Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go

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 practice of the technical bureaucrat and lack the confidence to find approaches which more suit our context.

A SMART target is one that satisfies the five criteria associated with the acronym.

“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. Such an approach 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 of the elements of the SMART methodology and consider whether or not 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’s 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 their use of SMART targets with students. Once again it seems reasonable and logical 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’s something deep within our psyche that makes us believe that to set a goal and to fail to achieve that goal is bad and deeply damaging. Such thinking permeates not only the classroom but also the Scottish educational establishment, where SMART target setting – in a variety of different forms dominates our practice. This is most evident in local authorities through the comprehensive adoption of project management strategies such as PRINCE, where the acronym translates to Project management IN Controlled Environments. If there’s anything less like a “controlled environment” than education I’d like to see it!

Nevertheless, we appear to have succumbed to the lure of giving into 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.

So to return to the notion of setting Attainable SMART targets in the classroom and the school. My problem with this idea 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 that we are always reaching for something which is within our grasp, as opposed to reaching for something 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 which doesn’t feature in a SMART target, or a PRoject In A Controlled 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 practitioner. They know that a safe journey might be to set out the way in a logical sequence and achieve them in a nice comfortable steps A, B, C, D, E, etc. – 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 me for the next 13 years.  I spent every moment, training, practicing 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 to achieve my target? 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 benefitted in so many ways from setting an aspirational goal which was possibly beyond my reach but which 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. Elliot, 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.”