Chase the Right Goals

One of the most basic concepts in curriculum design – and one we use extensively at SLA – is the idea of “backward mapping.” At its most basic, backward mapping means that you must have some idea of where  you want to go before you plan to get there. It is one of those common sense ideas that, when applied to a unit plan, makes things go much more smoothly.

The funny thing is I don’t think we do a great job of backward mapping when it comes to the notion of what we hope kids to get from school itself.

What is the purpose of school? What do we value, and what do we want for our kids?

If one were to look at the metrics that we measure, one would think that we value showing up (attendance,) reading and math (test scores,) doing what you’re told (grades) and finishing up (graduation rates.)  And on some level, that is what is valued in school today. But is that really what we value? And are learning those things really the best purpose of school?

At the parental level, parents want school to help their children to be able to succeed. Many CEOs would like schools – especially the public ones – to produce a steady supply of competent workers. And when we has the larger questions of what society needs from the children in school, the answer is everything from the idealistic – we need to citizens who can better our world – to the cynical – needs students were educated enough to become workers, but not so educated as to upset the status quo.

So school itself isn’t it that easy to backward map. When one unpacks the many pressure points on school, we find that the “end” that we have in mind for our students is not so clear-cut.

So what should we consider to be the goal of the modern school?

First, we must admit that which we do not know. We have to admit that we do not and cannot claim to know what the world our students will inherit will look like. So the notion that we can prepare kids for the 21st century workforce is both an act of hubris and a far too narrow goal. We have to admit that we are handing our children challenges, both environmental and social, that will require them to be far more  resourceful than we have had to be.

And so we must help them to become the citizens our world will need them to be. In many respects, the skills we want our students to be able to develop are no different than the best of what we have always wanted for our students, only now I do not believe we have the luxury of merely hoping for them without naming them.

If we are to embrace the notion that the purpose of school is to help students to become critically aware, fully realized citizens, then let us understand the skills that must then follow, and let us then rethink our schools and our curriculum and our assessments in an attempt to build the systems and structures that will help our students achieve those goals.

Let us help our students develop an agility of mind because we can already see that the world is changing more and more rapidly.

Let us help our students develop their creativity, not just as artists, but as artisans as well, because we want our students to be able to be creators across whatever milieu are necessary.

Let us help our students become more thoughtful – truly full of thoughts, because we want them to be able to understand the complexity of the world around them and take deliberate action, aware of and willing to own the consequences of their actions.

Let us help our students develop wisdom because the world will need them to be far more wise than we have been. Let us help them to see that action without reflection, that invention without forethought has not led us to a sustainable world, and that they will have to be wise beyond their years to solve the problems they face.

Let us help our students develop their passions. Let us help them to see that care begets care, and that by being willing to fully engage in the world instead of ironically holding it at arm’s-length, they will live an enriching life and they will enrich the lives of those who come in contact with them.

And let us help them to be kind. Our students will live in a time where their community will be more broadly defined – more global, more diverse and more inclusive than any other time in human history. If our students learn empathy and kindness, they will have the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from more people than we could have ever dreamed.

The challenge is to backward map the schools that chase those goals. But it is a challenge worth taking.

9 thoughts on “Chase the Right Goals

  1. I’ve never really thought about what I want my students to be or be able to accomplish when they leave my school. This has given me some new ideas about how and what I will be working on with my students.

  2. I think a corollary benefit of backward mapping is motivation. If students understand clearly where they are going, I think they will be more motivated to do what they need to do to get there. I’ve been watching the TV series “Friday Night Lights,” and considered why these high school football players readily agree to participate in boring repetitive drills. They are motivated to do so because they clearly see (and agree with) the end result – trying to win the games. When I taught grades 7-9 math, it was not always easy to give my students practical uses for what I was teaching, and examples of how this knowledge would be of benefit. As a result, many did not buy into it. When goals are clear, well-defined, and sensible, so will be the purposes of education and student motivation.

    • Jeff,

      The kids in Friday Night Lights were being football players, not taking Football Appreciation. So, the motivation is intrinsic and they saw immediate benefits.

      The analogy is more difficult when it comes to the seemingly random list of stuff we call curriculum.

      This is why I think that David Perkins’ book, “Making Learning Whole,” ( is the most important education book of the past decade. Perkins argues that teachers need to find or create a junior version of “the whole game” anytime they wish to teach something to kids. Kids need to be mathematicians, rather than be taught math – something Papert fought for over close to 50 years. 90% of the 7th-9th grade math curriculum has no relevance outside of computer programming. Yet, we stick to the worksheets and textbooks while repeating the lie that you’ll need it some day.

      The question, “Why do I need to know this?” is an honest and good one. Otherwise, schools are focused on what Paolo Friere called “the banking model” in which you are taught something for possible withdrawal at a later date. This is both inefficient and ineffective.

  3. An interesting way to get to the purpose of school. It is such a tough question, yet never once have I thought the purpose of school should be attendance, compliance, or just finishing. (Math and reading sound like good goals, but often seem to destroy love of both. It is difficult to convince other people of that)

  4. Pingback: “Clear to Me Opaque to Others” « Cultivating Learning

  5. It is one thing for us as teachers and parents to think about what we want our students and children to have as a result of school. It is another thing entirely to convince administrators, the newspapers, and politicians that these are worthwhile goals. I heard President Obama invoke the needs of business and industry when it comes to schooling, but he doesn’t talk about creativity as a goal. I want my children and my students to be creative, disruptive, and critical. Those three things are, so far as I can tell, not explicitly valued by industry, politicians, or the path on which school reform is going (i.e. The Common Core).

  6. Another thoughtful post and a very difficult question to even get many in education to think about. We seem to get bogged down in the minutia of what courses ad what content and how to get into a good college or be ready for a career. I must agree with Gary Stager about Perkins book – I have read it multiple times. Many educators and school board members I know, however, would not have the patience for what Perkins writes about. Real learning is messy and people to often look for quick and neat.