The Paradox of Moving Goals

Goals seem a natural part of human organizations and design; we define what we want, then take steps to achieve what we want. Those who have been involved with defining or achieving goals are likely familiar with the phenomenon of “moving goals.” We observe this when a goal is defined and when we are getting close to achieving it or once we have achieved it, the response is “yeah… that’s not really what we wanted… we need this instead.”

As a leader in instructional technology (who also has a reputation as being innovative and responsive), I have a good deal of experience with moving goals. I have also come to understand that the individuals who do move goals can have different rationales. The differences produce what I have come to describe as the paradox of moving targets. Consider two situations (both grounded in real situations):

First, a math teacher is encouraged by her principal to use technology in her geometry classes. The technology coordinator provides enough repurposed laptops for students to work in pairs and licenses of an older version of the software she needs. After looking over the machines, the teacher decides she needs enough computers for everyone to have a workstation and the most recent software. Once those are provided, she decides she needs Chromebooks to access a web application as that is what the teachers in neighboring schools are using. Once those are provided, she decides she really can’t teach with technology without a SmartBoard.

Second, the math teacher who is wants to integrate technology into her statistics courses. The school provides Chromebooks to students, but she finds the spreadsheet lacks the capacity to create some graphs her students need to fully analyze some data sets. The graphs can be created once an add-on is configured, but the interface is difficult to use and dissimilar to what is found in other statistical software, so she asks for access to new software. It is installed in PC’s in a computer room that is traditionally reserved for graphic and multimedia production. Scheduling proves to be a problem, so that teacher asks for laptops with the software installed by purchased and available to students in her courses.

In each of these cases, we see similar circumstances: math teachers do not fully implement technology-rich instruction, even as their goals are met. We see examples of the teacher saying, “I need a certain level of technology to meet my goals;” and when that level is met, the teachers responds by changing the level of technology they need.

As a leader, one is faced with understanding and explaining the “ratchetting up” of needed technology and predicting what will happen when the next goal is met. It might be that the teacher keeps changing the need to avoid updating their practice. It also might be that the teacher is finding their original estimate of the necessary technology was wrong.

In both cases, the technology was not being fully integrated into the instruction, the teacher perceived improvements they could make with better technology, and a new prediction of the necessary technology was made. School and technology leaders are faced with the dilemma of continuing to direct resources to the steadily changing goals in hopes of realizing the improvements (in math instruction in my example) or abandoning support because the teacher never appears to be satisfied.

Leaders do have a source of information to help them resolve the dilemma. They can observe the actions of the teacher when each level of technology is achieved and ask simple question, “Is it being used?”

If I add to the stories that the geometry teacher determined each successive level of technology was necessary after a single attempt at using the previous one and that she made no changes in her teaching to make use of the available (but insufficient) technology, then we get a more complete understanding of her actions. If I add that the statistics teacher had struggled with the add-on through several lessons, and that she had worked to schedule her students into the computer room where the software was available, then we get a more complete understanding of her actions.

Based on the actions of the teacher in these two cases, it seems we are justified in drawing conclusions about their motivations as well. The geometry teacher appears to be using insufficient technology as an excuse to not change her teaching. The statistics teacher appears to be using the existing technology to its fullest, and determining it is not meeting her needs.

I realize this is an oversimplified version of these situations and we could continue to discuss the cases. I also realize we cannot really know anyone’s motivation. As a leader charged with making decisions about how to distribute limited resources in schools, I am always going to decide to continue to support the teacher who is using existing technology and who is adapting to the current level. It is only through using what is available that teachers will understand it sufficiently to make decisions about what is needed next.

The paradox of moving goals is easy to resolve for leaders. Observe how your solutions are being used. Believe those who are pushing the limits of the technology, meet their moving goals. Those who are sitting back waiting for the “perfect technology” will never be satisfied.