‘Personalised learning’ has been appearing with increasing frequency in policy documents and in discussion about teaching and learning for the last few years. But what is truly meant by ‘personalised learning’?

We have taken a selection of comments from the policy, research and practice communities and looked to see what commonality, if any, exists, in how the term personalised learning is being used and what it means to different groups. This brief survey suggests that we need to exercise caution about putting systems reform before individuals and contexts.

The DfES Standards website describes personalised learning as a philosophy of education. The implication appears to be that there is an underlying ethos to teaching and learning which represents the personalised learning agenda. It suggests five guidelines for personalised learning at the heart of which is ‘assessment for learning’; however, the other guidelines are broad and arguably unclear. There is a hint of something which smacks of common sense, but limited directions on how how to implement a personalised learning approach.

The Every Child Matters website states that, ‘The Every Child Matters: Change for Children programme is focused on giving every child the support they require, whatever their needs, abilities, background or circumstances.’

This seems to be a message which has philosophical overtones, but yet there seems to be more of a hint of issues relating to inclusivity and equality of education provision. It could be argued that this is the wider remit of the Every Child Matters agenda, but to what extent can this be practically applied and how does it fit with the structures and institutions within which we as professionals have to work.

From an academic perspective, the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) draws on their evidence-base of working with schools across the country:

Personalised learning’s emphasis on learners and learning is welcome and is being tackled in evidence informed ways. But … given the pressures, constraints and expectations of the last decade, it will need considerable resolve to prevent discussion of personalised learning losing its focus on learners and learning and slipping back into over-simplified consideration of teaching provision and associated systems. (www.tlrp.org/documents/personalised_learning.pdf)

This definition appears to be located in teaching and learning practice with the five guidelines from the government being expanded upon and exemplified (see diagram). However, the warning that the term ‘personalised learning’ could be overgeneralised and its meaning be lost seems very real. This can appear particularly so when the more wide-ranging quote from Every Child Matters is taken into consideration.

So if personalised learning relies on best practice and a philosophy, who should be involved in developing it? The National College for School Leadership (NCSL) gives the following definition which includes parent and pupil involvement:

Personalisation means integrating parents as true partners, both as informed consumers and active contributors. The challenge with pupils is considering the extent to which they are genuinely involved in understanding their learning and able to make decisions and choices about it. (www.ncsl.org.uk/mediastore/image2/ldr12-supplement.pdf)

Again this is quite a broad interpretation with little specificity, but the inclusion of pupils and parents in its development does seem to latch on to other key debates which are circulating at the moment. Although, it has to be asked as to whether this ‘buzzword bingo’ is helpful in stimulating and forming good practice.

The latest piece of policy to target the area is the Gilbert review on learning and teaching in 2020, which clearly links the agenda to progression which has not been as explicit as in the previous quotes:

Personalising learning and teaching means taking a highly structured and responsive approach to each child’s and young person’s learning, in order that they are able to progress, achieve and participate. It means strengthening the link between learning and teaching by engaging pupils – and their parents – as partners in learning. (www.teachernet.gov.uk/docbank/index.cfm?id=10783)

There is little doubt that themes resonate across this sample of personalised learning references; themes such as an underpinning philosophy, consultation, a basis in best practice, partnership and progression. But does this bring us any closer to identifying what teachers should be doing to implement these guidelines? What should a teacher do to make sure that they are personalising learning in their classroom? And how should schools make sure that the right structures are in place to support the process of personalisation? The jury is still out.