Michael Fielding, professor at London’s Institute of Education, argues that we need to think a lot harder about what we mean by personalised learning if current developments are to engage people actively in their learning

The current high-profile commitment to personalised learning has the potential to usher in a new era of creative learning and to prepare us much better for the needs of a 21st-century ‘knowledge society.’ It could help us to explore and develop ways of learning that contribute to a wider and deeper human flourishing.

There is a risk, though, that personalised learning will try to achieve its promises of individual attentiveness and fulfilment at the cost of the very self it seems so ardently to celebrate. To avoid this, we need to develop an approach that takes a considered view of what it is to be and become a person.

Being human

For schools to become even more fulfilling, creative and humanly attentive places, we need a better understanding of:

  • how organisations can become communities
  • how schools as communities help us to flourish as individuals concerned with the common good as well as ourselves.

The Scottish philosopher John Macmurray saw human beings as essentially relational. By this he meant that we cannot become persons on our own: we need each other to be ourselves. We need to form relationships in which we know each other as persons, not just as role-occupants or test statistics.

Performance preoccupation

When schools become preoccupied with performance, they can end up talking of relationships only as ways of increasing that performance. Any sense of caring for each other or for the young people with whom we work then becomes marginalised.

The activities and worth of the school as a high-performance learning organisation are dominated by outcomes and by measured attainment. The significance of both students and teachers rests primarily in their contribution, usually via high stakes testing, to the public performance of the organisation.

It is not surprising if, in such a school, students end up complaining that the school is only interested in them because they are the likely bearers of exam grades.

The high-performing school is an organisation in which the personal is used for the sake of performance. Community is valued, but primarily for instrumental purposes. (Some) parents and (some key players in) the community are listened to on particular occasions for particular purposes, all of which are strongly linked to league tables.

The challenge we face is to name and reject this approach and construct a sound alternative that genuinely values people as persons.

Person-centred learning

I suggest that person-centred learning has the following characteristics:

1. Integrity of means and ends
Of the many ways in which a school can show its commitment to uniting means and ends, the most pertinent is the practical insistence, both in daily work and future planning, of an interrogative voice confronting the managerial inclinations of contemporary schooling. The sort of questions we need to ask are:

  • How do we resist the reduction of rich notions of education as the development of good persons to thin notions of an impoverished and crudely instrumental schooling?
  • How do we develop forms of engagement with colleagues, students, staff, parents and the community that are reciprocal, emergent and inclusive?
  • How do we develop a legitimate discourse of the personal?
  • How do we tell our stories in a language that names what we care for and opposes what is corrosive of our human being?

The pseudo-precision of high-performance rhetoric cannot do that work for us. We have to construct a counter discourse together with others who share our values and our aspirations.

2. Permanent provisionality
Schools operating in a person-centred way are essentially episodic in their rhythm and rationale. They are more interested in collegiality, ambiguity and openness than in contract, clarity and closure.

While high-performance discourse articulates and enacts the truculent, precision of targets and delivery, commitment to person-centred approaches requires a more patient, no less purposeful, no less grounded narrative at the heart of which lie dialogue, collective reflection and the need for a permanent provisionality.

The challenge for school leadership in such a school is to further develop occasions and opportunities in which both the formal and informal rhythms of daily work, and the more special rituals and emblematic circumstances of communal encounter include discursive and dialogic spaces for students and their peers, for staff and students working together, for the staff themselves and for the wider school community.

3. Radical collegiality
The emergence over the last 10 years or so of the ‘new wave’ student voice movement also has a legitimate claim on the attention of person-centred leadership. In contrast to high-performance approaches, the student voice operating in person-centred mode is explicitly and engagingly mutual in its orientation towards widely conceived educational ends that will often include measurable results but are not constituted or constrained by them.

It is about students and teachers working and learning together in partnership, rather than one party using the other for often covert ends. Within a person-centred learning community, issues of power and hierarchy are at once more transparent and less secure than in other organisational orientations. The place of values is explicit and central rather than peripheral or opaque. While not eradicating either hierarchy or power, the centrality of negotiation, the foregrounding of values and the willingness to work through their consequences, the explicitly exploratory nature of what is undertaken and the tolerance of ambiguity and unpredictability do a great deal to address both in an ongoing way.

4. A sense of sustainable self
The sociologist Richard Sennett has posed some important question for us as educators: ‘How can long-term purposes be pursued in a short-term society? How can a human being develop a narrative of identity and life history in a society composed of episodes and fragments?’

If we take such questions seriously, part of our answer lies in the nurturing of spaces, both formal and informal, where teachers can legitimately place the pressure of their daily work within a less fragmented context of mutually supportive engagement, companionship and enquiry. These more bounded, sometimes more intimate, more dialogic spaces can be complemented by the development of a wider, more public, more democratic narrative that is richly textured and multivocal: one that is inclusive of young people as agents in the development of their own and each others’ futures.

What we now require is the emergence of significant occasions when young people, not just adults, lead dialogue with their peers and with staff, where students and staff encourage the school, or sections of it, to begin to engage as equals, as co-enquirers in and co-contributors to understanding how as a community it helps its members to live good lives together.

5. Problematising leadership
Person-centred education must inevitably be restless in the way it understands leadership and management. There are many ways to run organisations and there is no necessary reason why those who run a school should be given higher status than those who teach in it, for example.

The intellectual and practical legacy of both leadership and management has within it much of which we should be wary. Maybe the best we can do in the meantime is to legitimate that restlessness in ways which force us to ask hard questions, often in ways which are discomforting and problematic, and always in ways that take us back to fundamentals which should themselves be unsettled by a permanent provisionality born of lived experience and the felt necessity of care.

Person-centred learning communities

There are two key stepping stones in the quest to become a person-centred learning community:

1. Emergent mode
In its emergent mode, the person-centred learning community is guided by its commitment to ensuring the organisational arrangements and interactions of the school are shaped around wider human purposes. However, for a whole range of reasons, the emphasis is on adapting traditional and more familiar arrangements to try to encourage and extend the school’s basic commitment to the development of a learning community.

The organisational architecture of the school is heavily influenced by the acknowledged values and aspirations that express its distinctive character. This shows in the way:

  • formal and informal arrangements ensure that many voices are heard in the conversation among staff, and between students and staff
  • pastoral and academic arrangements relate to each other synergistically, with the needs of young people as persons providing the touchstone of aspiration and the arbiter of difficulty or conflict
  • of interest
  • professional development is wide ranging in both its processes and its substance. Often collegial, occasionally communal, it is enquiry-driven and learning oriented.

2. Person-centred learning community: expressive mode
In its more fully developed, expressive mode, the person-centred learning community is one in which the structures and daily practical arrangements have within them distinct traces of person-centred ways of being. Organisational forms are developed that deliberately establish a sense of place, purpose and identity within which emergent, fluid forms of learning are encouraged.

The revival of schools-within-schools and more integrated, co-constructed approaches to the curriculum, together with wide ranging use of the community, exemplify commitment to more exploratory modes of being and development. Such schools:

  • deliberately develop more participatory forms of engagement and decision-making
  • do not distinguish between pastoral and academic aspects of the school
  • embrace explicitly dialogic, even narrative,
  • forms of continuing professional development, such as action learning sets and self-managed learning groups
  • dissolve boundaries between status, role and function through new forms of radical collegiality, such as students as researchers.

The person-centred learning we need will be:

  • historical, because it understands the continuity of the past in the present
  • substantial, because it attempts an explicit account of how we become persons
  • connected, because it draws on intellectual and professional traditions from all around the world
  • integrated, because takes ethical, social, political and educational considerations into account
  • positively troubling, because it is willing to rethink the wider social and political system in which we find ourselves
  • social, because its takes into account the claims of wider social allegiance and the common good
  • modest, because it avoids hyperbole and cliché
  • meaningful, because it recognises the importance of making meaning of our lives
  • values-led, because it returns us to purposes and the way they inform processes
  • intellectually informed, because it takes into account learning from research and the traditions of intellectual enquiry.