Are SMART targets smart or stupid?

SMART targets are not the best way to set learning intentions for either SLD or PMLD, and may indeed be the worst way. There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. they make motivational teaching problematic and therefore take away the necessary condition of target ownership;
  2. they can appear to offer clarity of purpose but actually limit opportunities to learn;
  3. they tend to rule out a constant learning approach by narrowly focussing achievement;
  4. they can be over-reliant on shallow, rote learned facts and skills.


A google search reveals that SMART targets seem to have been first devised by George Doran, an American businessman, in the early 1980’s. What is also interesting is that the acronym has changed over the years with a number of versions being on offer. I have long been confused by Achievable and Realistic since I can’t see how they differ from each other. Haughey (2014) for example prefers Agreed Upon, whilst the original from Doran (1981) offered Assignable. Both ‘A’s directly infer something fundamental to the origins of SMART targets but which are missing in later educational versions, that is, the centrality of ownership. For Haughey, the ownership of the target and the motivation to succeed at the target are key to the achievement of that target, and of course this must be so. If someone is not motivated, why would they expend time and energy on achievement? The first fundamental principles of any mnemonic must be that it makes sense and I would therefore suggest that whatever the A and R might stand for, they must, if they are to remain true to the original sense of the mnemonic, effectively mean ownership and motivation. They CANNOT remain as Achievable AND Realistic, because neither of these is directly related to motivation.

As it appears however, that the educational version of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) is not entirely true to the original, this creates even more additional problems when related to those with SLD and PMLD. Taking Penny Lacey’s 2010 questioning of SMART targets as a starting point, she refers back to the principles of ‘assessment for learning’ by looking at the educational purpose of assessment. This may in turn she argues, be derived from Black et al’s (2003) seminal work on the subject.

(Black et al’s) assessment for learning is concerned with how assessment can inform teaching and learning: how evidence from learning is used to plan what comes next. Learners’ voices are at the heart of assessment for learning as they decide what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it. (Lacey, 2010, 17, my empahasis).

This again comes back to ownership and my overarching concern that learners with PMLD and SLD will, by the very nature of their learning difficulties, have targets thrust upon them. More on this later.
Ensuring the target has been achieved

The logic behind SMART is that un SMART, fuzzy, or perhaps SCRUFFY targets make it difficult to ascertain whether the target has been successfully achieved. This does however, very much depend on the specificity of the target and the degree of achievement. It is possible to have a loose learning intention and a varying degree of achievement, as for example, when achievement is (i) less than expected (ii) expected (iii) more than expected on a scale of three; or when achievement is (i) a lot less than expected (ii) less than expected (iii) expected (iv) more than expected (v) a lot more than expected on a scale of five. SLD and PMLD teaching and assessment has a long history of using similar gradations, as in the achievement of a target never, occasionally, frequently or consistently.

This point is strengthened when one considers that it might be overly and in the end, self-defeatingly simplistic to be so black and white in the assessment of achievement. A SMART target is achieved or it is not achieved, there is no room for dubiety; but I wonder if life is like that for anyone. I start my day with a list of 10 things to do; is my day a failure if I only achieve 7 on this list. Probably not, in fact this could be considered a considerable success. What about achieving 4, is that a success or a failure? Well it could be either, especially if I’ve actually achieved a couple of somethings that were not on my list at the start of the day but still needed doing. This is the great advantage of NOT having a black and white, all or nothing approach, since we are not closing ourselves off to accidental or additional learning, or indeed gradations of achievement. This might be considered to be a constant learning approach which constantly looks for learning opportunities, irrespective of what has been planned. Simply because an achievement has not been forecast does not mean that the achievement is not worthwhile.
Motivation must be a key to learning

Further, within the SMART concept, both Specific and Time Bound present real difficulties especially when the targets are being chosen for the learner, as will be inevitable with learners with very complex needs and severe/profound communication difficulties.

GAS (Goal Attainment Schedule) as defined by Turner-Stokes (2016) and used by a few special schools to determine ‘good’ progress, derives from the NHS and specifically appears in relation to rehabilitation. This means that the SMART target agreed on with the patient has to have the patient’s clear approval, otherwise s/he won’t co-operate in its attainment. Medical staff may push the patient further than the patient believes s/he can go, but the patient must believe that some progress is both desirable and achievable. That is, the individual must be able to perceive the big picture to be able to work out that the pain, discomfort and effort is worthwhile. If a pupil with PMLD or SLD cannot see that big picture (because they have PMLD or SLD!) encouraging them to ignore, overcome, look beyond the pain/discomfort/effort becomes incredibly difficult and entirely reliant on short term rewards. This will do nothing for generalisation because the isolated activity is actively divorced from the big picture.
Limiting opportunities to learn

GAS works as a measure of ‘good’ because it factors in (i) the desirability of the achievement and (ii) the difficulty of the achievement and multiplies these (in a very complicated mathematical formula) by the rate of progress in scale of 3 or 5 noted above.

Unfortunately, in the world of SLD/PMLD education, staff may well be pushing learners to achieve a specific something that they have no interest in achieving, or may not be able to achieve when they want to achieve it. Let us take for example, a broad (and very un SMART) learning intention to encourage William towards independent movement’ arrived at through multi-disciplinary discussions which included William’s family. To smarten this loose learning intention up, we can use our knowledge that William (who is working consistently and over time at around P6) loves the sensory room and enjoys following the sensory trails that the school uses to enable independent movement throughout the school. A SMART target can then be devised, to the effect that ‘William will follow a tactile track and stop at the sensory room object five times a week’. This assumes his continued desire to travel to the sensory room, but has all sorts of automatic limitations built in. How often is the sensory room free? Is there staffing available to escort him when he can go? What will be the point of travelling to the sensory room if he can’t spend time in there?  Will he have the energy and the desire to go when the sensory room is available? Does this mean that he is only working on his movement target 5 times a week, and if so why? If we make this 15 times a week, won’t this just increase the complications of sensory room and supporting staff availability?

Such specifics may well have the effect of restricting Wlliam’s opportunities to learn because it makes the generalisation of any specific skill learned, particularly difficult. When the purpose of the goal is to encourage him towards independent movement, narrowing this into one particular movement in one particular place at one particular time (when the sensory room is free) doesn’t make sense. If we have the freedom to explore the opportunities for a much looser learning intention, we may find 55 (rather than 5 or 15) weekly opportunities for extending his learning through a SCRUFFY (Student-led, Creative, Relevant, Unspecified, Fun, For, Youngsters) approach. In the interests of engaging with SMART targets we may well have to narrow the learning not broaden it. And it is difficult to see what benefits there are to this. Penny Lacey’s warning of the dangers of narrowing broad aims into SMART targets (Lacey, 2010) should not automatically be put to one side on the basis of her whimsy, though there is undoubtedly an element of tongue in cheek about the word. SCRUFFY targets allow staff and learners to explore LOTS of different avenues to achieve the same desired goal, and because there will not be a single road to travel, as in a SMART target, learners are able to exercise far more control in the direction and pace the of learning as well as maintaining their motivation and experience generalising opportunities to learn.
The dominance of shallow, rote learned skills

‘Sometimes, when assessing children’s calculation skills, rote learning can mask underlying procedural or conceptual difficulties. A child may know that ‘3+2 is 5’, in the same way as they know their sister’s name is Phoebe. However, it should not be assumed that the child understands how to add up, or what is meant by the word ‘add’. Assessment should therefore consider children’s understanding of procedures and principles as well as the ability to recall number facts.’  (Gillum, 2014; p279/80 author’s emphasis).

We need to continue to be aware of valuing only that which can be easily measured, since this this is likely to lead to compartmentalisation of learning, followed by compartmentalisation of achievement. Little thought or consideration is given to contextualised, deep and meaningful learning that makes sense to the learner and which the learner can actually use. Shallow learning – the rote remembering of unrelated or isolated facts or skills – is given high priority because assessment of progress is considered the most important part of teaching. One of the most significant pronouncements of the Rochford Review (2016) was to recognise that an over-reliance on assessment leads to teaching to the next step schemas which then drive the curriculum. Such schemas make much of rote learned ‘abilities’ which may in fact, not be abilities at all because understanding is so often absent.


In conclusion, SMART targets for pupils and students with either profound or severe learning difficulties may well be stupid, because they can form a barrier to both learning and achievement by being overly prescriptive. The SMART target approach is unfortunately, yet another example of theories applicable to neuro-typical, conventionally developing learning that are universally applied without thought. They are I would suggest, neither helpful nor smart.
Peter Imray, March 2017.



Black P, Harrison C, Lee C, Marshall B and William D (2003). Assessment for Learning: putting it into practice. Maidenhead. Open University Press.

Doran G T (1981) There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives. Management Review: 70 (11) 35-36.

Gillum J (2014) Assessment with children who experience difficulty in mathematics. Support for Learning. 29 (3) 275-291

Haughey D (2014) A Brief History of Smart Goals. Available at Accessed 12th February 2017

Lacey P (2010) Smart and Scruffy Targets. The SLD Experience. 57: 16-21.

Rochford Review(2016) Final Report

Turner-Stokes L (2016) Goal Attainment Scaling (GAS) in Rehabilitation: A practical guide. London. Kings College. Available at



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