The tyranny of targets and approved teaching methods

I was watching a video of systems thinker John Seddon lambasting an obsession with targets recently. He points out that if you want to improve any system it’s worth thinking about three elements:

  • Purpose. What effect should the system have, what are its intended outcomes?
  • Measurement. How do we know if the system is fulfilling its purpose?
  • Method. What happens in the system to keep it on track?

Any thinking needs to start with the purpose or else you get a whole raft of unintended consequences. Education is no exception, and I’ve been picking out examples that I have personally encountered.

When the primary focus is on measurement (exams/league tables) you simply create a de facto purpose of “make the measurements look better”. Some of the methods to do this may suit the original purpose (attempts to improve quality of teaching and learning), but some of them will work directly against it (endless revision classes, insufficiently taxing exams, over-coaching, or even cheating).

Just as damaging is a focus on method. For example “all must write lesson objectives, all lessons will be three part, and all students must know their levels”. This creates a de facto measurement “is the teacher using an approved method?” and “can the student recite their levels”, which in turn creates a purpose of “create teachers who use a fixed teaching method, and students who can recite levels”.

Of course leaders/managers/headteachers may have in the back of their mind that as well as delivering approved methods and improved accountability measures they would also rather like to ensure kids receive a ‘good education’, but if this is the lower priority then the system will reflect it.

In the 50s and 60s in Japan they went through a revolution in quality that enabled them to  overtake the industrial domination of the USA in few decades. Many managers there were trained by W E Deming, who famously advised

“Eliminate numerical quotas, including Management by Objectives.”

So how do we change our lessons and our schools to reflect this? After a short brainstorm I’ve thought of a few ideas, but I suspect you could suggest many more.

  • Remember that improving accountability targets is not an objective in itself: it will be one tell-tale sign of whether your students and teachers are buying in to the core purpose of learning.
  • Plan every lesson primarily to achieve learning. Think about the learning that needs to take place before you think about the structure and content of the lesson.
  • Assess deep learning. Use the SOLO taxonomy. Use the full range of tools from rote memorisation through to open-ended problem solving.
  • Reject imposed lesson structures, let teachers grow their strengths, challenge students in different ways.
  • Never judge a student, a teacher, a lesson or a school by their outcomes alone. You need a rich mix of observations, discussions, and self-evaluations  as well as outcomes.
  • Focus less on recording and processing symptoms of poor learning (e.g. behaviour problems and absences) and put more energy in to creating better learning. You can pick up the relevant information from these measures without having to obsessively record them 10 times a day.

Let me be clear. I absolutely do not suggest that we don’t need to measure things, take exams or train teachers in specific methods. However, we do need to avoid these methods becoming compulsory and these measures and exams becomes ends in themselves. There needs to be a relentless focus on student learning and development – everything else is, and should remain, subsidiary. When that is improved, we will know it by seeing the measures improve.

To conclude, a few more pieces of classic W E Deming advice, as taken from the Cambridge University Press summary of his 14 points.

  • Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.
  • Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  • Eliminate work standards on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.
  • Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
  • Remove barriers that rob the hourly paid worker of his right to pride in workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
  • Remove barriers that rob people in management and engineering of their right to pride in workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and management by objective.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

4 Replies to “The tyranny of targets and approved teaching methods”

  1. Very good read. I have been thinking along these lines myself.I think your point about pupils reciting levels is spot on. How do levels help pupils in a music classroom?

  2. Great post!

    Ironically, yesterday I was contemplating writing one on similar lines after listening to a BBC Radio 4 report on leaders who do what they believe to be right, even though they know they will lose out personally.

    The quote given was that of Jean-Claude Juncker commenting on the Eurozone crisis.
    “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”
    Of course, It could be paraphrased in Education as:
    “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to pass the judgment of Ofsted once we have done it.”

    I was subsequently cheered up by a Tweet by Alan Weiss (@BentleyGTCSpeed):

    “The less you look like a pack animal, the more you look like a professional.”

    Time to break from the pack I’d say!

  3. Well considered piece, please keep making us think about what we are doing and why we do it. In the light of Gove’s comments this week we need more than ever to be professionals who know what we want and know how to achieve it.

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