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Goals as doors
My eldest son Nathan failed to achieve the biggest goal of his life: becoming a garbage truck driver. It’s hardly surprising – he was only four years old at the time. His ambition likely dissolved once he realized that garbage trucks sometimes smell bad. Before then, he’d mostly observed them from the safety of our apartment window.

As is the case with most people, his goals have changed. Currently, at age 20, he is completing his degree in international economics and hopes to work in technology startups until he forms one himself. Or maybe not. Goals evolve.

Researchers and teachers have known for decades that goals are vitally important motivations in education in general and language learning in particular. After looking at 800+ studies, Hattie (2009) identified goals as among the most powerful instructional interventions for improving student success.

The basic message is that goals are good. Other researchers (Rowe, Mazzotti, Ingram, & Lee, 2017), however, suggest that teachers have trouble embedding them in lessons.

Part of the problem might be in finding a way to visualize goals. Most often, goals are pictured as archery targets or soccer nets, but a more useful metaphor is a door. When we have a goal we may not fully understand it until we enter into the goal, as if it were a room, inevitably finding choices of other doors leading off in other directions.

UUnderstanding where goals come from
Before we start to set goals for our students, it’s important that we have a degree of self-awareness and understand where our own attitudes and ideas come from.

As teachers, we tend to resemble the people who inspired us most. Our own teachers, good and bad, shape our attitudes toward teaching and language learning goals.

Who was your favorite teacher? In my own case, my all-time favorite teacher was Mr. Chiga who, in 1970, taught me Grade 7 and was about to retire. He was a renaissance man. Short, and tough with fingers like cigars, he would occasionally lead us from the playground up two flights of stairs to our classroom… walking on his hands. Yet these same hands were delicate enough for his hobby making violins… a fact I only learned later – because, unlike me, Mr. Chiga was modest.

Mr. Chiga loved literature and taught us Greek and Roman history with a sense of joy that has never left me. One would think that his goals in education would be a perfect foundation for my own. Perhaps. But a quick check on the timeline shows that if he was about to retire in 1970, he was probably born in 1905, and likely graduated from teacher’s college around 1925.

It’s ironic that although my PhD is in the area of computer-assisted language learning, my favorite teacher began his career two years before the invention of the television and, moreover, all his teachers would have all been born in the 1800s.

It’s a long story to make a short point: As teachers, we need to reflect on where our teaching and learning goals come from and question them. We also need to avoid those things that our least favorite teachers did.

SSetting goals
Are the goals we set for our students sometimes too low? Undoubtedly.

As a Grade 11 student, my only ambition in life was to take a two-year photo technician course. My counselor discouraged me, saying I wasn’t academic enough and suggested a job at the wood mill instead. In a sense, he closed a door.

I switched schools where another favorite teacher, Mr. Ferguson, patiently kept me after school for six weeks, teaching me how to write essays and, by extension, how to think. He dangled the motivation of a university education before me and set me on my path there. And that was a door opened.

So what’s the lesson here? More than just knowing where goals come from, we also need to be aware of the power of goal setting – and how it can drastically alter the trajectory of a particular student’s life.

Closing doors, rather than opening them, often stunts growth and limits possibilities. It can even lead to students forming life-long assumptions about themselves that just aren’t true – “I’m no good at math,”, “I’m not cut out for independent travel”, etc. Opening doors, however, can bring our students entirely new perspectives on life.

EExpecting goals to change
When it comes to changing goals, there are a number of factors to take into account – including forming a better sense of self. We might start off with many ambitions but we measure ourselves against the realities of our skill sets and modify our goals.

A student who experiences a lot of success in learning English, for example, is more likely to consider careers that require it. Teachers, too, are more likely to offer direction: “You write very well. Have you considered a career in journalism?”

Today, countless jobs require a second language or provide better promotion opportunities for students who speak two or more languages. Yet, students oriented toward employment opportunities may have difficulty understanding the long-term advantages of learning a second language if specific jobs are not on their radar.

So this leads to two questions:

What goals should we help students set for themselves?
And how should teachers suggest them?
Many goals are based on the educational standards which govern our profession. The Global Scale of English (GSE), in particular, is helpful to both textbook writers and teachers in identifying language goals and provide teachers the detailed steps to achieve them.

But beyond such standards are those two magic ingredients that teachers share with language learners: joy and motivation.

Teachers spread joy in learning by example, making language learning engaging and pleasurable. And teachers also motivate students by helping them identify goals that are personal, giving them reasons why language proficiency is not just worthwhile in general, but is perhaps one key to future success.

It might even lead to a job driving a garbage truck.