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Smart targets are really pretty dumb

Over the past 10 years a teacher's job has been made progressively more difficult , says Helen Patrick

In more than 30 years of teaching, I have worked in three different contexts - in the primary, secondary and adult education sectors. During these years, my job has become progressively more difficult, particularly so over the past 10. So why ponder the reflections of a support for learning teacher? There are those in the profession, after all, who would claim that I have the easiest job in the business. So what is particularly different compared to the role of other secondary teachers?

First, as I move in and out of departments, I develop as no other teacher an image of the whole school, its strengths and its weaknesses. Second, I am in touch with and listen to the concerns and hopes of classroom teachers on a regular basis. The fact that I am with them in classes, supporting them as well as the pupils, fosters this. Third, I am all too aware of the pressures on pupils as they ply their way through the daily secondary curriculum. Fourth, I also work on a period by period basis with those pupils who are particularly disenchanted with school, who demonstrate in ever more extreme ways their disdain for and disaffection with a system they see as totally irrelevant.

I continue to experience relentless and incessant changes which seem to have pervaded our schools over an endless number of years, some driven by the profession itself (including our unions) and some driven by government.

Not all are bad, but they are essentially imposed within tight time-scales and with inadequate resources. The contradiction, however, is that the secondary school in particular needs to be radically changed to meet the needs of children who will be existing in a very different world to the one in which I was brought up.

Even with these constant changes, however, I get no sense of making progress, making real change. At best, there is the feeling that we are simply picking away at the edges. At worst, there are signs of specific deterioration. An important sign of change which I see as a specific deterioration for the support for learning teacher is the promotion of Smart (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timed) target-setting.

I find myself being overtaken by an emphasis on the setting of Smart targets to plan, organise and monitor the progress of pupils with special educational need, with the understanding that this will be the way forward for all pupils. These Smart targets are part of the development of individualised education programmes (IEPs) for each pupil. I have no problem with these. It seems to me that they have the potential for placing the responsibility for learning much more clearly in the hands of the individual pupil, a positive step in the secondary system which may help to address the worrying levels of dependency that some pupils exhibit.

In real terms, however, I am instructed to produce long-term targets (to be completed within a session) and short-term targets (to be completed in approximately six weeks to a term) for a minimum of three areas of the curriculum - maths, English and personal and social development. To do this, I consider the information provided by our cluster primaries and ascertain the level at which the pupil is operating in relationship to the 5-14 guidelines. Using them, I decide what the relevant next long-term target or targets (what happened to aims?) should be and note them.

I identify a few short-term targets (objectives?) which serve as stepping-stones towards the achievement of the long-term target. I have to think carefully about their wording, in order that they can be defined as Smart. I have, after all, to be able to demonstrate progress, using certain "measurable" criteria within an identified time-scale. Al1 this is taking place as I am getting on with the complex business of actually teaching pupils.

I should, by the way, be sharing this thinking with the pupil and parents, and involving relevant members of staff. We should all be getting together ideally on a termly basis to review the targets; otherwise this becomes no more than a time-consuming paper exercise.

Questions that flood my mind every time I go through this process. Why do I choose one set of targets as opposed to another? Are they chosen on the basis of what is most important? What about the myriads of targets which I have for pupils and which make up the complex process of learning and teaching, but are not written down? They must presumably be less important? Where is the room for spontaneity in a world of targets? In the complex learning and teaching process which takes place even in a one-to-one situation, how do Smart targets address the development of soft skills which are more and more in demand - evidence of self-confidence, assertiveness, creative thinking, flexibility?

We need to beware, because Smart targets have far-reaching effects on the teaching and learning process. They stem from the mindset that the more systematic and "specific" I am, the more correct and effective I am liable to be. Because the targets are so "specific" and must be "measurable", they are invariably related to specific behaviours. The assumption being made is therefore that targets that can be defined behaviourally, and are easily assessed, are the important targets for the pupil and the school programme.

The corollary follows that, if it seems impossible to detect and assess a "specific" learning outcome, it probably isn't important. The difficulty in this lies in the fact that "many worthwhile aims of education express themselves behaviourally only in the long term or in the face of certain contingencies" (Stenhouse 1975). Smart targets therefore tend to reduce knowledge, and learning, to the instrumental.

Smart targets are a way to make me more accountable. They may in fact be a means of assessing, not the pupil, but me, the teacher.

The language we use to describe and assess what is being done in schools is a constant sign of the reductionism taking place - reducing the value placed on education, reducing the role of the teacher and the relationship to knowledge and understanding, reducing our image of the outcomes of the educational process to quantifiable measurement and final1y reducing our image of what it means to be a human being.

Helen Patrick retired last session as principal teacher of support for learning at Forfar Academy.

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