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.”

Teacher Intention + learner interpretation = learning intention?


In my last post I considered the possibility of learning intention being the point at which the teacher’s intention and the learners interpretation of the intention come together. In order to explore this further I’ve had a go at an example:

I walk into a room as a teacher with a specific intention in mind – e.g. I want the pupils to begin to develop an understanding of Scottish  devolution. Eventually I want them to be able to discuss the merits and drawbacks of devolution, support their understanding with knowledge about devoution in Scotland, and to develop their own opinion. This is to be the first lesson of ten in this series.

I might write down the learning intention as:

 We  are going to find out what the word devolution means and how it relates to how Scotland is now governed. 

Certainly such an intention leads me to think about possible learning tasks which would lead to a successful learning outcome. For example: 

1.      What powers do I have as a teacher in this class?

2.    Brainstorm a list?

3.     Would any of these powers be better carried out if I passed them onto the pupils?

4.    Do we all agree?

5.     Do we need to have a vote? – Referendum?

6.    What will be the outcome of that vote?

7.     Who will now decide how these powers will be carried out?

8.    Do we need to set up some kind of government?

9.    What do we need to make this work?

10.   Now lets look at how devolution works in Scotland.

This certainly looks like it might be more productive than a teacher led, top down model of learning that could be used to cover the same content. 

However, I need to ensure that the children share the same understanding of the learning intention  it needs to become OUR learning intention!!

It’s at this point that we can work out our success criteria together. We can then review the task and decide if it will actually lead to us achieving our success criteria – perhaps they can come up with better suggestions for certain parts of the lesson ? We then go through the lesson and judge the lesson against our shared success criteria.

How does this sound?  

Teacher Intentions – can we separate from context?

Up until last week I’d been using teacher intention and learning intention as interchangable terms.

However, when I was took part in a discussion with our newly qualified teachers last week I began to wonder if they might actually be different – or at least one being a sub-set of the other?

Ann McLanachan made very useful contribution to this debate when she stressed the need to try to separate the learning intention from the context. Given some of the work we have been doing relating to the importance of disciplinary learning  I wondered if we can ever really separate learning intention from context – and that perhaps teacher intention is more related to an awareness of context and what the next step in learning might be.

Back in the the early 1990’s I undertook some research which explored the physical education curriculum by referring to the intentions of teachers and the functions of activities. For example – what were teachers intentions when they taught gymnastics and how might that differ from when they were teaching a team game or another form or activity?

At the time I surveyed half the schools in Scotland and interviewed a large number of teachers. What transpired was that the different activities fulfilled different functions, e.g:

  • gymnastics was seen to be primarily connected with the fulfillment of the following functions skill (discrete physical skills which formed part of the activity); aesthetic ( to develop an awareness and appreciation of phyiscal movement); and cognitive (to promote knowledge about the facts and principles associated with physical education);
  • whereas, the functions of a team game were primarily skill; social (using an activity to enhance children’s ability to interact, communicate and co-operate with other people in a socially acceptable manner); leisure (to develop children’s awareness of activities which can constitute adult leisure interests).

One of the conclusions of my research was that the activity – or the context – had a significant influence upon the the focus the teacher took when teaching that activity, i.e. a teacher wouldn’t try to use swimming to promote children’s understanding of “right” and “wrong” in a moral sense, whereas they might when teaching games.

My point here is that context does influence the intentions of the teacher and we must take account of the context when considering learning intentions.

However, I totally agree with Ann McLanachan when she stressed the importance of ensuring that the teacher and the learners share an understanding of the learning intention.  I came across an interesting piece of research relating to language teaching which backed this up:

Recent explorations in task-based pedagogy have pointed out that learning outcome is the result of a fairly unpredictable interaction between the learner, the task, and the task situation. From the teacher‘s perspective, then, achievement of success depends largely on the degree to which teacher intention and learner interpretation of a given task converge. The narrower the gap between teacher intention and learner interpretation, the greater are the chances of achieving desired learning outcomes.

I wonder then if learning intention might be the thing which the teacher and the learner work out as an agreed understanding of what it is they are going to be doing in that lesson – which would bring together the potentially divergent points of view as represented by the teacher’s intention and the learner’s interpretation?