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.”

5 thoughts on “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go

  1. Attainable targets may come from the world of quality management. There, the idea is not to set a target – say for failure rates of components – which is outside the known capability of the manufacturing system. What might happen in that situation is, first, careful study of the variation of failure rates across a large number of batches. Then, armed with knowledge of the variation within the existing system, a target might be set to ensure that the failure rate of every batch was as good as the best.

    Clearly this approach has no place in setting targets for individual students.

    It can be of value, of course, in the management of systems. Even there, though, it is meaningless to set a target unless we know it is within the capability of the system. Industrial quality management teams will often use simple, very visible diagrams and charts to plot out that variation, help raise awareness of it, and to engage people in resolving the unwanted variation. That sort of thing doesn’t appear to happen, though, in education offices or schools.

  2. I found this to be a very thought provoking and stimulating post. I would concur that by taking such a scientific approach (mechanistic ‘smart’ targets) we have confused what ought to be essential differences between humans and machines. A return to scientific management, which I think we have fallen into the trap of doing in education, was tried and to a greater extent discredited in the post FW Taylor era. In schools we work with humans and if, in Scotland, we are to emulate the achievements of people like Maxwell, Marconi, Fleming, Baird, Burns, Scott, Mackintosh, … then I agree that we need to get all of our students to aspire to levels beyond the imaginable. Let’s throw away the shackles!

  3. Really like that TS Elliot quote – I’ve not come across it before and I couldn’t agree more with the content of your post.

    We need to make sure that all learners (students and staff) know what is possible and help them imagine (and re-imagine) the future…

  4. Hi Don, While I should be editing my IB Geography website for the coming school year I have instead been browsing various sites of interest in the world of education that have led me to this post. It is great to see you are still provoking so much thought!

    While I agree with the main point of your post (concerning self imposed limitation) I would like to add my own thoughts about templates.

    Education (and life in general) is full of templates that are designed to improve practice; SMART and UBD are 2 that seem to be ever present in my current job. The problem with templates is that people often become slaves to them. The SMART template’s objective of increasing efficiency and productivity is no bad thing in itself until it is applied in inappropriate contexts.

    I have worked in a school that expended a great deal of time and energy applying the principals of UBD to its curriculum. UBD, as I am sure you are aware, is based around the principal of considering the ‘end in mind’ first and then working out the best way to get there. For classes with no externally examined syllabus this is, I think, an extremely important planning exercise. However, the school also required that externally assessed courses (the IB already prescribe very clear ‘ends’) be written within the UBD template too. This, I think, is a damaging misuse of the UBD method that is unnecessary, a waste of time and a source of confusion and irritation.

    I have often thought that good ideas applied badly are worse than bad ideas. Most people reject bad ideas whereas many people apply good ideas in inappropriate contexts without thought in the belief they are doing something useful.

Comments are closed.