Why it’s good to be SMART in history by @bennewmark

Over the last week I’ve been thinking about all the educational acronyms that I’ve encountered over the years and forgotten.  Of course, many are politically driven, reactive, meaningless and short-lived but that doesn’t mean they are all worthless.  Amongst all the bathwater there are a few babies worth keeping.  SMART outcomes are a tool I’ve used every day since qualifying (Thanks Nottingham PGCE!).

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Ben Newmark and published with kind permission.

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Specific Tightly focused on very clear aspects of learning. “Sir, what are we learning?”
Measurable Easy to assess whether they’ve been achieved. “Sir, have I done this right?”
Appropriate Build on previous learning and matched to the ability levels of class members. “Sir, this is too hard/easy!”
Relevant Are useful to the group. “Sir, why are we doing this?”
Timed Can be achieved in the specified time period. “Sir, how long have we got for this?”

Planning SMART

I begin by forming an enquiry question with SMART outcomes as logical, graduated steps to answering it and then plan activities that allow students to meet each.  Here’s an example from my Y9 WW1 Scheme of Work, differentiated for a high level group.

Were the British generals incompetent?
Describe tactics used by generals Watch short video and define attrition.
Explain why some people believe these tactics were incompetent. Read through accounts written by British and German soldiers and explain reasons tactics considered incompetent.
Explain why some people believe these tactics were effectives. Study casualty figures for both sides and justifications by generals themselves
Evaluate two interpretations and reach a personal judgement. Evaluation line and post-it activity leading to oral justifications then personal judgement written in silence.

Planning SMART can be painful.  I love some activities that aren’t relevant and they’ve had to go.  In the past I sometimes tried to twist outcomes to meet activities I really liked (a trench battle re-enactment with overturned tables and paper balls springs to mind) but at best I find this inefficient and at worse distracting and counterproductive.  For inexperienced teachers preoccupied with fun and superficial engagement this is a tempting honey-trap that can lead to incoherent planning and classroom management issues.

Differentiating SMART

Using SMART outcomes to plan makes differentiation more obvious.  If I were to teach the lesson above to a less skilled group I might lose the evaluation outcome and spend more time helping students to build their descriptive and explanatory skills.  For very mixed ability groups the process is more complex and might involve setting separate outcomes and corresponding activities for different students.

Teaching SMART

After a starter activity designed to connect the learning to that in the previous lesson I usually begin by explaining the outcomes.  As the lesson progresses I make clear links between the activities and the outcome.  For example, saying “We’re watching this video so we can describe the tactics used by the generals, or “You need to have a reason for your personal judgement to prove you’ve evaluated properly.”  Recently I’ve been experimenting with colour-coding my outcomes and then matching the colour of each with the corresponding activity on my slides to make links even more explicit. At the end of each activity I run a quick plenary to check the outcome has been achieved before moving on.  With a group I know really well this might just mean me saying “have you all got this?” although I’d want something more concrete if I had any doubts about the validity of feedback.

Marking SMART

When I mark work I’m looking for very specific evidence of each outcome.  If it’s a very able group who I know already describe and explain well, I might choose to just skim the first activities and concentrate on assessing the final task in which students showcase their evaluative skills. A typical target for one of these students would be “consider the points of views of those who disagree with you before reaching your own judgement.” For a less skilled student I might concentrate on improving description and targets would be simpler.  For example “describe more than one feature of Haig’s tactics.”  Marking SMART also allows me to see clearly where students have become stuck.  For example, if a student messed up the first descriptive activity I can probably assume that the rest of the lesson went over their head.

Planning SMART

While marking I jot down what the group has done well and what it hasn’t, then use this to plan subsequent lessons.  For example If I’m trying to get a class to explain causes well but am finding their descriptions lack rigour, I’d use more description based outcomes in future planning.  More pleasingly I might find that a group is now explaining better than anticipated and then I’d introduce evaluative outcomes into their next sequence of lessons.

Concluding SMART

So that’s it.  SMART works for me and I hope this might be useful for others.  Please do let me know what you think, positive or negative, in the comments below.  I can also be found on twitter @bennewmark.

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