Although there are different definitions of personalised learning, they revolve around responding to the needs of individual learners so that they make appropriate progress (DfES, 2006). Figure 3.3.1 sets out what personalised learning is and is not.
Personalised learning is not a new idea. Hopkins (2013) suggests what is new is the drive to make the best practices universal so that good schools become great ones. These schools do so by putting learners’ needs and interests at the heart of what they do, where practitioners act according to a moral purpose. This is based around core values, such as believing that every learner has the right to be helped to reach his or her potential. The key components of personalised learning are noted in Figure 3.3.2.
Responding to the needs, aspirations and interests of individual learners
The book and film ‘Kes’ (1968–9) is the story of a 15-year-old called Billy Casper who is brought up on a tough estate, dismissed by his mother as ‘a hopeless case’, abandoned by his father, abused by his half-brother and bullied at school. Billy gains hope when he begins to nurture a young kestrel. Billy’s rare ‘feel good’ moment in school happened when Mr. Farthing (Colin Welland), the English teacher, took a genuine interest in his newfound hobby of falconry. He gave Billy the opportunity to share his expertise on hawks, leaving his classmates in rapt attention.
John Hattie’s (2009, 2012) much-cited research shows that when children become teachers and assessors themselves, it can have a very powerful impact on the quality of their learning. Research suggests that peer-to-peer tutoring or instruction can bring significant academic, social and emotional learning gains (Spencer, 2006; Ginsburg-Block et al., 2006).
Personalising learning then is about getting to know learners better as individuals, building on their interests and seeing opportunities for them to develop skills in contexts that motivate them.
In responding to learners with special educational needs (SEN), schools may provide individual development plans with the learner and those involved in supporting them. These operate within a person-centred approach that focuses on what is important for the child/young person, what is working well and not so well and what are the current strengths and challenges.
You can find out more about person-centred planning in the ‘Special educational needs and inclusion' learning pack on Learning Wales.
Many schools offer themed days or weeks, community projects and extra-curricular activities that seek to personalise learning. Research in England suggests that personalised learning includes re-deploying teaching assistants to provide more flexible support to individual learners and small groups. At Key Stages 4 and 5, schools have provided alternative curricular pathways and work-related provision (Sebba et al., 2007). The Welsh Government’s (2014) Guidance for Secondary Schools, Learning and Skills (Wales) Measure 2009, advises on how schools can provide a local curriculum comprising a wide choice of courses, academic and vocational, to meet individual interests and needs.
Learning to learn
One of the dangers of personalised learning is schools spending too much time on systems rather than developing ‘learner dispositions and identities’ (Pollard and James (2004). In other words, schools should think about how they can best foster the likes of self-belief, confidence, resilience, curiosity, problem solving, flexible thinking, and open-mindedness. This is why ‘learning to learn’ programmes have become popular, such as Guy Claxton’s ‘Building Learning Power’ which focuses on developing the four Rs: resourcefulness, resilience, reflection and reciprocity (Claxton, 2002).
Personalised learning can be developed through modelling problem solving, identifying key vocabulary for explicit instruction, and providing a range of teaching and learning materials such as simplified texts and multimedia.
Central to personalised learning is the concept of ‘learner voice’ where learners are fully involved in the life of the school (Figure 3.3.3). This brings many benefits to learners, including gains in:
- self-esteem and confidence
- engagement and motivation.
Since 2010, learner and student participation in school and college decision-making has been statutory in Wales. This reflects the Welsh Government’s commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
(Source: Grigg, Wales Centre for Equity in Education)
Research points towards the value of developing a strong learner voice in school. To take one example from Figure 3.3.3, if assessment for learning is to go beyond cosmetic practice, learners need to be looking to improve the quality of their own work and that of others each day. The OECD (2014) report on improving schools in Wales makes it clear that schools need to involve learners more in formative assessment practices, by strengthening self- and peer-led assessment.
One of the key research findings from the Teaching Learning and Research Programme (TLRP) in Wales was the need for teachers to involve all learners in consultation, rather than just ‘an articulate elite’ (Lyle and Hendley, 2010: 2). Estyn (2014: 8) consider that ‘learner voice is a key source of evidence of achievement, attitudes and wellbeing’.
Many schools use Estyn’s own learner questionnaire to gather evidence and collate this over a period ahead of an inspection. The important thing, of course, is how the data informs planning and whether learners feel confident that their views are listened to and responded to appropriately. This should include involving learners in weighing up options and deciding upon priorities. It does not mean doing whatever learners desire.
Although there is widespread support for developing learner voice, in reality there are challenges including:
- competing school priorities such as external examination requirements
- limited preparation time
- lack of skill in collating and interpreting data
- overcoming sceptical attitudes among some colleagues who feel that children and young people do not have the maturity and evaluative skills to reach sensible and accurate conclusions judgements
- some children who are reluctant to contribute or who lack necessary skills to communicate their views clearly.
Reflect upon the following questions and how learner voice can be used to improve provision in your context.
- How often do you collect, analyse and respond appropriately to the views of learners?
- How effective is the school council? Does it represent the views of all learners? Does it have a budget? Does it raise its own finance? Does it influence learning and teaching?
- Can you name three actions led by learners that have made a positive difference to the whole-school community?
The sociologist Roger Hart (1992), on behalf of UNICEF, created an 8-rung ladder of increasing learner participation, which is a helpful metaphor for schools to reflect upon. Hart regarded the three lowest steps as ‘non participation’ where adults ‘manipulate’ participation, and it is little more than tokenistic and decorative. At the five higher levels, learners move from responding to assigned roles to taking the initiative and making decisions independently, which they share with adults. The TLRP simplified this and created a four-stage ladder (Lyle and Hendley, 2010).
Stage 4: Learners as fully active participants and co-researchers
Learners play an active role in decision-making; together with teachers, they jointly plan action in the light of data and review the impact of the intervention.
Stage 3: Learners as researchers
Learners are involved in enquiry, and have an active role in decision-making.
Stage 2: Learners as active participants
Teachers initiate enquiry and interpret the data, but learners are taking some role in decision-making.
Stage 1: Listening to learners
Learners are a source of data; teachers respond to data, but Learners are not involved in discussion of data; there may be no feedback to learners. Teachers act on the data.
- Reflect on the barriers to promoting meaningful learner voice that exist in your context. How might these be overcome?
- Use the TLRP’s ladder of participation in Figure 3.3.3 and reflect on where you are both as an individual practitioner and as a school. Give examples of learner participation for each stage.
- In which areas might you use learner voice more effectively to improve your practice?
In 2011 the Welsh Government surveyed children and young people’s experiences of being listened to in school. Although the findings were based on a small sample (345 complete returns and 265 partial returns), they showed inconsistencies in the way school councils operated – only half of those who responded thought that the process of selecting representatives was fair and in some cases the councils were regarded as elitist. Moreover, although many schools had systems in place there was a widespread belief that these only had ‘surface value’.
Personalised learning has support internationally. For example, you can watch video extracts showing personalised learning in Australia primary and secondary schools (external link).
Personalised learning is sometimes equated with meeting the learning styles of individual learners. Read this extract from ‘A curriculum of opportunity: developing potential into performance’, by the Qualifications, Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales (ACCAC, 2003: 4-6).
Many pupils will benefit from the additional stimulation of music and brain gym – although individual preferences must be taken into account. All pupils will have learning preferences. Some may prefer new information to be given via their visual channel while others may prefer input through the auditory or kinaesthetic senses. All learners will use all three channels to some degree but the learning of all pupils will be helped if teachers provide a balance between visual, auditory and kinesthetic inputs. Planning learning experiences which cover the full range of intelligences will help pupils to make sense of new learning in the way which suits them best and enable them to show their full potential.
Compare this to what follows, written about the same time by Frank Coffield and colleagues (2004: 12, 44) in ‘Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice’.
In the current state of research-based knowledge about learning styles, there are real dangers in commending detailed strategies to practitioners, because the theories and instruments are not equally useful and because there is no consensus about the recommendations for practice. There is a need to be highly selective. Some of the learning style literature promises practitioners a simple solution to the complex problems of improving the attainment, motivation, attitudes and attendance of students.
You can read detailed research on the subject in Coffield’s complementary paper: ‘Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical reiew' [.pdf] (external link).
To what extent do you think it is important to take into account the learning preferences of learners that you teach? What are the logistical implications here?
A very useful summary of what longstanding and dependable research tells us about learning styles and what this means for practitioners is provided by Watkins (2011).