Each New Year’s Eve is an opportunity to make New Year Resolutions. This clear demarcation to make the next year better than the last is filled with optimism and hope. Losing weight, exercising more, and getting organized are typically three that top the list. But at its core, a resolution is a promise to change and make an attempt at improving oneself or helping others.
Statistics indicate that a quarter of resolutions are abandoned after the first week and only one third make it beyond the first month. In the end, of the very few who even made a resolution to begin with, only 10-20% follow through to the end of the year. With the ability to have a fresh start, why do so many people abandon their dreams of improvement?
The main challenge tends to be that the promises made are overly ambitious, not specific, and lack relevance to one’s daily life. In essence, the resolutions are not SMART.
Creating SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely) goals is one way to accomplish what one sets out to achieve. SMART goals break down the complexity of an audacious goal into small manageable chunks that can be more easily accomplished. Many times we take on too large of a task and get overwhelmed because we do not even know where to start. We are defeated by the enormity of the task and the weight of the goal.
Sir David Brailsford had a different approach. Brailsford became the head of the British Cycling team in 2002, a team with a limited history of success, and coached his team to seven of ten gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and then repeated it again four years later in London. This success continued beyond the Olympics to winning several Tour de France events.
The secret to Brailsford’s success? The aggregation of marginal gains. Brailsford believed and proved that small changes made to many areas related to cycling over one year added up and resulted in an exponential gain of 37% over the initial starting point. This same principle can be applied to other areas of life including education.
The Montville Township Public Schools District has five goals this school year: address mental health issues, monitor the completion of construction projects, examine learning acceleration opportunities, evaluate safety and security protocols, and monitor future enrollment projections. Each goal has several measurable action items to monitor progress over the year and we are on target to achieve these goals.
Similarly, teachers have SMART goals for each of their students over the course of the school year. These goals are broken down into what students need to learn in each individual subject area. The foundation of education is to help students build upon their knowledge. Educators are not looking for tremendous improvement each day, but rather they are seeking steady on-going improvement for students over the weeks and months needed to master the concepts. Students learn incrementally. Math, English Language Arts, and many other subjects are built upon previously learned knowledge. A student cannot understand multiplication until the basics of addition are mastered nor can a child know how to write an essay until the student can read and write words and then sentences. The same path is true for musicians, artists, actors, and athletes. The aggregation of marginal gains certainly applies to the school setting.
The Japanese use the word kaizen to describe “the art of continuous improvement.” Parents and teachers want their children to continually improve in all aspects of their life. Each small step of improvement allows a child to strengthen their foundation, build upon that success, and grow exponentially. As Brailsford proved, small daily improvements will result in big gains at the end of the year.
Inevitably, there will be setbacks. The road to success does not come without bumps, obstacles, and pain. These roadblocks are opportunities for growth. Struggling to figure out an equation, memorizing irregular verb conjugations, or mastering a skill that will bridge the notes of a particular song comes with practice and small gains.
The new year gives us all a chance to reflect upon the past several months and think about where we would like to go. We are halfway through the school year and by now students are able to measure their progress since the first day of school. While coming into a new classroom back on September 6 was daunting with the teacher telling the students all the great things they would accomplish over the next 180 days of school, one thing was certain, there was no quitting. Unlike many who do not follow through or even make New Year Resolutions, the path for success for the students was laid out before them and they make steady on-going improvements. SMART goals keep them on task. Looking back, they can relish how far they have come and what they have learned. They can take delight in these accomplishments and for completing their own personalized goals.
A well-known Chinese proverb states, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This is true with all resolutions and goals. The key is to make them specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Laying out the task before you in this way will allow you to achieve your resolution, 1% at a time.
Happy New Year.
-January 20, 2023
The "Superintendent's Column,"
by Dr. Thomas A. Gorman also appears in
"The Citizen" newspaper and on-line at "MontvilleTAP"