Goal Setting, Commitment Making, and Reflection

By Julie Mountcastle, Head of School
July 30, 2019

When students feel confident and self-motivated to learn, outcomes are improved, and attitudes are infinitely more positive across the entire learning community. Student goal setting, commitment making, and reflection are at the center of the learner-driven classroom. The youngest students have agency over their goals, and this practice is systematically built from the earliest days of their formal education at Slate School. Goal setting is not reserved for child-sized learners alone. Teachers and other adults from the learning community are invited to be a part of this important practice. When we first began inviting adults to participate, we thought of them as models, but we rapidly saw that their participation was as much for their own learning as for their teaching. We observe that children are often much stronger at reflection and the retooling of commitments than their adult counterparts. The children also typically have better focus for remembering their goals and supporting the goals of others by reminding them in kind, encouraging ways.

We should take a moment here, before we go further, to describe the process as it begins for our Kindergarten and Grade 1 students. On Mondays, the children who are already accustomed to responding to a question as part of their reading of the morning message, are given the opportunity to think about something that they would like to improve during the week. The goals are not monitored or edited by teachers or parents, and they are totally the choice of the child. They can therefore be sports related (i.e. I want to be a faster runner by the end of the week), or academic (i.e. I want to be a great reader by the end of the week), or any other variety selected by the child. There is much to learn from any type of goal, and the learning has just begun in this stage.

Next, the learner is asked to craft a commitment, which is something that they will promise to do daily to help them to reach their goal. Devising the commitment takes practice. In fact, one might say that it is a life-long practice to craft commitments that are realistic and truly helpful. The community of students thereafter assemble, and they share their goals and commitments with the whole group, as they all respond with encouragement to each child’s goal and commitment. We typically hear the other children say “Awesome, we’ll hold you to it!” This enacts as a contract between learner and the community to work together for the purpose of helping all to achieve their goals. This is a simple yet powerful statement for all stakeholders.

As the week continues, children return daily to a chart to mark each day that they have been able to fulfill their commitment. At the end of the week, the group assembles again and shares the number of times that each learner was able to fulfill the commitment for the week. We celebrate the fulfillment of the commitment. We believe that the development and internalizing of this process is what empowers learners to reach for whatever they dream to achieve, and it gives them powerful tools to do it. 

Throughout this process, the children see their practice in action. They are invested in their own success, and they have written the plan for how they will attain their goal. As the week continues, children with commitments or goals that were too lofty begin to see their missteps. For example, one of my students lamented: “I said that I would read books for 45 minutes every day right after school, but that’s a long time, and it’s right in the middle of when I like to play with my brothers and sisters. I didn’t do it once this week.” My response then was: “You have learned something so important! What will you choose for your commitment next week?” The child responded that “I’m going to try to read an extra 10 minutes sometime during the day. That way I’m sure I’ll get to it.” Likewise, another child said that he wanted to  be able to climb the knotted rope all the way to the second level of the playscape, but he only committed to practice once a day. At the end of the week, he realized that his goal will take a lot more dedication and a larger commitment. Even if a child abandons their goal for a while, they have learned something so valuable about themselves and their pursuit of goals and dreams.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of our goals and commitments is the encouragement offered by the other members of the community. One of my Grade 1 students, for example, said to me: “Mrs. Mountcastle, you said you wanted to learn that song on the ukulele by Friday, but I haven’t heard you practicing at all this week so far. Maybe you should bring your ukulele outside during choice time and practice then.” There are similar examples heard between children throughout every day. It is a miraculous sight to see the true joy and total happiness that is genuinely expressed by the community members when one of the members reports their successful achievement of a goal. The feeling of accomplishment is palpable, and the community savors it for the learner and for their part in helping the learner’s goal and dreams come to fruition. 

The goals and commitments process is one example of how children learn best and most deeply when they are driving their own instruction. Their hunger for information about beloved topics pushes skill development, deeper understanding, and cross-curricular connections at a rate unparalleled through conventional methods. Children are also filled with joy and excitement as they proceed on their personal learning journey. For example, a child who had no letter recognition skills will press themselves to crack the reading code. They rapidly develop skills for publicly sharing knowledge because they are so interested in their topics and seek to share that, not only to educate others, but also to mine other children’s learning for connections and deeper understanding together.

As teachers, we do not report a child’s goals or commitments to their families because we have seen how much more powerful it is to let the child share the details when they feel that it is important to them. We’ve heard from parents, for example, that they were surprised when their child was returning upstairs after breakfast each day, only to realize that the child was making their own bed. We’ve then confirmed that this was the original goal of the child, and the parent was amazed at the industry of their child. You can imagine the great satisfaction of the child to have total ownership over the goal and commitment as opposed to being reminded by Mom or Dad to run up and make the bed. It is also a better learning tool for the child who needs to better craft their commitment, or recognize the work it will take to master whatever they hope to achieve. Many people learn these important skills as adults. At Slate School, our children begin learning this at age five, and they progress at the pace that is perfect for each of them. Their learning community supports and celebrates their efforts. Always.