SMART Targets in Education don’t work

It’s been a while since my last post, as if my blogging self has been asleep.

But over the last week or so, like the dimly heard sound of someone knocking on the door early in the morning, I have slowly become aware of something that has, I think, bothered me for a long time: SMART Targets. Or I should say S.M.A.R.T. Targets.

I have a few things to say about them, but today I’ll limit it to this: SMART Targets don’t work because they are targets for the teacher, not the child. Too much of what we do in UK schools is focused on teacher performance and not enough on the performance of students. I have an idea of what SMART Targets for teachers could look like, which I’ll post on a future date. The actual SMART Targets that get set are in fact limiting and distracting.

Limiting because there is so much more to be achieved in education than the words off a spelling list, or some times tables facts, or a grade in a test.

Distracting because they take the teacher’s eye off the big picture they are trying to achieve and get them frantically focusing on the minutiae. This just makes things more frantic in schools (I have a series of posts tagged #franticeducation if you’re interested, but broadly speaking, my contention is that frantic teachers and frantic schools are bad, whereas calm teachers and calm schools are good).

The Need for Feedback

Recently I was asked to do something by one of my senior colleagues. It was an unusual task. One that involved me speaking to a range of contacts outside of school and then communicating with my colleague about what had happened.

However, I found myself deeply frustrated afterwards, because I knew neither the purpose, nor the outcome of the task.

It’s possible that I will find out in time, but it is also possible that I will never know.

Reflecting on this, I wonder how many times I put my students in this position. I may give them an activity, made up of a sequence of instructions. They then do the activity. I thank them for doing the activity. I may even praise them or give them stickers. Is this good teaching?

It makes me realise I need to ensure my learners are always engaged with the purpose of an activity and have time to reflect on the significance of the outcome.

#28daysofwriting Day 27

A place for the fun stuff

I love teaching children new stuff.

Today I taught my Year 1 boys how to do stop motion animation. Admittedly it was pretty primitive. We used iPads on book stands to take the photos (an app called iMotion). The subjects were toy dinosaurs. The outcomes were pretty basic too – 3 seconds (at most) of jerky stop motion video.

But the boys all made a video. They all learned that if you move the camera it spoils the video. They all saw that if you had the patience to move the subject just a little bit each time it makes the best video. All that in 45 minutes.

I sometimes wonder about this kind of fun stuff. In Year 1 reading is the big thing. Closely followed by mathematics, with spoken language and written work tying for third. These things are the key to academic success. Should we really bother with niceties like stop motion animation?

In many schools, the fun stuff is increasingly squeezed to spend more and more time on English and maths. But I like the fun stuff. It keeps the interest of both the children and teachers flowing so I think it’s important to keep on with it.

#28daysofwriting Day 26

Fixated by Feedback

Challenged by Tom Barrett’s #28daysofwriting post about proxies for learning, I began to consider what proxy most transfixed me. Having spent many of the last few posts on the subject of feedback, I knew quite quickly what it was: feedback.

If the feedback in the classroom is good, I consider that there is good learning going on. If the marking in a book is good, I consider that there is a good learning going on. Am I right?

It’s true that good feedback helps learners. But it is not true that the quality of the feedback is directly proportional to the amount of learning that goes on. I could be giving the best feedback in the world but spend my whole time teaching my students about Lithuanian Christmas Jurds and the lifecycle of the Wiggy Boond, both of which I invented*. The students would then have an awful lot of great feedback about things that are completely made up and do not help them at all with the next stages of their education.

Earlier today I was going through one of my pupils books and I noticed a piece of work that was unmarked. Yes I know. Take me outside and shoot me at dawn. It was just a few sentences of the child practising some sentence structure work. It was OK, but the child had gone on to do better things in their subsequent lessons. I realised it had been a lesson where the boys (for, as I’ve said before, it is a boys school) had done some practice, then I’d stopped them and done some modelling on the board and not gone back to the books.

So what did I do, given my feedback fixation? I back-marked it. I wrote a comment that wasn’t for anyone except an inspector.

And then I realised that all I’m doing is creating work for myself. The marking I’ve given doesn’t show the learning of that child. Nor does their performance in their book. The learning lives somewhere in their head. Getting overly fixated on one thing is not helpful.

*Sincere apologies to all those students, many of whom now adults, still believe in Christmas Jurds and the Wiggy Boond.

#28daysofwriting Day 14

When good feedback looks like direct teaching (Lessons in Feedback 7)

#28daysofwriting Day 12

The problem with formative marking is that you can waste valuable minutes at the start of a lesson with children leafing through their exercise books to find the coloured comments of their teachers and make their own written response. This time could be spent teaching.

I’ve found that some of my best lessons have been when I’ve done some cursory marking of a set of work to assess the understanding of the children. I’ve then put the books into piles – rough groups to start the next lesson. I’ve then directed my teaching to each of these groups so that they are all working on their next steps during the lesson.

I’m not sure which of these approaches is more effective, I’m just aware that formative marking can take an awful lot of time and then be an excuse to do less direct teaching.

Maybe I need to do some action research to delve into this further.

When the marking is not for the child (Lessons in Feedback 6b)

#28daysofwriting Day 11

I currently teach Year 1. Virtually none of my marking is for the child.

This is because (a) they can’t read it, and (b) they’re not yet independent or self aware enough for the marking to affect what they do.

Here’s how I use marking to make a difference: I photograph the marked work and send it to their parents. In Year 1, I’ve found that the most effective way of feeding back to the child is via their parents.

But I could do the same thing by not actually marking the work, but just messaging the parents about what their child needs to do next.

So what is my marking for?

Often it’s guilt. It’s the feeling that I should be writing something so that when an observer (senior manager, colleague, inspector) looks at the work they know the teacher has been busy.

This is why a school’s marking policy is so important. It defines how guilty a teacher feels after marking a set of books. Should you tick and flick? Should you mark in various colours, training your children to know what each colour means*? Either can be valid so long as the feedback is good enough to make a difference to the child in the next lesson.

*pink for think, green for good is one example

Who is the feedback for? (Lessons in Feedback 6a)

#28daysofwriting Day 9

One of the questions that came up in our recent book scrutiny was this: who is the marking for?

In some recent posts, I’ve been hinting at a broken logic that exists behind many schools marking policies. This logic looks like this.

  1. We must do brilliant feedback because the Sutton Trust says it’s the most effective way of making a difference to the education of our students.
  2. Marking is the same as feedback so we must do brilliant marking.
  3. We must write a brilliant marking policy so that all teachers do the same brilliant marking.
  4. We must beat our teachers with metaphorical sticks when they fail to comply with the marking policy.

I heard the privilege of listening to one of Her Majesty Inspectors for schools recently. These are like the ninjas of Ofsted inspectors. She explained that when Ofsted visit a school, they are charged with investigating how well the teachers comply with the marking policy of the school. They do not judge the quality of the marking policy. Maybe they should.

It’s a bit like if someone has a cold trying to make them better by observing how they wipe their nose – more broken logic – it’s so many steps away from the thing that actually matters: the quality of the feedback.

The Worst Week

#28daysofwriting Day8

This week is the worst week. As a teacher that is.

You’ve worked super hard all the way through the Autumn term, pulling out all the stops for your students to learn stuff. Sixteen weeks of sheer educational slog.

Then you get to the Christmas Holidays, and do you rest? No. From the Staff Do on the last Friday of term, to the Training Day on the first day back in January, you are completely flat out. It’s a different flat-out, admittedly. A flat-out full of family, friends and food. Possibly alcohol. It’s certainly not a rest.

Then you’re back and it’s January: a month of few redeeming features. The days are short. The evenings are dark. And you’re still tearing up trees for your students to learn stuff. But now you’re tired. You’ve probably already failed in your New Year’s resolutions and so you’re feeling bad about yourself too.

When February starts, Winter illnesses have taken their toll. You’ve had to pick up some work from absent colleagues, adding to your exhaustion. Towards the end of a block of teaching, staff always start getting cranky with each other. So now you’re cranky too. And tired. And angry. And frustrated.

And then this week starts. And when it finishes there is still another week to go before you can rest at Half Term.

But don’t worry, you are past Teary Tuesday. It is now Thursday – the week is almost over. And then it’s just one more week to go before the February half term.

Ah. The bliss. An actual rest!

I can’t wait.

Lessons in Feedback 5: The Foundation of this Book Scrutiny is Love

#28Daysofwriting Day 6

Albert Rosenfield: [to Sheriff Truman] (courtesy of imdb.com)

Now you listen to me. While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and hatchetman in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject absolutely revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method… is love. I love you Sheriff Truman.

is one of my favourite quotes of all time. And I was reminded of it today during a book scrutiny.

Given that feedback is the thing in education and, as I explained previously, many schools have taken that to mean written feedback is the thing, it follows that looking at what teachers have written in books (a book scrutiny) is a very important process. Perhaps the most important process in school improvement known to mankind.

It was so important at my last school that it became the process for identifying the ‘weak’ teachers and culling them. (Please excuse me. I’m currently doing the topic of ‘dinosaurs’ with my Year 1 class and I am perhaps slightly overcome with the brutal world of the Cretaceous just at the moment. It may be affecting my language.)

As a ‘culled’ teacher, it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I approach a book scrutiny at my new school.

But I am learning that not all book scrutinies are the same. At my current school the foundation of the method is love. The boys (for it is a boys’ school) are all well known, their individual foibles and treats discussed with some affection. They are individuals. And whatever tensions exist between the staff, there is a deep abiding respect and a sense of we’re-in-this-together. It’s almost like love.

What it means is that you can talk about the strengths and weaknesses of your own books with a certain confidence that any criticism will be there to make you a better teacher, not to boot you out of the school, or even mauled by a Postosuchus (that’s another dinosaur reference, this time from the late Triassic).

And I’m sure it means that the feedback gets better as a result. We all look at each other’s books. We can see some good things. It makes us think of things we can do better. We go and do them.

It’s quite nice really. A bit like Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks, even though he’s an arrogant bastard when you first meet him.

Lessons in Feedback 4b: Pleasing the Parents

#28Daysofwriting Day 4

As a little aside to my previous post, another great advantage of a system like Class Dojo is that it stops the ‘playground shock’.

That is the moment when you realise that something really bad has happened to your child and everyone is there to see the reactions etched into your face. Your child is there. The other children are there. Their parents are there. The teachers are there. If that’s not a recipe for ‘flight or fight’, I don’t know what is.

But with Class Dojo, a teacher can calmly message the parents about the situation, assuring them that everything has been dealt with professionally and their child is completely fine; therefore, preparing them for the surprise of seeing their child in whatever state they are in and avoiding the newly coined ‘playground shock’.

A recent example goes like this. I was making Paper Mache Volcanos in a corner of my classroom. Colleagues who know me will know that I can’t go a couple of years without a major paper mache project in my classroom. Towards the end of the day, a boy, reaching for a pencil, slipped and fell into the paper mache volcano. The volcano was slightly traumatised by the incident. The boy was fine. His trousers were not. I used the afore-mentioned messaging service to forewarn the parents of the incident and they were completely fine about it when their child was picked up.

Playground shock averted: thank you Class Dojo.