Targets – SMART idea or not ?

One word has become all important and all prevalent above everything else in education –  “target”. Teachers are judged by their ability to meet challenging targets, and headteachers are judged by their ability to guide teachers towards guiding pupils to meet their targets in turn. This climate and culture is causing irreparable damage among future generations of children forced into the pseudo educational self / peer assessment culture. My example regarding self / peer assessment and lack of knowledge for GCSE is one among many.

For my own education, I was not given targets to improve per se. My teachers wrote two or three things that I could do to improve on my work, and work was close marked. Evidence of acting on my targets was largely irrelevant. If I didn’t meet them, then I was going to fail all my examinations. Evidence of the child being forced to address targets in some schools has led to ridiculous accountability. Success or failure was the self motivation required by virtue of my family background – fortunately the desire to succeed was strong. Applying the target based system to everyone though once again is a “one size fits all” approach. We are producing generations of children adept at self assessment who know very little actual fact and who have limited skills to see the connections between those things. Ofsted “Outstanding” isn’t a quality guarantee of the education provided by individual teachers – it merely facilitates parental choice, however this is again no guarantee of a quality education. The system is geared solely to the responsibility for the teacher and the school to shoulder. Pupils need to be conscious of a need to generate effort, and in the constrictive system they face themselves, most work incredibly hard – it isn’t their fault that they can remember little of what they had to learn “to pass their exam” – I would urge readers to ask a year thirteen pupil who studied languages to GCSE if they can remember or are even able to hold a limited conversation in French, Spanish or otherwise. I remember seeing the same with pupils who had passed Mandarin Chinese for GCSE. They had learned solely what was needed to tick the A* box.

So why am I speaking about this ? What can one person do against an entire system ? Nothing, and I don’t pretend that I will ever change it, however it would be my wish that somewhere somebody sees my points and is able to identify with some of them. Surely it is good to have some targets ? Let us imagine a scenario…

A teacher is not performing as required because some of their pupils have not managed to meet performance targets set for them in their examinations. This was something that the teacher was liable to have very little control over given that some pupils didn’t like the subject and were forced to take it as an option. In education – this would be solely the teacher’s fault. Granted examination of the facts would mean that it were too late to do anything about it, however this teacher would still have to face accusations of not doing a proper job. Pupils aren’t questioned about their lack of effort – or are only questioned within the context of “What are you doing as a teacher to ensure that your pupils are putting in maximum effort” – which of course is certainly a valid teacher standard… One might argue that it is indeed the teacher’s job to make sure that the pupil had made the requisite level of effort, but this is one of the reasons for the teacher recruitment crisis. Pupils are voting with their feet about their timetable, and teachers are paying the price. This is unacceptable. Academic failure might preface practical skills. This doesn’t mean that everyone without Advanced Level Maths is a failure. We still need people to do manual jobs – not everyone can have a university degree in criminology with media studies… It is more often than not a case of the person becoming a plumber making an excellent living, and certainly earning more than their teacher ! Besides, a teacher has interesting raw materials to work with – no day for them is ever the same, and many factors determine what the mood of the pupil is going to be when they turn up for lessons. Will they be having a great day ? Is it their birthday ? Is it windy outside ? has their pet just died ? have they just lost a grandparent ? Have they just lost a parent or a relative or friend ? sometimes bad things come in more than threes and a teacher has to be ready to pick up all of these circumstances, run with them and then have to make amazing things happen in the classroom regularly. It is okay to have a target based on numerous governing factors such as birthday, postcode and others, however these are still influencing factors which cannot be eradicated in ensuring that a child achieves to their full potential – a child in a rough area will still live there even after targets are published, and therefore to argue that they are still intelligent is valid even though their home environment may not bring anything at all to the table in helping them to grow.

This is all putting children and teachers under intense pressure. Given that they are already under pressure to do well, initiatives such as “mindfulness” and “meditation” and “growth mindset” are flooding the classroom. Many of them are excellent initiatives to develop coping strategies for the strange system that they find themselves in. This said, there has already been articles published about how to quantify progress in mindfulness. This is a national scandal. It isn’t possible to quantify your ability to care for other people or your own mental well-being, when you are constantly trying to tailor your approach to fit the scale – creativity is dead, and with it is also the ability of teachers to tailor their approach to fit particular classes. Learning styles has already been discounted – I wasn’t a fan, however pupils certainly enjoy doing one task above another. This is always the way it has been.

Do pupils look at targets ? yes and no. When teachers enforce this rigorously i.e. target and review, then this is effective as a practice, however this is only as effective as the teacher setting the target. If targets are set by a teacher for a pupil and they focus solely on “for a level five you need to include more negatives” then this is a valid target. My experience of target setting from both my childrens’ schools and the ones that I have worked in, both highlight themselves as being very variable in their usefulness. Many take huge amounts of time to set in the scheme of things, marking etc, and given that children are reluctant to act upon them because of numerous factors, they are a waste of the teacher’s time in some situations. My PGCE tutor once enlightened us to the proportion of time spent looking at marking to the amount of time spent marking. The figures do not make a good case for close marking everything.

 

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Assessment OF learning ?

Assessment of / or rather for learning ? A discussion of the issues including that of a pupil’s subject knowledge. Self then peer assessment are pointless where a class isn’t 150% behind the process.

One of the major theories that has become steadily more popular over the last few years has been assessment for learning tasks. The principal dichotomy of this theory is this:

Granted, a pupil is better informed if they know exactly how to get from one level to the next. This is going to make self assessment more effective – if we are sure of level requirements. This initiative has already been frustrated by “life after levels” – which at least were nationally agreed criteria so there was consistency in assessment of those levels. Life after levels has however meant that every school has “rethought” levels so that they could be seen to be following good current practice which meant that the consistency between what makes a level six at one school as opposed to another has been completely eroded.

At least whilst levels were nationally agreed, there was a point to this assessment, but when there is no consistency between schools anywhere regarding the new National Curriculum, there is no real point in rating any kind of comparison between schools.

Self assessment is all well and good, however peer assessment complicates the issue further. If pupil A has to assess pupil B on their knowledge of the past tense in Italian, the time spent doing so is totally pointless if pupil A does not understand the subject matter in itself. Pupil A is incapable of creating a meaningful input into the whole process because (S)he doesn’t have the knowledge to tick the box. Consequently because of this lack of ability, pupils are attributing less and less importance to self and peer assessed tasks, and filling them in for class is becoming pointless.

We are consequently producing generations of children that learn facts to tick boxes, but who have very little enthusiasm to self motivate into study, and lack the incentive to find opportunities to apply the little knowledge that they do manage to accumulate. One example of this would have to be in foreign languages:

 

A pupil arrived one morning to see their teacher and said “Sir, I want to do German A Level, and I got an A* at GCSE”. The teacher replied “So, tell me a bit about last year and the Summer holidays” – knowing full well that this was one topic that was examined for the speaking. The pupil then proceeded to spout forth ad nauseum as per their script – learned dilligently for their spoken exam. The teacher then said to them “Ok, very good. Now write half a page of German about yourself and your family” at which the pupil looked worried and indignant. “That wasn’t on the exam” they blustered…

This story is absolutely true, and testament to the fact that performance indicators for teachers are solely there to be taught to in order to make sure that the teacher continues up the pay spine. This is at the expense of the education of the children in their care. They remain convinced (this is my generalisation) that they are still doing the job that they signed up to do – like the performance indicators or not. The blunt fact remains that the profession has been de-skilled to the point where education theory takes very little role in deciding the results of a school and the creation of a desire to explore the wider world and expand one’s own mind.

Many serving teachers would argue that this is simply not true, however a failure to follow the process through from the point of view of a pupil would in my mind indicate practice that wasn’t totally thought through and therefore not as effective as it could be. As I said in the “about” – people are perfectly at will to disagree however there will I am sure come a point where I am proven correct.