As SMART as riding a bike. 

English, remember, has no future tense. For example, what does the following sentence mean: a future intention, a fixed future arrangement, or a decision about the future made at the moment of speaking? 

“In September, I am cycling from Leeds to Manchester to raise money for charity.” 

It is, of course, a fixed future arrangement. I booked my place on the ride last week, so it has moved from an intention (“I am going to cycle…”), and has long since ceased to be a spontaneous decision at the moment of speaking (New Year’s Eve, slightly slurred: “F-ck it, this year I will definitely do that ride I’ve been meaning to do for ages.”). The key lexical verb does not change (as it does for past tenses, for example, or as it might in many other languages) and instead it’s all present tenses and modal verbs.

Lecture aside, and what remains, however, is that I am doing this crazy thing, which will cause much amusement for the folk of Yorkshire and Lancashire as I wobble down their roads. Now, aside from being an opportunity to patronise English language teachers,  this also presents a fine opportunity to go back to my second favourite bete noire in ESOL teaching: target setting. 

Riding a bike, on an amateur level, is a fairly straightforward process. You sit on the saddle, spin the pedals and off you go. It’s an entirely artificial process, (the bicycle has only really existed for 150 years or so) and therefore something which everybody consciously learns. Nobody is born a cyclist. And of course, as everyone knows, you never forget how to do it. Riding a bike over long distances is also a straightforward process: all (!) you have to do is persuade your leg muscles to keep spinning the pedals for a long time. That’s a very big all, I have to admit, but it’s fairly uncomplicated. 

 Using a language, however, is terribly complicated. Look at the rules around how we talk about the future, for example, combining vocabulary and grammatical structures with subtle shades of meaning that native speakers sometimes abandon in order to avoid repetitiveness. Even the most apparently monosyllabic of language users uses a complex interaction of lexis, grammar, discourse knowledge, social awareness and paralinguistic features, an interaction which, as yet,  even the best minds in the field don’t agree on. Learning a language  is not much better: science has yet to comprehensively nail the processes involved, except that we do know that children are uncannily good at it, and it gets harder as you grow up. 

So, here’s a question: which one of these two processes can be most easily, meaningfully and effectively  broken down into discrete stages? 

I could probably do the ride tomorrow. It would take me ages, and I’d be a total mess afterwards, but I could do it. What I want to be able to do is complete the journey in a respectable time and be able to walk when I get home. So I need to execute some sort of lifestyle change/training plan.  As I am in a fairly post-beginner state, and cycling between 30-50 miles a week already, the training element is going to be about endurance – longer rides, gradually increasing over the weeks. This is easy to set up in terms of a target: by the end of week 1 I will ride for X hours. I can set myself meaningful goals like “ride the long commute to work at least once a week” and hopefully get a bit fitter. I also need to look at my own diet and weight loss: the cycling will take care of some of that, as will any other exercise I do. However, I suspect that my sugar/cheese/bread addiction will have to be limited, and again, a number of targets can be used to monitor this and motivate me to engage. 

So far so neat. I can identify some clear specific goals there: ride X minutes longer each week up to X hours by the end of August. Investigate potential ideas for off bike exercise. (And start !). Reduce sugar intake by X amount each week until weaned off (or something, although I might have to get back to you on that one). 

These are clear things which are understandable to anyone who wishes to engage with a programme like this. Most of this falls within the realm of general knowledge (more exercise + better diet = improved health and athletic performance). Even something slightly more technical like following an exercise plan off the web is still fairly straightforward in terms of understanding the stages: “move body like this for this long”. If I focus those goals down a bit more and mark them off I should gain a sense of achievement to boot: they are my goals, and I fully own them. All good. 

 In theory, then, this is applicable to all areas of human development and achievement. You can apply it to a business setting very effectively: increase output X to level Y, that sort of thing. Everyone involved usually understands the process and stages, enabling them to get on board and have some sense of ownership of the goals. 

So does this work for learning? A crucial aspect of the SMART target is that it focuses on observable performance only. You can’t measure thought and understanding except through observing what an individual can do as a result of that understanding. This raises a challenging question: at what point can “use present perfect to describe my experience appropriately in 4 sentences” be said to prove anything? I could, for example, demonstrate something similar in German with only the minimal amount of effort and absolutely no learning. I’d be happy to apply this to any area of learning, I think. Evidence of this sort may mean a learner has learned how to do it to an extent that they can reproduce said act on demand, but it may just as easily mean that they will not be able to repeat that goal any time soon. 

A little of this is down to the phrasing, the insistence on the sacred SMART. To tick all five boxes, we end up with language based competency measures like “be able to write five sentences about my daily routine using present simple by the end of February.” The very specificiness, measurability and relevance of this target mean that all we are measuring is not the student’s ability to use present simple for daily routine in general, nor a student’s understanding of that grammar (which is what the teacher is probably aiming at ), only their ability to produce, yes, five sentences about… (Awkwardly, this also applies to SMART learning outcomes. No teacher ever believes that a learner who reads a text and answers five questions about it has actually learned how to “read a text and extract five details”, but that’s what the outcome will be for that lesson because the product focussed quality assurance system of FE demands it. But then, no lesson observer or manager would really believe that either, which raises all sorts of tricky questions. It’s probably one of those Best Practice things.)

Setting targets for riding a bike over distance is not learning a language. The former is fairly straightforward and easily understood by the participants, meaning that ownership of the targets is possible, the target is meaningful, and therefore motivating. None of these apply for language learning. But then I’ve been saying this for years now and nobody seems to be listening or wishing to engage in dialogue. Certainly, despite a move towards a world of evidence based practice and practitioner research, being critical of the notion of target setting remains verboten because, presumably, it provides neat, trite performance data which can be presented to an auditor.  

Sighs. I suppose I’d better go for a ride. 


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