The tricky business of setting goals is never in sharper focus than on 1 January. As revellers recover from the gastric pounding of the festive season, and livers of the world unite to beg for mercy after Hogmanay, virtuosity starts to creep through the cloud of excess.
Most new year’s resolutions are doomed – academia tells us so. In 2007 a University of Bristol study involving 3,000 people found an 88 per cent failure rate.
No wonder. Those targets scribbled in the haze of New Year’s Day tend to be a litany of hope over reason; our grand declarations of intent trump manageable, incremental steps toward personal betterment.
Sometimes, setting a lofty goal can in itself generate the will to realise it. Think, for example, of John F Kennedy’s 1962 speech where, to much scepticism, he promised that Americans would land on the moon by the end of the decade, and that this “goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills”.
More often, however, we resemble an X Factor contestant with an unshakeable belief that they’re bound for stardom despite a foghorn of a voice. We haven’t sat down and thought hard about the process that might actually help us to run a marathon, learn Spanish or turn the junk from the attic into an eBay goldmine. It’s in doing so that we work out whether a resolution really is a goer.
We probably put too much faith in the very idea of resolutions, in any case. As 17th-century English poet Samuel Butler put it: “Great actions are not always true sons/ Of great and mighty resolutions.”
Goals in education are important, but it’s worth saying that they are not everything.
Teaching is often a reactive business: that act of kindness to a child whose personal crisis has suddenly swelled to the surface; the sixth sense that offsets simmering tension between two pupils before it erupts into a fight; a decision to dump the lesson plan because one struggling student has just had a moment of clarity, which, if it goes unnoticed, may pass as soon as it arrived.
And while the setting out of goals is a good idea – is there a school left in Scotland that doesn’t have a prominent display of the values it aspires to? – implicit messages are much more powerful.
Scotland’s policy of inclusion has brought many children into mainstream classrooms who, in past generations, would have been siphoned into separate units or special schools.
The message to them and to their peers does not have to be uttered: the fact that aspirations for these pupils are higher than ever before is a given. These unspoken goals have a power and longevity beyond any statement of intent.
There’s another reason why looking back on any resolutions at the end of the year produces a gnawing sense of failure – they are way too narcissistic.
Resolutions are focused on self-improvement, yet the truth is that humans function best when their innate altruism kicks into gear.
So here’s a suggestion for the new year: teachers should lead the way to a new era of resolutions by making them entirely about the young people who learn in their classrooms.
Helping pupils and students towards better lives is what you do anyway, and – unlike those empty, hungover pledges people make to themselves – these are goals that most definitely can be achieved.
From everyone at TESS, here’s to a happy and successful 2016.