The Smart methodology is not that clever after all

There is nothing wrong with setting goals that are not attainable. We are in the business of raising aspirations, not constricting them, after all

Don Ledingham

The practice of setting Smart targets in the world of education has become the norm. As ever we see ourselves as being more "professional" by adopting the technique of the technical bureaucrat and lack the confidence to find approaches that better suit our context.

A Smart target is one that satisfies five criteria: "S" represents specific; "M" measurable; "A" attainable; "R" relevant; and "T" time limited. Local authorities, schools, and teachers are encouraged to adopt this approach - or something like it - when planning their work. This gives the impression that change and improvement can be controlled and bent to our will, as long as we adopt the technocratic method.

In the space available to me here, I'd like to focus on just one element of the Smart methodology and consider whether it assists us in our desire to seek improvement.

The notion of "A", an attainable target, seems reasonable at first glance. Imagine the outcome for someone who sets him or herself a goal to achieve self-propelled flight. Yet surely there is a difference between an impossible goal and an inspiring goal? All this came back to me recently, when I was listening to someone describe their classroom practice and use of Smart targets with pupils.

Once again it seems reasonable to adopt this approach with young people. To set an unachievable goal surely means that they will become dispirited and eventually disengaged from the learning process. Better then to chunk aspirations or goals into small achievable steps on a journey towards eventual success.

Such logic is based upon the premise that failure is to be avoided at all costs. There is something deep within our psyche that makes us believe that to set a goal and fail to achieve it is bad and deeply damaging. Such thinking permeates not only the classroom, but also the Scottish educational establishment, where Smart target setting - in different forms - dominates our practice.

This is most evident in local authorities through the comprehensive adoption of project management strategies such as Prince (Project management IN Controlled Environments). If there is anything less like a "controlled environment" than education, I never want to see it.

Nevertheless, we appear to have succumbed to the lure of giving in to the appearance of being professional through adopting practice from other fields - as opposed to seeking out solutions and ways of behaving that meet our own contexts. Perhaps it has been ever thus?

Arguably then, education has adopted technocratic methodologies and we have, as is our unfortunate habit, slavishly translated and transferred them into areas of work for which they are not only unsuitable, but self- limiting in terms of the effect they have upon our practice and our achievements.

My problem with the notion of setting attainable Smart targets in the classroom and the school is that an attainable target must, by definition, lack aspiration. For if a system is "hard wired" to avoid failure - because failure is "bad" for people - then it must mean we are always reaching for something which is within our grasp, as opposed to just beyond it.

Such a model certainly creates "safe" environments for learning but these are deeply uninspiring places and lacking in any form of innovation and appropriate risk taking. The best teachers and the best school leaders are not hindered by a fear of failure. They are prepared to dream (something that doesn't feature in a Smart target or a Prince environment). They set outrageous expectations for themselves and the people around them. But, above all, they permit young people to believe that the comfortable boundaries, which they may have placed around themselves, can be escaped.

For me it's this comfort with failure that marks out the outstanding practitioners. They know that a safe journey might be to set out the way in a logical sequence and achieve it in nice comfortable steps A, B, C and so on - but they prefer to stretch themselves and those around them to consider the final destination. By setting such aspirational goals, they know that the final achievement will be far in excess of a goal that is restricted by our personal comfort zones.

From a personal perspective, I had a long-term goal from the age of 10 to play rugby for Scotland. It consumed me and provided a focus for the next 13 years. I spent every moment training, practising and thinking about my goal. As it turned out, although I got close to fulfilling my dream, it never came to pass. So was that time wasted because I failed? Would I have achieved what I did in my rugby career if I hadn't set myself that logically unachievable goal? I'm convinced that I have benefited in so many ways from setting an aspirational goal that was possibly beyond my reach but taught me so many things in terms of how to apply myself, make the most of whatever abilities I had, and ultimately enabled me to transfer that energy and focus to other aspects of my life.

I'll leave the last word with one of my favourite writers, T.S. Eliot, who had this to say about attainable target setting (if he'd known that's what it was to be called): "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go."

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services, Midlothian, and executive director of services for people, East Lothian.

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Don Ledingham

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