Planning and Goals

For the last several decades, school planning has focused on first setting goals or defining expected outcomes and then designing and implementing systems to accomplish those goals. In this, educators are following the strategic and logistic planning that has been common for leaders of other organizations. In the 21st century, curriculum standards have become the source of many of the goals and objectives for strategic planning in schools.

The origins of the goals-based or objectives-based or standards-driven planning can be traced to the late 20th century. In 1960, Charles Hitch, writing for the RAND Corporation first identified the role of goals in planning and noted, “We must learn to look at our objectives as critically and as professionally as we look at our models and other inputs” (cited in Rittel and Webber 1973, 155). In the same decade, initiatives undertaken by leading professional organizations adopted a similar stance, so planning in many areas of business and public policy began with questions such as “what should our systems do?” and “what are the desired outcomes for our organization?” Planning culminated in measuring the extent to which those goals were achieved.

For the generations of educators prepared and practicing in the decades since Hitch wrote, defining objectives is deeply embedded in their understanding of school planning and it is an example of a Kuhnian exemplary practice; such planning is a technology perceived as a natural part of school planning and leadership. Despite this, it is a relatively recent addition to the expectations of school planners. It also imposes an artificial framework on teaching that appears to be unsupported by emerging understanding of the natural phenomenon of human learning and technology as a non-neutral factor in society.

Many of the problems in science and engineering that emerged during the industrial age were solved by applying methods designed to improve the efficiency of systems. Hitch’s recommendation that objectives be included as the first step of every planning process arose in response to the growing complexity of science and engineering problems, so that in many cases, increased efficiency no longer resulted in changes to technologies that better served the human purposes for which they were designed. Lars Skyttner, a scholar from Sweden, suggested in his 2005 book General Systems Theory that problems such as environmental degradation, artificial intelligence, and technologies of war had emerged in the 20th century but could not be solved through improved efficiency. It was reasoned that such problems are difficult or impossible to solve or even to understand using the reductionist methods employed by natural scientists, and Skyttner (2005) observed,

Interactions of systems-variables are so interlinked to each other that cause and effect is a kind of circular logic. One separate variable thus can be both cause and effect. An attempt to reduce complexities to their constituents and build an understanding of the wholeness through knowledge of its parts is no longer valid. (37).

Both Hatch and Skyttner concluded planning approaches that reflected the complexity and irreducibility of problems were necessary. While it is reasonable to conclude that education is one of those problems, education is a social construction and the social nature of education increases the complexity of education beyond that recognized by Hitch and Skyttner, and necessitates different planning procedures.


Rittel, Horst, and Melvin Webber. 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4(2): 155-169. doi:10.1007/BF01405730.

Skyttner, Lars. 2006. General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, 2nd ed. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company Inc.