Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Should children be targeted?

Okay, a pun.

For the past two decades or so, UK pupils have been given targets to aim for in their work. While there is much to support the notion for aiming for some value or goal in life, academic targets fall short of authenticity and are open to manipulation.

An authentic target is one that self-chosen, that reflects our deepest values and the purposes we have.

For instance, if a teenager wishes to go to medical school then her primary value may be to serve people through providing better health and alleviating pain and illness. To reach for that goal, she will need to go to medical school (or a complementary school depending on her philosophy of care); to get into medical school, she will have to secure excellent grades from her A-levels and GCSEs and show her commitment through work experiences and voluntary work. It's a heck of a track, but if that's what she wants, then commitment and hard work are part of the course. As tutors and coaches we can then work with her on her scores and encourage her to be accountable, listening out for deviations from the targets and considering options and potential changes of values along the way.

If a pupil wants to go into business, then scholarly grades are ostensibly less important than gaining experience in many different business environments; now the emphasis is on securing key values that make sense to the pupil. How many businesses does she want to run, what turnover, how much money does she want in the bank account by the age of 30 (a good question for all pupils!), how many customers does she want to serve and in what manner (services? manufactured goods?). School work becomes a means to an end in which the knowledge gained should be viewed as a stretching of the mind, gaining important research skills (all business people need to be able to research), picking up a language for international work; on the extracurricular side, we'd expect to see commitment to people through sports, leadership, teamwork, and individual initiative - all great values without which people flounder in business.

The target thus needs to be adapted to the individual and the course of studies moulded to his or her primary values. Only then do scholarly courses and targets make sense.

However, students are saddled with course choices that are not part of their overall game plan. They waste many hours having to research and study for projects that do not make sense to them and which  they often come to resent. From the perspective of an all rounder, such feelings are sad to see in young people: 'what do you mean, you don't like history??!' And when they are expected to gain certain targets, pulled out of the blue, for such courses, they do feel incredibly disgruntled - more importantly, such feelings can spill over to learning in general, which is something we do not want to have.

To be targeted a grade in a course that has no primary meaning to one's life implies a form of social engineering, and our youth are quite sensitive to such manipulation, even though they rarely are able to voice what's going on.

Imagine telling an adult: right, you're going to sit this course, which will take up five hours of your week, no, I don't care that you don't like it, and we'll give you a target for it, and if you don't hit the target, you're in trouble.


In the business world, one of the greatest mistakes is putting the wrong person in a job.

This is what most of our schooling does - wrong person in a class, and then to make matters worse they are given targets to hit and have to explain themselves when things go wrong.

The other main problem with academic targets in schools is that the are historical in nature. I have pupils tell me that they are 'expected to get a C grade' or whatever and they cannot explain to me why they are so targeted.

Well, it's from statistical analysis of past behaviour. A moving average as it were - working back to their year 7 work through to their year 10 scores. So someone scoring a C along the way will be expected to score a C at the end of their exams. No account is made for the possibility of a change of momentum, which we do often see in 15 year olds as they approach their exams: the realisation dawns that the exams they will do this coming summer actually matter - and then they go up a gear, get really motivated, can be coached and mentored with ease (because they want to be), and hey ho, they pull an A.

Except we have a feudal system of exams: if a pupil is hovering around the 'C expectation', they are not permitted by most schools to take the higher papers which could gain them a B or an A.


Because schools don't want to risk that pupil messing up and getting a D, when they could easily score a C on the lower paper.

In other words, politics.

In setting targets for children, the teachers and heads will work the children hard to get the best resuls for the school - not the individual.

In my practice, we offer pupils a separate route. Smile and nod at school, as you're not going to change the system, but take the higher paper independently. In the commercial world, there is always another way of doing things!

So our youth certainly need targets: but those targets need to relate to their goals, their career choices, and their primary values. Then they will make sense to the pupil. When we ignore those, the targets are manipulative and even counter-productive. Schools could do this - and the better teachers no doubt reach out to explain why working at a certain level will be part of the game plan for the individual pupil; but they in turn are targeted by national statistics and this renders any attempt to work with the individual pupil nugatory - ultimately, the pupil is a statistic for the school, and beyond that for the government (and whatever pedagogic fashions hold sway).

To help your child - or yourself - think about what you want to achieve. Then work back from that primary value to secure the path that you'll need to take to get there. Then consider what courses and grades are then appropriate (and which are therefore inappropriate!). That's when we can all provide authentic targets for ourselves.

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