An interesting story caught my eye last week, in which a principal was talking about their aspirational targets for students. While I am not here to dismiss the work of leaders or their approach to improving literacy and numeracy, I must confess that I am not a fan of aspirational targets. Here’s why. Firstly, targets applied in the context of learning, assume a hit and miss approach or an either/or. Secondly, it’s a binary way of viewing learning and learners; it narrows the focus rather than broadens it. Thirdly, every target must be aspirational, otherwise why set targets? I would argue that setting targets for learners, removes teachers from key stages of the learning process.
Continuing to apply a standardised approach to meeting students’ needs that moves everyone towards achieving narrow, easily measured and largely ‘numeric’ targets, does enormous damage. Those of you who have been around as long as me may remember the devastation that this approach caused in the late 80s and early 90s in both the USA and the UK when they introduced targets. In the UK they implemented”joint targets” that combined health, education and social service targets arguing that such government agencies shared some responsibility for student achievement. They tied these targets to a requirement to report to Parliament annually. Not surprisingly, targets did not last long beyond year one of reporting. How do we shift thinking and develop new skillsets?
A significant part of the answer lies in the use of sophisticated and predictive technologies. These technologies give teachers a holistic view of learners but also a granular view of learning. As Lyn Sharratt says, data allows teachers to be able to assess progress more broadly as well as individually. It means that teaching strategies can be closely aligned to specific needs and this brings greater accountability for the learning beyond current indicators of success – marks and grades.
When we remove targets from learning, we provide opportunities for teachers to apply greater intellectual rigour to the work. Good teaching is not simply knowing the child. It’s a matter of knowing where the lagging skills and unsolved problems are, then finding collaborative solutions that move the child forward. As the saying goes, without knowledge, any action is futile.