Off Target?

Everyone loves a target! Or do they?


Before you read on, I’d like to clarify that I’m challenging my own thinking in this post, not that of any institution. I think it’s important to critically assess any method used in the classroom. You will probably finish reading this post with more questions than answers, as did I when writing it.


Whilst studying for my degree, I worked part-time as a Personal Trainer. My clients would come to me for results, whether to lose weight or increase strength. Through experience of working with a diverse range of individuals and a wealth of knowledge, I was able to set targets for my clients that were challenging and realistic, and in many cases they resulted in great achievements.


In the context of learning, Martinez (2001) informs us that setting targets;

“involves identifying a number of actions at a level of detail that is appropriate not only to the learning task, but also to the individual student. This requires a high level of knowledge.”

This corroborates my above point regarding experience and prior knowledge. However Martinez goes on to state that;

“targets need to be negotiated and agreed with the tutor but owned by the learner. This ownership has cognitive, emotional and motivating elements.”

This sounds great, but were I to have asked my clients to set their own targets, I would be very surprised if they could set targets that were both challenging and realistic, primarily due to a lack of knowledge. I’m not sure that I agree that they’d be any more empowered or motivated by setting their own targets either.


Furthermore, good targets are supposedly ‘easily measured’ (Martinez, 2001) – we’ve all heard of the SMART acronym. Weight loss can quite easily be measured, as can strength, but learning, well that is far more complex. Despite this, there currently seems to be a real obsession with getting learners to set their own targets in every lesson. As educators, I believe that we must stop being so reductive.


Setting specific targets can mean that the learning is focussed and narrow. Narrow focussed or specific targets can inspire performance but prevent learning. As a consequence of the effort to meet short-term targets it often is to the detriment of long-term growth according to Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky and Bazerman (2009). This brings us to the performance/learning findings by Soderstrom and Bjork (2013), who state that learning can occur even when no discernible changes in performance are observed and performance does not necessarily indicate learning. Here lies a problem, particularly with short term target setting; the learners may not actually be benefitting.


Further to the above, Shah, Friedman, and Kruglanski (2002) found that individuals with multiple goals generally only focus on one goal. Attention is also given to goals that are easier to achieve and measure (Gilliland and Landis, 1992). Therefore, if each teacher asked the learners to set a target in each session, in addition to course targets set in pastoral reviews, in addition to any personal (non educational) goals, there is danger of a lack of focus and potentially unethical behaviour i.e. lying, and cutting corners.


Ordonez, et al (2009) argue that goal-setting is over-prescribed, asserting that;

“Rather than being offered as an “over-the-counter” salve for boosting performance, goal setting should be prescribed selectively, presented with a warning label, and closely monitored.”

Didau (2015) suggests that teachers may anchor ourselves to ‘fictions’ and students anchor themselves to given targets, which may be counter productive and actually hinder the progress learners can make. There have been occasions where I have set targets for learners to pass a piece of coursework and they have gone on to achieve a distinction. There has however been times where I have set distinction and learners have just managed a pass. Did the target serve a purpose?


The highly regarded process of formative assessment, which has demonstrated high effect-sizes in practice (Hattie, 2009; Wiliam and Black, 2007) may be seen as a contradiction to my thoughts. In this process, learners monitor their performance and regulate their targets based on their understanding. I’m not saying that learners shouldn’t have a clear learning intention in the lesson, but should this be a personalised target?


I do believe that targets serve a purpose in some situations, but we need to be careful not to let target setting become nothing more than a tick box exercise. The thing is, target setting currently seems to be a thing of the of the moment. In his book, ‘What if everything we knew about education was wrong?’, David Didau (2015) discusses the problem with group biases in education;

If everyone around us believes a thing, we generally decide it must be true.”

These group bias’ tend to do the rounds in education circles, often having a limited evidence base and being justified by comments such as “it works with my students”. Indeed, target setting may work well in some contexts, with some learners, but that doesn’t mean a broad brush approach should be adopted as a result? What do you think?


12 thoughts on “Off Target?

  1. I think your comment about the learner’s lack of knowledge is spot on. Similarly, there’s often a gap between setting targets and putting things in place that actually help the learners achieve those targets.

    1. Thanks, Luke. Yes, I think you raise an important point here. There is often the assumption that learners have the ability to both set targets and meet targets independently; and that it is important for them to be able to. I’ve been wrestling with the whole ‘independent learner’ thing for a while and am not sure that it is such a good thing to promote – I may be completely wrong of course.

      1. I think the question is “how independent?”. They will need some demonstrations and scaffolding before being able to do it themselves, but normally it’s assumed they will be able to do this automatically!

  2. Hi there … What kind of targets are you talking about? If they are numerical, forget it. If someone else has set them for you, forget it. If you are in control of any target you set yourself then fair enough … Far better however to think of improving your performance/knowledge and targets become unnecessary.

    1. Hi John. Thanks for the comment. General targets for learners, whether in class or pastoral. Why, do you say that if someone else has set them then forget it? What about learning intentions in lessons, aren’t they essentially targets? I personally don’t find targets useful. I try to be the best that I can be in all that I do. Why are targets so rife in education?

      1. Thanks for replying … Targets are just so unnecessary in education and definitely with students. Here’s the question: Does giving students and yourself targets change the way you teach? If it does, then it’s time to get a new job. SLTs use targets as a way of reporting in a game where they are only players. Targets breed game-playing and teachers take their eye off the ball: we then start to see revision days for one subject, after school revision timetables, Saturdays and holiday revision sessions, endless observations and mindless grading of teachers by SLT; imagine if teachers spent all of that extra time phoning and talking to parents whose children REALLY need support.

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