Target Setting and ‘Full Potential’

Archery“Don’t worry, Mrs Green, we’ll help him reach his full potential.”

Reassuring words like these are often spoken to anxious parents. All involved have good intentions, no doubt. Parents want to know that their child is being supported. Teachers are convinced that what they do will provide the means for young Johnny to reach his ‘full potential’.

But how on earth do we know what his ‘full potential’ is? Hidden not far beneath the surface of these words is a monstrous arrogance, which usually remains unexamined.

Ideas about the ‘full potential’ of pupils are typically based on a combination of test data and teacher assessment. The data from cognitive assessment tests is thus abused, as it was never intended to make such predictions. The probable grades it spits out are based on statistics from a large, nationwide group of pupils. They can never be validly used to predict individual grades, or even the grades of a school, because the school, and the individual even more, are not a representative sample.

As for teacher assessment, that is always biased. It is particularly biased when teachers have already made false assumptions based on the supposed predictions produced by cognitive test data.

So when we are talking about ‘full potential’, we are probably talking about invalid statistical ‘predictions’ combined with confirmation bias.

What can classroom teachers do to counter this? Unfortunately, the culture of target setting has become deeply ingrained in British education in recent years. The spurious information which it generates is used to make all kinds of management and political decisions. Most individual teachers will have little choice about whether they get involved in these practices.

But what teachers can do is ignore the spurious targets in their day to day classroom practice. They can try their best not to limit their expectations of any pupil, whatever the data might say. They can aim to teach a challenging, knowledge rich curriculum to all pupils by teaching the whole class, leading from the front and using the same quality materials (preferably well designed textbooks) with everyone. They can refuse to put pupils into pigeonholes and limit their chances with dumbed down worksheets because ‘that’s all they can cope with.’

In doing this, teachers will not ‘close the gap’, because real differences of ability do exist. But they will raise the achievement of everyone in the class. The bell curve will stay, but we can move it to the right.

And next time Johnny’s teachers get anxious questions from parents, they can say that they are teaching him to their full potential. What he is actually learning, of course, is impossible to judge. We can hope for the best, but we must have the humility to admit that there are many things we can never know. One of those things is exactly what Johnny’s ‘full potential’ is.


3 thoughts on “Target Setting and ‘Full Potential’

  1. target setting and tracking!
    surely it can’t last much longer.
    Some of us are getting braver now about the fact the Emperor has no clothes.
    If we all start talking louder about the nonsense, managers will have to give it up soon.
    If we all start dropping it in at parents evening ‘you do realise there is very little validity in these so called personalised targets…you do realise most of the teachers here are having to make up the tracking data so that it fits the targets eg 4b goes to 5c goes to 5a goes to 6c (hurray)’
    [yes we are still using levels at my school
    unbelievable isn’t it]


  2. Funnily enough, I was at a meeting this week where ensuring that all children fulfil their potential was presented as a moral purpose. Leaving aside the unsubtle brushing aside of dissent (how can you question a leader with moral purpose?) the hubris bothers me. There are also some practical issues.
    First, the targets and data are nowhere near precise enough to navigate by. Whether you are using overall grades or a RAG rated checklist, the uncertainty is huge. I can say X can do Y… but under what circumstances?
    Second, it’s not possible to reach full potential in *everything*, since full achievement needs full commitment. I once had a pupil who underachieved massively at A level physics, because of things they were doing out of school. Those things were the ones which opened doors for their career plan. Should I have forced them to reach their A level potential, or pushed them off the course? Increasingly, they feel like the only permitted options.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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