Personalised Learning-Will it make a Comeback?
It was a reaction against one size fits all teaching
But dropped off the agenda
Does it still have a utility?
The term personalised learning was probably coined in a September 2004 speech in Britain by the David Miliband, then minister of state for schools, who pronounced that “Personalised learning demands that every aspect of teaching and support is designed around a pupil’s needs” (Hargreaves 2004). This speech was driven by the then Labour government’s desire to reorganize the way services were delivered, to make them more efficient, and responsive to ‘customers’ needs, given a concern that public institutions and government were lacking legitimacy, in the public’s eyes.
Over time, the government’s reorganization entailed moving from the universal provision of services by government toward a more personalised approach that was hinged on each citizen’s actions- in short,more bottom up than top down. Thus, in the UK, personalised learning has been bound up in a larger framework for the personalization of all public services. In both the healthcare and education sectors, the appeal is to the consumer side of a citizenry, looking for a promise of choice, greater flexibility and efficiencies for the individual. People ,or rather citizens, should be participants in the design, delivery and co-production of those public goods that they feel are of most worth to them. This is clearly part of thinking too that informs the Big Society agenda. Of course, the benefit to a financially strapped state is to encourage citizens to take on more personal responsibility for the public good. In this framing of personalised services for the citizenry, UK policy makers do not necessarily distinguish between children and adults.
Professor David Hargreaves had been instrumental in defining this idea in the education sector by establishing nine gateways to personalising learning. In David Hargreaves’ view, personalised learning represents a larger movement that needs to be put forward on several fronts to (re)shape teaching and learning. His nine gateways to personalising learning are assessment for learning; learning to learn; student voice; curriculum; new technologies; school design and organization; advice and guidance; mentoring and coaching; and workforce development (Hargreaves 2006). The close association of personalized learning and new technologies was a central strand since the inception of the idea, and is part of the all-embracing creed of technocrats looking to enter system level educational reform. The arrival of web 2.0 technologies was supposed to allow for greater and more innovative uses for those new technologies in schools. But it is only now dawning on politicians that the use of ICT in schools falls way below its potential to transform the learning environment and to foster innovation. Of note is that David Hargreaves was a former chair of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which was the UK government’s main partner in the strategic development and delivery of its information and communications technology (ICT) and e-learning strategy. BECTA, a quango, was of course shut down by the Coalition government because it was seen as wasteful and bureaucratic, rather too close to big producers and, somewhat ironically, slow on the up-take ,in a fast changing environment. In Hargreaves vision of 21st-century schooling, pupils help make the curriculum, tell the school how to use information technology, set standards and learning objectives, assess their own and one another’s work, spend half or whole days on collaborative team projects, and sometimes work at home . Teachers in this new landscape are mentors or coaches who comment on students’ work rather than grading it. Subjects become “essential learnings”, such as communication, thinking or social responsibility; or “competencies”, such as managing information or relating to people. Schools become part of a network, working with other schools or colleges or even employers . It was a big vision, too big it seems for the government of the day.
But Personalisation’ wont go away. To some it remains the key to tackling the persistent achievement gaps between different social and ethnic groups. It means a tailored education for every child and young person, that gives them strength in the basics, stretches their aspirations, and builds their life chances “It will create opportunity for every child, regardless of their background.” Hargreaves ideas were certainly radical which goes some way to explaining why his vision of personalising education really hasn’t quite taken off. A Select Committee hearing into Personalised Learning in 2008, so about four years after its launch, found little substantive progress or indeed consensus on its meaning, and much confusion over what the term actually looks like in practice. Professor David Hargreaves bemused MPs when said he had struggled for the past four years to define it but had now concluded that it was “a total waste of time trying to find a definition” .He suggested it was more helpful to see it as a constant challenge rather than a particular state a school could ever say it had reached. He favoured the analogy with business, which had geared itself to meet a “customised” market, rather than a mass-production system. He then, reflecting his own frustration at how the term had been misused, hijacked and misunderstood delivered a devastating blow to “personalised learning”, saying “I think it has outlived its usefulness”. The Labour Government had, when it realised what the full vision was and what it might mean in practice, backed off and sought to water down that vision to something quite different –in short seeking the reshaping of teaching and learning through assessing the strengths of individuals and then addressing the specific needs and learning styles of each student applying differentiated teaching. The mantra was increased ‘flexibility’. The use of ICT though which was very much part of Hargreaves vision seemed if not to drop off the agenda, to take a back seat.
Other countries though have too focused on ICT and personalisation. So what is happening abroad?
In Canada –Alberta- the ministry of education’s 2010–2013 business plan addresses personalized learning and articulates the intent to “support a flexible approach to enable learning any time, any place and at any pace, facilitated by increased access to learning technologies (Alberta Education 2010a, p. 70). In the plan, personalization is addressed in the same breath as technology, where one is the facilitator of the other. In many ways this is a natural reaction of a government looking to create/support public services in a more digitized society, where people are experiencing (or perceiving) greater choice, more voice and increased scope for self-organization throughout their (digital) lives. In the more recent recommendations from Inspiring Action on Education (2010b), Alberta Education’s vision for policy directions, legislative change and transformational shifts for education in the province, personalized learning is not equated solely with emerging technologies, but positioned as extending students’ learning experiences into community. “Personalized learning means that … students have access to a greater variety of learning experiences that include and extend beyond traditional education settings and benefit from increased community involvement in their learning” (Alberta Education 2010b, p. 14). In the United States the idea of personalisation is focused mainly, it seems, on utilising technology. The Charter schools movement is taking a lead on using ICT to personalise learning . A recent CFBT Education Trust report-Making the most of Free school Freedoms’ looked interalia at innovation taking shape in New York Charter schools. The report says that ‘The ‘School of One’ uses sophisticated technology and algorithms to find the best matches between students, teachers and resources, and thereby generates a unique timetable for each student every day. This provides a new level of personalisation for students and ensures they never move on from a concept until they have demonstrated mastery.’ The report continues ‘Technological innovation in a number of US charter schools in particular, is taking the form of what are known as blended or hybrid models of learning wherein computer and face-to face learning take place more and more in parallel’. It mentions the Rocketship Education which is one such small but growing network of charter schools which is having resounding success serving an overwhelmingly low-income immigrant community in San Jose. Rocketship is at the cutting edge of school reform thanks to its vision for how technology will integrate with, and change, the structure of the school.’ The exciting thing about Academies and Free schools, the independent schools being created as part of the UK education reforms, is that with their new freedoms they have the potential to seek to reshape the learning environment and to innovate around personalising education revisiting and redefining the whole concept. They could act as incubators for innovative ideas and practice, which could help drive system wide reforms. Personalized learning is not a pedagogic theory nor a coherent set of teaching approaches, but an idea that is struggling for an identity. But it is a reaction against the ‘ one size fits all model’ and accepts the importance, identity and needs of individual learners, and that they learn in different ways and at different paces and respond differently to their learning environment. One experienced teacher told me the best Head that he had ever served under interviewed every pupil personally to establish their learning needs. The fact is all good schools will seek to personalise learning for their pupils.
Alberta Education. 2010a. Education Business Plan 2010–13. Edmonton, AB:
Government of Alberta. Retrieved August 12, 2010, at
Inspiring Action on Education. Edmonton, AB: Government of Alberta. Retrieved August 12, 2010, at http://engage.education.alberta.ca/inspiring-action/
School of One