Systems vs. Goals: Is it time to toss out the resolutions?

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, many of us put the same things on our list year after year: lose weight, exercise more, travel, and so on. You probably have your own familiar favorites.

New Year’s resolutions are goals. Putting them on our list makes us feel like we’ve taken the first important step toward achievement. But the fact that they show up year after year suggests that having a goal is not enough. What’s more, having a goal may not be as important as we think.

A goal doesn’t explain how we do what we hope to accomplish. That’s the role of systems. Systems spell out the steps and track our progress.

Let’s look at this in terms of education and, specifically, teaching students to read, spell and write.

Teachers often set learning goals for students. Passing a standardized test is a goal. An Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a list of goals. IEPs are the backbone of special education programs.

IEPs offer some systems guidance, such as the number of lessons per week and how progress will be measured. But they rarely track what matters most: the direct instruction of specific concepts and the frequency and number of practice challenges provided to the student. What is tracked, if anything, is seat-time. And, alas, seat-time is not practice.

Over many decades, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has shown that students who read at a below-basic level in 4th grade rarely become proficient readers by 8th grade. Even if they show up for classroom seat-time, the system doesn’t provide the necessary steps to move them toward literacy.

Could a tighter systems approach change that? At Lexercise, we think it could.

Lexercise is a systems approach: one structured literacy lesson a week followed by at least 15 minutes a day of structured practice, four days a week. Our data over the last 10 years shows that students who actually use this system (not just aspire to it) make at least a year of reading gain in the first eight weeks!

Note the absence of a goal in the Lexercise approach. We don’t say that the student will be able to read a certain book, or will be able to read or write at a certain grade level. Those are goals. What we say is that if the student actually does the lesson and the practice, they will make significant progress.

James Clear writes about habits and human potential. In Chapter 1 of his book Atomic Habits, he writes about goals and systems. Again and again, he emphasizes the importance of process and actions over goals. “Systems-based thinking is never about hitting a particular number, it’s about sticking to the process and not missing workouts.” “Goals are about the short-term result. Systems are about the long-term process.”

Clear also emphasizes the importance of feedback as a way of tracking progress. At Lexercise, feedback is built into our ongoing testing system, so that the student sees and hears their progress as they move through the practice.

Can the systems approach work for your student? We think so. We’d also be very interested to see how the systems approach might change your New Year’s resolutions!

Whatever approach you take, we wish you the very best for 2019 and look forward to sharing our understanding of learning and to answering any questions you may have about dyslexia and other language-processing disorders.

Note:

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (Avery, 2018)

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