Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Thought About Goal Setting

In tonight's UNESCO seminar, Frank Method spoke to the students about the formulation of the Education for All Goals. Frank is the most thoughtful education policy expert that I know. As part of his presentation he described the BHAG approach to goal setting. BHAG is an acronym for Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

We can look to "rocket science" for examples. The Germans during World War II set a goal of using unguided missiles to bomb England from the European mainland. When they did so, no one knew how to build such a missile, or indeed whether it would be possible in wartime conditions before the end of the war. (A similar BHAG might be the Manhattan Project to build atomic bombs during World War II.) There was a theoretical possibility. However, in order to achieve the goal one would have to build a team capable of doing so, build the manufacturing capability to produce the parts and the final system, test it, and deliver it.

When President Kennedy set the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade of the 1970s, it was also a BHAG. The defining characteristic of such a goal is that one could not simply follow existing approaches, but would rather have to rethink the entire approach. The goal of a man on the moon in a decade was big, in the sense that one would have to organize a huge effort in order to do so. It was hairy in the sense that no one quite knew how to manage such an effort, and indeed entirely new management systems had to be invented, utilizing the newly available capacity of computers, to manage the effort. It was audacious; while no one knew whether the goal could be accomplished when it was set, but the prestige of the presidency and of the nation had been attached to the program and failure would have been a serious blow to those reputations.

The song Follow the Drinking Gourd, here performed by Bill Schustik, was very popular during the folk music fad about the time of the Apollo space program, It suggests a different kind of goal. Slaves seeking freedom would more toward the North Star. They would of course never reach the star, but with good luck and hard work they would have a decent chance at attaining freedom.

I advance this as an example of a goal set not to be achieved, but to guide an effort that would result in more and better progress than might otherwise be achieved. I suggest that their may be real advantage in such goals.

The Education for All goal can be regarded as a goal of achieving a human right to basic education by 2015. That was reinterpreted as serving all the children in the world with at least primary school education by that date. Frank pointed out that even in the United States, there are a few children who don't complete primary school -- children with disabilities, illegal migrants, children in inadequate home schooling, etc. For many developing nations, the goal is still a distant dream.

Students should realize that there was considerable debate on what the goal should be, notably in two world meetings, one in 1990 and the other in 2000. It is possible, indeed probable, that more progress was made toward universal primary schooling as a result of the EfA process than would have been otherwise made. EfA mobilized efforts of developing nations and of donor agencies. It resulted in a system in which progress was measured and people held responsible for that progress.

On the other hand, in a world of limited resources, allocation of resources to primary schooling may have made them unavailable for other purposes. Would more vocational training have allowed industry to develop faster in developing nations? Would more university training of professionals allowed faster progress in the development of infrastructure, agriculture and industry, or better public health programs? We will, of course, never know.

How Does This Work Out in the Bureaucracy?

Development agencies use variants of the Logical Framework Approach. Projects are designed, managed, monitored and evaluated according to a framework in which defined inputs are used in an effort to produce specified outputs which in turn are expected to achieve specified purposes leading to defined goals.

I think that often the agency officer who designs a project -- setting its longer range purposes and goals in the design document  -- does not administer the project through to completion, and is not held responsible in its final evaluation for the achievement of those purposes and goals.

On the other hand, that officer is frequently involved for some time in the project implementation and is held responsible during monitoring for the timely delivery of project inputs and production of their specified outputs, at least for a few years. Perhaps the most important input from the point of view of the donor agency is money. The outputs, in education for example, might be teachers trained, educational materials produced, schools built, etc.

Would bureaucratic success come from defining a project with modest input and output levels, ones that could surely be achieved, Would it come more fully from defining levels that would challenge the donor and the implementing agency to work to the utmost?

This brings us to the fundamental question of how should a project be specified so that it does the most good? The corresponding problem is how should people be evaluated on the basis of project performance. Should project schedules be reasonable and attainable and people held to meeting them? Might it be better to set ambitious goals that would motivate people to rise to new levels of performance, and people rewarded if they do indeed reach such higher levels? Indeed, when if ever are BHAG approaches appropriate?

I suspect that the wary bureaucrat will frequently design projects that will easily meet their monitoring targets, making the bureaucrat look good in the monitoring reports while he/she is still involved. In doing so, I suspect that projects often achieve less than they might. A system in which bureaucrats progress up the career ladder quickly by playing it save, but not by taking risks to achieve all that can be achieved, is likely not to produce as much as did our efforts in rocket science.

A Final Comment

Lifelong learning for all might be a "drinking gourd" goal. Would a eutopian society limit its concern for education to a few years of schooling? Would it not utilize many institutions in addition to schools to enable its members to realize their full potential at all stages of their lives.

There is little chance that we would achieve the full potential of lifelong learning in any society in the lifetime of anyone now alive. However, it might be useful to keep that in view as a guide star for our efforts in education. By doing so, we might reach better place than by any other approach to education.