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?