You can’t hit the middle of the target every time

 

It's not possible to hit the middle of the target everytime, but that shouldn't discourage us from trying.

It’s not possible to hit the middle of the target every time, but that shouldn’t discourage us from trying.

I had a brief conversation yesterday with a lady who works in one of the many offices in the university, and also happens to be the mother of a child who attends a local special school. As we both waited patiently in a queue, for a paper cup of the tepid brown substance that passes itself off in the guise of coffee, served in the university canteen, we fell into a casual conversation.

“How’s Adam (not his real name) getting on these days?” I enquired.

“He’s fine thanks,” replied Adam’s mum, “he’s doing really well at school.”

“I’m glad to hear that. I saw him recently when I visited the school, he seemed to be very happy,” I suggested.

“Oh yes, he’s really well settled,” she responded, “and making excellent progress. They set new targets for him every month and he always achieves all of them.”

Leaving the scene, gripping my purchased container of dark sludge (why do I go back for more of this unpalatable concoction?), and having made polite goodbyes, I pondered on this conversation and admit to feeling slightly troubled. It was certainly good to hear that Adam is happy and settled in school, but there is something about the target setting process that leaves me wondering.

Target setting, it seems to me, is far from being an exact science. No matter how well we know a child, there are always so many personal variables that can impact upon the ability to learn. Progress is seldom measurable in a smooth line, but tends to form a profile of humps and hollows affected by mood, health, disposition, motivation and several other factors. The use of individual education plans and more recently in the UK “learning passports” (I still await the introduction of learning visas to enable me to access geography!) has served to focus teacher attentions upon the needs of individual pupils, and to consider how these may be met in the melee of the classroom. (Though I do worry that they also tend to dwell upon learning deficits rather than pupil strengths – but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.)  The individual education plan invariably identifies targets which it is hoped the child will achieve as a step towards greater attainment and achievement. But from where do these targets emerge? Are they simply drawn from the ether, or is there a more systematic approach to their identification?

Quite rightly, teachers will tell me that they take considerable time when planning for individual pupil needs, and that an important part of this approach is the identification of learning targets. In the best practice, teachers, parents, pupils and other professionals work together to ensure that they are in agreement and have identified targets that are meaningful and well-focused. Despite this attention to detail, target setting remains an inexact process, and one that in my experience can be as much a source of frustration as it is an aid to teaching and learning.

The very fact that Adam “always achieves his target,” makes me question the veracity of this process. In most other situations a target is something at which the marksman aims, knowing that despite his skill and best endeavours it will not always be hit. Does the fact that Adam always hits the mark mean that he is truly making outstanding progress, or might it be that the target is too easily achieved? What does the target actually mean to Adam? Or for that matter to his parents or teachers?

I’m all for aspirational teaching, and for planning that gives teachers and learners a clear direction of travel. I also believe that teachers work incredibly hard to ensure that they provide the best approaches possible to meeting the needs of their pupils. However I find myself questioning whether we necessarily understand the complexities of the systems we have put into place. It is quite easy to develop a process, get it operational and then simply go through the motions of applying this every time. We have been using individual education plans and setting targets for several decades, is it perhaps time to pause and consider whether we have got this process right? Work related to the efficacy of target setting is, to say the least, limited.

There has long been a debate about whether teaching is a science, a craft or an art, Nate Gage wrote very lucidly on this subject thirty years and more ago. Personally, I think that the finest teachers draw on elements of all three of these. This in itself may be why the concept of target setting is likely to remain a somewhat flawed, if necessary concept.

Now then, where did I put my darts?

Appreciating the individuality of children

 

Whilst respecting individuality, everyone was encouraged to share in the learning of the group

Whilst respecting individuality, everyone was encouraged to share in the learning of the group

 

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)

In most societies individuality is something we value. In my own country eccentricity has often been revered and those who are seen as slightly off-beat become regarded as “National Treasures”. I think here for example of the endearments heaped upon the Irish comedian Spike Milligan or the turbaned poet and performer Edith Sitwell whose extravangent costume and gesture were for many years parodied but never truly equalled. People either love or loathe these unconventional individuals, but to ignore their oddity is not a real option.

In some more collectivist societies, such as China, the place of the individual is less assured, and conformity tends to be the order of the day. I think that I would personally have some difficulty in living in a country which was intent on encouraging uniformity in so many aspects of life.

Whilst respecting and applauding individuality in many situations, in schools the child who stands out from the others is often perceived to be a problem. The term special educational needs says much about the fact that we see some children as being different from their peers, and in educational terms, different often equates to problematic. However, whatever the language used, we should at least be thankful that many of the children now labelled as a consequence of their individuality are within our education system, whereas in the past many would have been denied access to schooling. As the poet John Donne tells us, we may consider it necessary from time to time to focus upon the individual, but if we do so by looking at his needs as being separate from those of his peers, we are in danger of diminishing the whole. This is certainly the case of many children within our education education system.

Planning for the individual needs of a learner in the classroom in a manner that does not cause problems for the child, either by emphasising his difficulties or distancing him from his peers can be problematic. In many of the world’s administrations individual education plans have been adopted as a means of ensuring that a pupil’s needs are met. However, this is an approach that is often characterised by shortcomings and some of these were explored with students on our MA programme here in Bangalore today.

Tim Loreman and his colleagues have provided a helpful analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of individual education plans, and not for the first time we found ourselves drawing upon his ideas. Our students spent a considerable time in an effort to design their “perfect” individual education plan, working in groups and drawing upon their own experiences as well as using the course materials provided. Each of the three groups then presented their ideas to the class and made suggestions for further changes and amendments. Such was their enthusiasm for this task that we had to drive them away from their tables in order to have lunch.

There is always a fine line between planning to address the individual needs of a child and emphasising his differences, thereby possibly lowering expectations. This was an issue that we considered today. And whilst we did not necessarily reach a consensus, the quality of contributions from our students made a significant impact upon all of our learning. I have no doubt that most of us left today’s session with differing views in terms of defining the efficacy of planning for the individual needs of pupils. However, the learning was as much about the process as it was about producing the “perfect” individual education plan. The thought that went into today’s session was more critical to our learning than the end product and leads me to believe that there is no lack of commitment towards improving education for all children. Celebrating individuality is something we should all be pleased to do.

Making a distinction between attainment and achievement

These children want to show me their work because they are, quite rightly, proud of their achievement. But I wonder if their teachers are mostly concerned with their attainment?

These children want to show me their work because they are, quite rightly, proud of their achievement. But I wonder if their teachers are mostly concerned with their attainment?

Yesterday my good colleagues Mary and Julian asked me to do a short session with a group of special educational needs co-ordinators attending a course at the University of Northampton. Special educational needs co-ordinators (usually abbreviated as SENCos) have a statutory duty to manage provision for children described as having special educational needs in schools. In recent years teachers holding this post have been encouraged to take an accredited course focused upon providing them with the knowledge, skills and understanding required to manage the job efficiently.

Mary and Julian, along with other excellent colleagues provide a popular course based upon their years of experience and focused upon the ever changing demands made of teachers in schools, so to be asked to contribute to their course was something of a privilege. The session I delivered appeared to be well received, despite the failure of the projector, which meant that I had to proceed without the use of power point (a crutch upon which I feel sure we have all become too dependent). Whilst the teaching seemed to go well, as is often the case with sessions of this nature some of the best learning took place through the discussion at the end of the period.

During the session I had suggested to the SENCos that a critical part of their job was to assist teachers in considering the achievements of all pupils rather than simply concentrating upon their attainment. The distinction between achievement and attainment is one that I feel to be important, but does not always receive the attention that it might. Indeed, in some circumstances I have seen these terms used as if they have the same meaning, which they most certainly do not. There are, I would suggest, pupils who despite their attainment being well below age expectation, may be achieving far more than their most able peers. I have experienced this situation many times over my years of teaching. I have witnessed children who make far more progress in the development of, for example, their reading skills over a year than others in the class, but at the end of the year, because of the way we conduct assessments, their attainment remains behind that of their peers. They have made progress but not “caught up” and are therefore still seen as poor learners. The obsession of our education system with comparison of results across national and even international cohorts of similar aged pupils does a disservice to these learners and to those who teach them.

Similarly, in England, in common with many other countries, we have become fixated with academic attainment in a limited number of subjects and in particular mathematics and English. Sadly this means that some pupils who perform below average in these subjects, yet demonstrate outstanding performance in other subjects such as physical education, art or cookery, are not valued for their achievements when compared to their more “academic” peers. This denies the importance of these subjects and those who teach them, and also gives a message to children that being an accomplished athlete, artist, or cook is of no real significance.

I was however, heartened yesterday by one of the SENCos on the course who told me that her school had moved from the use of individual education plans based around targets to address learning weaknesses, to the introduction of a system that is focused upon pupil strengths. This means that a pupil who may be struggling in mathematics or English, or both, but who is an excellent swimmer or actor or musician, or who contributes through voluntary work in his community, has these achievements noted prominently in this new form of pupil assessment and recording. This does not prevent teachers setting targets for improvements in learning but does begin with identifying their strengths and enabling them to feel good about what they have achieved. A recent visit by inspectors to this teacher’s school had commended them for the attention given to the strengths of their pupils and the impact this has upon their self-esteem.

Listening to this SENCo talking about her experience and to the assent given to this approach from her colleagues was uplifting at a time when so many teachers feel that pupils with special educational needs are being placed at a disadvantage by bureaucratic assessment and reporting systems. I am quite sure that the actions taken by this school were seen as possibly high risk by the head teacher and staff, and they are to be commended for having the courage of their convictions to go against current trends in focusing solely upon academic attainment. This enables me to continue as promised, with a few days of optimistic stories demonstrating the progress being made towards a more inclusive educational approach.

Individuality Matters

“the identity of an individual is essentially a function of her choices, rather than the discovery of an immutable attribute”

Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

Here is today’s challenge. Bring together 50 teachers for a daylong workshop beginning at 10.00am with the aim of generating a document upon which they all agree by 4.00pm. To this task add the necessity to take into account the views of parents and pupils and the additional factor of managing this on a Saturday in Bangalore. Why, you may ask, does the location matter? Surely the task would be the same in Northampton, Sydney, Washington or elsewhere? If you believe this is true then I suggest you read Amartya Sen’s excellent book The Argumentative Indian. Consensus can be achieved in such a group, but only after much debate and disputation. This is a country that values debate because here, individuality matters.

This factor was in truth of considerable help today. The topic of the workshop was the generation of individual education plans (IEPs) in support of pupils with special educational needs. The intended outcome was the production of a format that meets the needs of teachers, parents, pupils and school managers with a plan for implementation and evaluation. Respect for the individual was high on the agenda and the commitment of teachers working throughout the day demonstrated their desire to take seriously the individual needs of each pupil.

As expected every teacher on the course worked hard, sharing their considerable experience and discussing their ideas with enthusiasm. Potential formats were proposed and discarded, content generated and rejected, procedures debated and cast off. At first it seemed that we might never gain agreement, but then as is invariably the case, a little give and take prevailed and finally agreement was reached. Nobody was surprised – individuality matters, yes but teamwork is vital.

By the end of the day we had arrived at our destination. An agreed IEP format, a set of principles for implementation and a proposal for evaluation. I would like to suggest however, that the final destination was probably of secondary importance to the journey. This was a day of shared learning, of team teaching with a much valued colleague and of exploration of ideas.

We agreed that the development and implementation of IEPs should be an enabling democratic process whereby pupils, parents, teachers and school managers are encouraged to share in the provision of more effective and enjoyable learning experiences for all. This meant that we were all required to see learning from the perspectives of others, to abandon personal agendas and work together as a team. Whilst everyone had the opportunity to express their ideas and to have their opinions heard, it was equally important that we listened to the voices of colleagues. It is through the latter process that we  become more effective team members.

This was memorable day, not only for its outcomes, but more especially for the learning, the laughter and the sharing that happened along the way. The heat of debate subsided into the warm glow of achievement – a job well done. Teaching today was a privilege and a pleasure. The end result may be described as corporate but it was certainly the respect of individuality that mattered.

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