Performance Goals vs Learning Goals: Are We Learning or Looking Good?

This from the Leading Blog “Which Should You Have? Performance Goals versus Learning Goals” based on research from Carol Dweck.

“Performance goals are about “winning positive judgments of your competence and avoiding negative ones. In other words, when students pursue performance goals they’re concerned with their level of intelligence: They want to look smart (to themselves or others) and avoid looking dumb.” A person usually does this by playing it safe.

Learning goals are ones that are about increasing your competence.

“It reflects a desire to learn new skills, master new tasks, or understand new things…”

In order to do develop new competencies students often go through a phase of confusion, failure, and discomfort. Think about what it feels like to learn a new video game, learn to juggle, or speak another language. Being a beginner requires us to quiet our egos and a willingness to look like a beginner, often in front of others.

Both goals she noted are common and can fuel achievement.

“The tasks that are best for learning are often challenging ones that involve displaying ignorance and risking periods of confusion and errors. The tasks that are best for looking smart are often ones that students are already good at and won’t really learn as much from doing.”

I’ve watched a number of people join my Aikido class and quit soon thereafter because they want to learn it quickly. They don’t like being beginners.

Interesting that our schools have structured themselves to emphasize and reward levels of achievement not “degrees of learning”. NCLB has further encouraged the focus on achievement. As the Leading Blog says:

“..most people would opt for performance goals. Who wants to take a chance of being criticized for looking dumb? Are we learning or looking good?”

Interesting that so many schools that call themselves “Learning Communities” are structured to encourage performance and achievement goals.

Sadly, it is rare to find an educator who will allow themselves to “look dumb” in front of other educators or their own students. When we hide the difficulties involved in learning from our children, or decide that we should stick to things we know, and stay away from things that are unfamiliar so we don’t look bad; we become role models for playing it safe and provide a poor example for young learners.

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12 thoughts on “Performance Goals vs Learning Goals: Are We Learning or Looking Good?

  1. Pete, once again you have written a timely blog. We just finished a staff meeting about writing goals and objectives in IEP’s. You have given me more to think about when writing measurable, appropriate goals. As special ed teachers we are all about teaching skills and helping students reach their level of competence.

  2. Jim;
    Thanks. I’ve always thought that every student, not just special ed students, would benefit from individual education plans.

    I remember taking a drawing class as an elective in college. I was terrible when I started and made a huge improvement as I learned and practiced. I might have learned the most of any student in the class. Unfortunately, I earned a “C”. There were art majors in the class who started further ahead than me and the grading was based on performance; not how much we learned.

    I also see it in Middle Schools where kids come in that are four years behind in reading and get in a program that makes 2 years worth of progress in one year. Fantastic right? Later the scores for the school come out and they show the kids 2 years behind. The school is criticized. They’ve learned alot; but the achievement scores don’t show that.


  3. This really resonates, percolates, & intrigues! I would hope that I am encouraging learning goals and wonder often at the difficulty fellow learners in my room have when they walk in the door. Could this hidden expectation in grades be part of the disconnect? The older learners who had me last year are more willing to learn, but some newer learners have not caught on as well, even though i am very explicit – we are all learners on our planet!

  4. One important point to make about Dweck’s research is she shows that the kinds of praise student’s receive can influence whether they have learning of performance goals. If you praise a student for their ability “Johnny you must be pretty good at math” he will form a performance goal and will also want to do more easy tasks to maintain his image of intelligence.

    If the same student is praise for effort or strategies “Johnny you must have worked hard at that” he will form learning goals and will want to do more challenging things.

    Her research says that the different types of praise can lead to beliefs about ability – that ability is fixed or that it can grow with effort and she describes it in detail in her book “Mindset.”

  5. Very timely. I have always believed that IEP goals that are written in terms of performance provides no direction in what the student needs to learn in order to perform at some specified level. In other words, the IEP goal is usually just a statement of performance criteria. That is not a complete goal. It is maddening that the vast majority of goals I see never state what the student needs to learn how to do in order to get there. Usually an annual goal is stated something like this: “The student will increase oral reading fluency to 90 words per minute with 90% accuracy.” But this goal does not state what the student is to learn to do in order to read fluently (there are several causes for poor overall fluency). In some cases the objectives will state these learning steps. But in other cases the long term performance goal is simply cut into shorter term chunks, leading to an IEP filled with performance criteria but not a word about learning.

    I think that goals should be written around what a student needs to learn. Objectives can be written around short term performance goals if necessary (if your district requires objectives). For example, if an evaluation discovers that a student has below grade level ability in alphabetics at the multisyllable level, and it is a significant cause of low fluency in this case (usually is), then the student needs to learn this skill as a goal.

    Here is an example: “To improve reading fluency, the student will learn about and apply the alphabetic principle in order to fluently decode multisyllable words in connected text.” I will then state the annual goal criteria and what progress monitoring assessment tool(s) I will use. Our IEP forms have separate sections for this. This leaves the special educator free to choose whatever curriculum they like as long as they address the identified weakness and learning goal: alphabetics.

    Finally, I like to provide handouts to my parents describing technical terms (such as “alphabetics”) so that they will have at least a basic understanding of what we will be working on.

    I am in a battle of wits with my district regarding how goals and objectives are written. They prefer the performance version with mini-objectives, also written as a performance goal. Few are written with learning in mind. But isn’t that what an IEP is SUPPOSED to be about?

  6. I suspect that the best prepared students with the greater predilection for learning will benefit from a teacher taking this approach. Other kids need leadership. How to provide a role model while exhibiting fallibility? This requires a big change in how we teach and how we prepare kids to be taught.

  7. See also Stephen Ball’s challenging article, “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity”. Based in England, Ball’s concept of performativity is one of the three terrors facing the English education system, the others being marketisation and managerialism.

  8. Umm… Well I’m only a high school student at the moment, but when I read this I realized that a lot people are performance learners. Not only that, but but very few tend to go..I don’t know know against the crowd…but that’s high school I guess. I do have to say though I do know some teachers that as you say “play it safe.” They always tell us to go study whatever you want to be because the sky’s the limit… Well yah I didn’t man to act like I was criticizing or anything ;I love this piece it really has shown me even more than what I know! Now I can see becoming a nurse not as out of ordinary as I thought! Haha thank you for this amazing read.

    Oh yah…um sorry if intruded on your conversations.

  9. This really brings back sad memories for me. My son took a risk and studied Honors Physics over the summer before his Junior year to move ahead and take AP Physics in Junior year. He learned an incredible amount and grew tremendously as a person even earning a 4 on the AP Mechanics C with Calculus ad a B in the course. Off course he was made to feel really bad about himself because instead of focusing on his incredible tenacity and determination the teacher focused on his grades which off course were lower than his classmates who took a full year of Honors Physics. I felt as though he was being punished for going outside the box and setting a learning goal for himself!!!! This ultimately turned him away from science which he has a great mind for…..

  10. I’m sorry to hear about your son’s experience. As a parent, seeing your child’s enthusiasm killed off is awful.

    Having standards and benchmarks is important, but looking at how far the student has come is also important. One thing to keep in mind – although he turned away from science for now, those wonderful gifts of tenacity and thinking outside the box – still remain.

    I was coaching a Superintendent of schools a few months ago. He’d been turned away from music and singing by a teacher (much like your son) when he was very young. He got teary eyed telling me about it. After a little work together he decided he was going to take voice lessons and revisit the music he’d missed all these years.

    My hope for you is that someday your son looks at science the same way.


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