to thrive and succeed, students benefit from creating a vision for their life — i.e., an own life goal — what they want to do and become in adulthood, personally and professionally.
Developing a Life Goal
Developing a life goal is more than performing a series of steps. Rather, it is an experiential process that requires time, self-awareness, experimentation, and reflection. It is best introduced in ninth grade and then followed up on junior and senior year, before and during the college application cycle. We call this process the Five Phases of Achievement: Dream, Wish, Goal, Mission, Expectation.
In the Dream Phase, students project themselves into the future and picture their personal life (family and friends), their work (vocation) and a personal interest (avocation). They are encouraged to follow their passion, think big and aim high. Research suggests that people who follow these criteria in setting goals are more successful in reaching them than people who set goals they don’t feel strongly about and/or that have a low bar for achievement (Halvorson, 2010).
A Venn diagram provides helpful criteria for moving from dream to reality (Shepland, 2017). Overlapping circles include identifying:
- What you love doing
- What you are good at
- What you can be paid for
- What the world needs.
To illustrate this, we encourage teachers to share why they chose teaching as their profession, and how their desire to teach and support young people became apparent to them. One teacher shared that in grade school he loved showing his classmates how to do things — tie their shoes, add and subtract. He found himself staying ahead in mastering academic skills just so he could turn and teach them to others, and earn social capital along the way. In retelling the story, he exclaimed, “I knew had to find something else to teach. I just looooved teaching!”
This sets up students for the Wish Phase in which they say what they would want to do, or be, if a genie granted them any wish in the world. Stories of genies usually include the consequences of not being specific enough with a wish, so students are encouraged to sharpen their focus and say specifically what they want. During this phase, students reflect on what they enjoy doing, research careers online, and interview adults in fields that interest them, perhaps even shadowing them at work.
In the Goal Phase, we ask students commit to a “FAB” Goal and take responsibility for it. FAB stands for three important research-based factors in reaching a goal (Halvorson, 2010): Follow your passion (i.e., choose your goals freely, rather than to please others, and love what you do), Aim high (i.e., create a goal that will make you stretch yourself and feel like you accomplish something), and Be specific (i.e. word it so it says exactly what you want to accomplish). If students do not know what they want to do, teachers encourage them to choose a field that interests them and research it further.
In the Mission Phase, students create the stepping stones (smaller goals) that lead to a life goal. These include the academic and work experience benchmarks required by their chosen profession or occupation. A highlight is creating a Mission Map which illustrates the steps to their life goal, along with inspiring quotes and character strengths they will need along the way. After sharing these with their family and in class, students are encouraged to hang their map in their bedroom. Research suggests that these types of visual cues help people to persevere in task, even on an unconscious level (Bargh, et. al., 2001).
As students pursue their mission, their life goal and step goals may change. When they get to college, trade school, or work in the field, they might find a career path that they like better. A person who at first wanted to be a veterinarian may find she/he wants to work in a wild animal sanctuary or start a pet daycare, or work in another field entirely. This is an example of “one door opening many doors.” They won’t get to those doors unless they start moving in a direction.
The Expectation Phase is marked by exercising skills in thinking with a growth mindset, persevering in the face of obstacles and managing stress. Students rated mindfulness exercises and the idea that some stress is motivating as helpful in working toward their goals (McGonigal, 2015).
Developing a deep understanding of the Five Phases of Achievement and putting them into action is the perfect project for a senior seminar. Other skills they will need when they graduate — e.g. financial literacy, negotiating relationships, resolving conflicts that arise in the transition to young adulthood—are also important, but planning for the future holds center stage.