What’s so smart about targets? The Arguments For…

The use of ILPs and especially SMART targets has been a feature of Skills for Life since its inception in the early 00’s, starting as a means of recording and planning learning (as the name suggets), then becoming part of the means by which the LSC assessed non-accredited funding, then in more recent years, since the demise of RARPA, they have become enshrined as Good Practice by OFSTED. Needless to say, where OFSTED walk, managers must follow, and so the ILP with its SMART targets have become part of The Done Thing in colleges. It’s one of those areas which gets people very excited – either for or against, and is definitely an interesting case of how good practice, or rather the formal definitions of good practice, develop from innovation into standardisation.

I’m wondering if this post will surprise some people!

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SMART targets stands for “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-related.” That is, the target should be related to a very small, specific element of learning, say, writing simple sentences using irregular past tense verbs. It should be measurable: a certain number of sentences, for example: five. It should be achievable: so well within the realistic capabilities of that learner. It should be relevant, that is, of interest to the learner, relevant to the context they will be using English in (occasionally you see “Realistic” here but I interpret that word as the same as achievable, so prefer Relevant). Finally it should be Timed/Time-bound, or something along those lines,, that is limited or to be achieved within a certain time frame.

So: By the end of this term, E2 learner X will be able to write 6 simple sentences using irregular past tense verbs about the things they did the previous weekend. Specific – simple sentences w. irregular past tenses. Measurable – 6 simple sentences. Achievable – this is an E2 learner. Relevant – their weekend. Time bound – By the end of this term. So far so simple. Let’s do another one. By the end of this term, E1 learner Y will be able to complete a short registration form using capital letters and spelling all personal information accurately. Not bad, could be smarter, for example: which personal information and what kind of form? Also this could be 2 targets – capital letters and spelling, but I could live with that). Can we do another? By the end of the term, Level 1 learner Z will be able to read and identify the topic of each paragraph of a text of interest to them.  Specific & Measurable topic of each paragraph” Achievable  – identifying & understanding topic sentences should be well within the skills of an L1 learner. Relevant – of interest to the learner, and Timed  – well that should be obvious by now. I could do this all day. Really, I could.

The idea then is that these are negotiated with the learner based on their diagnostic assessment, ideally written out by the learner (because this confers and implies ownership of the target) on their ILP. This then enables, as the theory says, the learner to take control of their own learning  and one presumes to increase engagement with and motivation for learning. From the very beginning the issues with beginner ESOL learners were acknowledged (http://rwp.excellencegateway.org.uk/readwriteplus/bank/ACF1C3.pdf) and ideas put in place to deal with it, which is no bad thing, as this is one of the clear problems for ESOL in terms of making the forms “owned” by the learners. Strategies were proposed and put in place. Nevertheless, it would certainly be possible for the teacher to “scribe” these for the learner, writing word for word where possible the learner’s comments, and trying to engage the learner with this as much as possible.

In terms of developing targets with learners, a simple approach to take is that of narrowing down from a more general discussion:  You start by working with the whole group to identify general topics & contexts (health, work, shopping, etc.).which they are interested in. You then break these areas down – when do you need to use English in these contexts? (e.g. for going to the doctor, applying for jobs, finding things in a supermarket) and what do you struggle with in those situations? (making appointments on the phone, writing a CV, saying and understanding prepostions of place). Once you have got all this information, it is a matter of aligning these with your findings from a diagnostic assessment (usually a selection of speaking, listening, reading and writing tasks, rather than a direct grammar test). This will enable you to then negotiate clear targets which are appropriate to the learner and which are suitably SMART. This is also a terrific time to actually get to know the students a bit more, and to really dig under the skin of why they are there and what they really want from the course.

The targets can then be used to design a whole course around. You amass targets for that term (say) and you design the elements of your course to include those targets, thus meeting the specified individual needs of the learners, as well as devising a smooth flowing course that encompasses the wider elements of the language at that level, but which may not have been identified (for some reason) during the diagnostic. Some institutions also allow for softer targets – things like improving attendance, developing confidence or study skills. These are valuable, and if there is room to include them then these can really help learners to focus on elements of learning beyond the classroom.

Many people like to highlight learners individual targets in workshop sessions, taking a range of activities to meet those targets, delivered to individuals or groups with similar targets. Some teachers advocate having the targets permanently present, either through the development of displays or shared posters, or by having learners have the ILPs on the table during every lesson.  This certainly keeps the targets at the forefront of the learners’ minds, and helps raise awareness of these, so they become truly part of the learning landscape, so to speak. It also highlights to an observer that you are working with the targets to achieve a particular end! You could also get learners to share their targets on a class blog, or similar shared forum, and encourage them to peer assess – during a paired speaking activity, student B could provide feedback on student As speaking.

Reviewing them can be tricky, whether you follow a termly review system with your groups, or whether you review them on a regular basis with individuals. Once nice, and really positive way of doiing this might be, should a learner meet a target in a given lesson, to sign it off with them there and then, or, on the other side, if you notice a significant error in a learner’s work, you could discuss it as a possible new target for that learner

There. I hope that did surprise some people. It certainly surprised me. A little bit of status quo, eh? Would it be so much of a surprise if I said there was a but..?

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