SMART targets: are they right for the classroom?

We have all heard of SMART targets - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, with Time - frame (sometimes called timescale). Now, these may be fine when building a block of flats, writing a novel, or launching a marketing campaign, but are they right for the classroom?

A lot of educational institutions here in the UK, both state and private, are run by people who think that teaching is a business just like any other. In one respect, certainly in the private sector, this is true; students are clients who can choose to buy the services on offer or not. Salaries, bills, and taxes have to be paid, profit has to be made, customers have to receive the service they paid for, otherwise the whole enterprise goes belly-up. 

So far, so stating the obvious. But what about targets for the students themselves? Many places now expect tutors to sit down with the individual students and work out an ILP - Individual Learning Plan. It may have a different name and it may be written in a slightly different format from institution to institution, but the essential idea is always the same; tutor and student create a SMART target for the student to measure their progress against. Is this a good idea?

On the one hand, a clear goal gives focus to both learning and teaching. When the student understands what he or she is trying to achieve, it can be an additional motivating factor, which may well encourage them to stick at it when the going gets tough, as it invariably does somewhere along the line.

Equally, when a target is achieved, the sense of accomplishment is very rewarding. Everybody loves that warm glow of satisfaction from a job well done. That can also be a crucial factor in the student's decision to continue learning with that institution, which is also good for business from the institution's point of view.

 Unfortunately, fine theories rarely translate into fine actions when reality rears its ugly head. In the first place, the vast majority of students know either nothing at all or very little about the topic they're going to study. That's why they come to the institution to begin with. Many ESOL students start a course saying 'I want to improve my English'. Fair enough. So how are we supposed to come up with a specific, measurable criterion? Forming a simple, compound, and complex sentence? Able to use the present perfect effectively? Memorise 300 new words? Each of these may seem realistic and measurable, but - and this is my main point - can the student now communicate more competently? 

This is where the whole idea of trying to apply a business management concept to something as complicated, multi-dimensional, and long-term as learning another language becomes a Herculean, if not impossible task.

In the second place, students are usually not interested in setting targets. In my 20 years' experience of teaching ESOL and English, students generally only want one or both of two things: to speak and write better English and/or pass an exam. How this is achieved is the tutor's responsibility. 'You're the teacher, you know the requirements, so get on and teach me' may never be said openly, but it's certainly the thought running through the minds of at least half the class at some point.

In the third place, I would argue that the idea of specificity is too confining for the majority of humanities subjects (the hard sciences are not my field, so I make no comment on them). How can we realistically measure whether anyone has truly 'got' King Lear or The Grapes of Wrath? University scholars have been arguing over such matters for decades. What precisely are we trying to be specific about here and, more importantly, how exactly can we measure it? 

Suppose we set the ESOL learner the target of  being able 'to tell the time in English'? What happens when the student has achieved a task that most native speaker 6-year-olds can accomplish? Do we stop? Do we keep going? Then do we have to go through the whole rigmarole of setting up a new SMART target, instead of getting on with the job of teaching? If so, why would any student pay good money or spend their precious time on what is, let's be honest here, mostly a pointless box-ticking exercise to keep the administrators happy?

My main point here is not that goals or targets are unnecessary; they most certainly are. But my argument is that SMART targets are a tool for certain business models; they are not the right tool for the teaching profession. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of education knows how many conflicting theories and viewpoints there are across the whole field of teaching, learning, assessment, and evaluation. When it comes to deciding what and how to teach, learn, and measure, SMART targets are not the smart option.