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Aims, Goals & Objectives – Any Difference?

Posted on the 03 October 2011 by Combi31 @combi31

Aims, Goals & Objectives – Any difference?

Talking to a learner today, he said that his aim was to be more positive and less stressed in his job. Great, we all need a chunk of this – I asked him how he intended achieving this, had he thought about his goals and objectives?

I was met with a blank stare as a smile started forming in the corners of his mouth – I could tell that I had asked (another) stupid question … but then his faced changed, with the blinding realisation that he had thought about what he wanted to do, but not about how he was going to achieve it, apart by some miraculous form of osmosis. He then said, that they were all the same thing …

I must add that in a (business & performance) coaching situation, I could be crowned the King of the stupid question(s) – and I assume that role totally and whole-heartedly – in fact, I’d go as far as to say that the ostensibly ‘stupid questions’, are exactly the ones that stop us in our tracks and help us consider things from a completely different angle. What we are really talking about here is change – a change in the way that we address a problem, with the added impact of a form of triangulation by a third party – effectively turning the problem on its head, but there I digress.

In terms of learning and development, terms are sometimes loosely, or even completely misunderstood – an example of this are the terms; Aims, Goals and Objectives.

What do you understand by these threes terms?

I have a clear understanding of the three, which could be totally wrong as far as academic nomenclatures go, but at least it helps me and my clients get onto the same page.

So what?

Well, it really helps to channel learning and development with a client when we are working to common ends, and where what is being put into place by a learner is universally understood by all who are there to support and work with them.

So let’s take them one-by-one :

Aims – aims are a general direction where things are going – In terms of learning, Aims answer the question, Where? Where do I want to be in x days / months / years? I can see where I want to be but little else at this point. Sometimes, why? is a good question to ask to ensure the ecology of the aim. Ecology in this context refers to the “suitability” of the goal in the ‘ecosystem’ of the person setting the goal. Is it good for them? Their circle of friends / family? What are the consequences of this aim being achieved? If someone’s aim is to become rich, for example, but it means that they have to sacrifice family and friends, working at the office 22 hours a day, then this is not an ecologic aim. In short, there is too much potential peripheral harm to make this a feasible aim, at least for most people. Aims are generally stated in amorphous terms, and are not quantifiable. An aim could also be a long term aspiration, which also entails an idea of terminality, but with no specific time constraints, in fact the notion of time doesn’t click-in at this point.

Goals – answers the question, What? What do I want? So it is very similar to Aims, suffice it to say that it could be quite difficult to score a goal without aiming accurately. Goals also incorporate the question, why? They include statements of purpose, generally with a clear outcome in mind, but can be relatively long-term without the ‘How?’ question being answered at this point.

Objectives – answer the question, When? and How? Here we get into the realm of the old chestnut of S.M.A.R.T., where clear steps are sketched out to form a framework that supports learning.

If I were to set out on a journey to get to Paris, I would aim generally north, my goal would be to arrive at Paris and not in Berlin and my objective would be to do it in x hours, leaving this evening by car.

So what does this mean in learning terms?

Basically, the idea (from my point of view, at least) is that the three terms; Aims, Goals and objectives are inseparable, but work on different levels and provide a clear, structured framework where the three can be matched to verify the worth, ecology and feasibility of each. There are many gray areas between the three terms, some may think the differences to be almost pedantic.

Nevertheless, it is essential that the three are used in situations where change is concerned, especially if the change, as it often does, causes instability – at this point the three terms provide the ballast that ensures an even keel – keeping things clearly on track.

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Aims, Goals & Objectives – Any difference?
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