Back to the basics: Goals

After reading Our Underachieving Colleges and other pieces by Derek Bok, one theme continued to take the forefront regarding colleges and education: goals. Although Bok discussed many different aspects in our education system, he resounded that establishing clear goals and creating plans to follow them is the first step in any plausible solution. I agree. I must concede, however, that due to my undergraduate major being Human and Organizational Development, I am slightly biased in my opinion. Although we set universities and colleges apart because they are non-profit institutions that create and disseminate knowledge, they are organizations nonetheless. And I believe that incorporating organizational strategies often used in the business world would help them reassess their goals and realign all components of the university with those goals.

When I think of setting goals, I think in terms of creating a weight training program. For instance, if the goal is to add lean muscle mass, then a number of questions must be answered in order to create an appropriate plan: How long will this program last? Are there specific body parts that are to be targeted? What exercises will be utilized? How many days a week will the individual train? The list goes on. I believe this type of goal setting strategy can be used in an educational setting as well. For example, as Bok explains in his book, colleges and universities could benefit from more overall collaboration in achieving overall educational goals. He argues that rather than working more or less in silos, creating an overall program that could be filtered down into each college and then department would be beneficial. To continue the weight training metaphor, if all aspects of the training program are not working toward the same goals in harmony, then reaching those goals will stall. If the individual is pushing it in the weight room, striving to get one more rep each time, but his/her nutrition consists of mainly the Golden Arches, and he/she is not getting adequate sleep, then those lean muscle gains will be made at a much slower pace than if all aspects of the individual aligned toward the goal. But before that can happen, a clear goal must be established.

I think setting and communicating clear goals can resolve many issues – from large organizational inefficiencies to small arguments among friends. This post may seem a bit elementary because setting goals is something that most believe is common sense. But Bok contends, “However much professors care about their teaching, nothing forces them or their academic leaders to go beyond normal conscientiousness in fulfilling their classroom duties” (p.32). He goes on to say there is no necessity to revise or assess status quo pedagogical techniques and methods. Bok states, “The fundamental reason for the lack of such pressure is the difficulty of judging how successful colleges are in helping their students to learn and develop…In this respect, undergraduate education differs sharply from research” (p.32). Thus, whereas rankings from places such as U.S. News and World Report will examine factors such as facilities, financial aid, and honors or abroad programs, college reputations are not affected by the type of education institutions actually offer students. Therefore, “neither faculties nor their deans and presidents feel especially pressed to search continuously for new and better ways of educating their students, nor do they feel compelled to offer the very best education possible in order to avoid losing large numbers of applicants or suffering other consequences that matter” (p.35). Because of this, it is important for educational institutions to explicitly prioritize the education of its students.

There are differing beliefs about the goals of educational institutions. Bok believes that rather than creating one all-encompassing goal, colleges should pursue a variety of purposes. These include teaching the ability to communicate, critical thinking, moral reasoning, preparing citizens, living with diversity, living in a more global society, inspiring a breadth of interests, and preparing for work after college. Although I don’t think every institution should agree on all these goals, the first three are critical. But whatever the goals are, they should be clear and have the purpose of aligning the many different departments of the institution. Based on Bok’s discussions, it seems that most of the colleges and universities discussed make the mistakes of either setting vague or distant goals, setting too many goals, or allowing their employees to deflect their efforts elsewhere. These and other mistakes regarding goals can be found here. As a rule of thumb, goals should be clear, simple, and measurable.

Understandably, this post is a bit idealistic. The desire to make education a goal must come from within – which can be difficult if little outside incentive is tied to it. Without going on a rant, this means that monetary rewards and reputation may have to be put on the back burner for awhile, and it must be trusted that better educated students will be a long term investment that pays dividends to the university and society. Moreover, a revision of goals and curriculum is not an easy task. But by starting small, perhaps within classes, then majors, and then departments, making educating students an explicit goal might slowly permeate to other areas and create a grassroots effort within an institution. In the end, setting a goal is the first step, and acting on it is the rest of the journey.

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