On Target – how the nature of targets shapes teacher response

As part of my work I am sometimes asked to make predictions about the progress particular students might make.  Essentially the idea is that if our instruction with this student or group of students proves equally effective as instruction in the past then the resultant progress should be about “this much”.  Predictions are useful – they allow us to get a sense of whether there are changes in our school’s “instructional system” and if they are improvements or not; they help decide on allocation of resources for areas where progress is limited or doesn’t match the predictions; and gives students a sense of whether their progress is typical.


Sometimes these predictions are repurposed into targets, often with a little stretching so that they represent an improvement on the past.  Targets like these are also sometimes useful as they provide guidance and pressure for teachers and students that can be constructive in positively changing practice. However, targets come with some dangers that can quickly turn them into levers for negative choices.


In his wonderful book on Statistical Process Control,“Understanding Variation – The Key to Managing Chaos”Donald Wheeler makes reference to the three responses of people when faced with a challenging target:

1. They can work to improve the system (their instruction) so that the target is achieved.
2. They can distort the system so that the target is achieved.
3. They can distort the data so that the target is achieved.


So, if we took writing as an example, my three options for meeting a challenging target are:


1. To examine areas in my instruction that might lead to the student writing more effectively and hence achieving the target.  In this case if my instruction is a little better than previously, and the students can write a little more effectively as a result, then students should have a good chance of meeting targets on this measure.  

 

2. To distort the system by enabling the student to construct writing that will score well on this particular task even though their writing may not have improved in general.  The piece may be Frankensteinian in nature but score well on the testing criteria.  Thus the target is reached but is not necessarily a fair indicator of the student skill in writing (see Greg Ashman’s excellent blog on the perils of concentrating too much on the surface features of a complex skill).

 

3. To alter the data itself (aka cheating).  This might mean mismarking, or, on externally marked pieces, giving undue assistance in the writing process, allowing extra time, erasing and replacing sections, giving the prompt to students early, helping develop ideas etc etc etc.


Most people would agree option 3 is not an acceptable one.  Option 2 is interesting because it may actually be a good response in some situations, particularly when preparing students for end of schooling examinations and assessments.  The decision a teacher makes in this situation is dependent on a range of factors.  I believe the nature of the target is an important one.


Let’s say the target in the writing example is related to the Australian National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) assessments. In this case the target may be a scaled score of 640.  This is a useful target for a school or school system, as it allows a sense of what we might expect in a generalised sense of student progress.  It can help the school allocate resources to help change practice or structures that may lead to better learning.


However, 640 is not particularly meaningful for teachers as they don’t know what 640 means or looks like and can’t identify how their practice links to 640.  In their minds they have no control over whether the student can reach the 640 target because it doesn’t relate to their teaching – they can’t exercise option 1.  When targets are divorced from the process that might achieve them teachers are more likely to distort the process or alter the data, neither of which actually helps students improve.


The closer to the classroom the target is to be used the more rooted it needs to be in instruction.  The greater the understanding of how instruction leads to progress against the target the more control a teacher has on whether the target is reached.  In writing this target might be a greater variation in sentence structure or connectives.  Theoretically an improvement here should lead to better writing and students getting closer to achieving 640 by being better writers.  When teachers feel that they know what students need to be able to do to progress towards a target, and what strategies they can employ to get them there, they will be less likely to exercise options 2 or 3.  


Sounds simple – however, I can’t count the number of times I have been amongst teachers from a range of schools and heard tales of exhortations for students to get 640s, or HDs, or other similar values.  I even catch myself doing similar things more often than I care to admit and I know I need to be better.  Perhaps I need an inspirational poster to help remind me.

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