Richard Bird, former headteacher and now legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), looks at the different interpretations of personalised learning and what they might mean in practice.

Personalisation can be said to have sprung onto the educational scene with David Miliband’s speech in 2004 to the North of England Education Conference. Two years later people are still debating what it means.

But it was not a new idea in 2004. Ten years ago John West-Burnham was asking in as many words: ‘If I can have a mass production car built to my specification, why can my child not have a mass production education built to his?’

Personalisation in the business world is about creating the illusion of individuality for the consumer while giving the producer the advantages of mass production. Personalisation in education, though, means pupils get what they need; not what they want. It is not the pupil’s decision, but someone else’s.

An inconsistent message?

David Miliband was clear about what personalisation meant for him. It was not a computerised version of the ‘individualised learning’ of the 1970s: death by a thousand differentiated worksheets. Nor was it letting pupils do what they liked, which would simply trap children in their own low aspirations. All the same, learning must fit the ‘learning styles, motivations and needs’ of individuals.

So the message is not absolutely consistent. The pupil should have curriculum choice and a choice of specialism. The school day and lessons should be organised to enable this. But on the other hand, there will be assessment for learning and target-setting; and though Miliband did not say so, targets will not be set by the pupils, or if they are, their targets will only be intermediate: steps to achieving targets already determined nationally. And finally, drifting in from a different agenda, comes the idea of access to services and support beyond the classroom.

It is easy to mock the attempt to square the circle of pupil choice and national need; of government policy and pupil motivation. However, this is the definition of personalisation that we have to work within. So the question is how to make sense of it within a school.

Assessment for learning is uncomplicated. There is overwhelming evidence that pupils make most improvement if they know about their own performance: where they stand; how much improvement they need to make; and what they need to do to improve.

The two problems are that marking like this is extremely time-consuming and that the data that is provided by tests is not always adequate to help identify what needs to be done. However, schools have devised ways of cutting down the marking burden by using stamps and stickers and pre-formed bullet points. These cover the standard problems that pupils have and remove from teachers the need to write the kinds of phrases that show the teacher is pleased, rather than show what the pupil needs to do.

Creating curriculum choice

Curriculum choice is one of those things that goes round and round. In the 1960s and 1970s a thousand Mode 3 syllabuses flowered and the aim was to give pupils the maximum possible choice both of subjects and within subjects. Lord Dainton in vain declared that maths and science were being damaged by pupil choice and that ‘the future of Britain was in the hands of 14-year-old children.’

The introduction of the National Curriculum in theory at least postponed the influence of pupil choice on the future of Britain until the age of 16. Now we are back to pupil choice again. The spiral of decline in modern languages simply produces a ritual washing of hands. Personalisation does not logically demand unlimited pupil choice but effectively it is endorsing it.

There is no doubt that services beyond school, the Every Child Matters agenda, are important to children whose progress is held back by external factors. Whether all children needed social or psychological intervention, as his then colleague, Margaret Hodge, suggested, may be open to doubt. David Miliband did add the importance of parental support, and that is something which schools would agree with.

There is also no doubt that he was right to draw attention to way in which altering the school day and lessons can have a powerful effect. It is after all over 30 years since Sutton Centre in Nottinghamshire pioneered a two-session day with a third session in the evening; and the success of some of the city technology colleges owes something to the changes they have made in the shape of the school day.

It is strange that most secondary schools stick to a 50- or 60-minute timetable period module. Any timetable module is a compromise between the demands of languages and maths for ‘short and often’ and technology for ‘uninterrupted stretches of time to get something done’ and it may be another aspect of the dead hand of Ofsted that there are so few experiments.

The ‘extended school’ idea is becoming a repository for a range of government aspirations: the most recent being the ‘entitlement to learn to cook.’ It is, though, a clear way in which greater personalisation can be offered: for example, the way in which some schools in Rutland LEA used 1,265 hours to provide a four or five session day that could accommodate additional choices in curriculum or additional recreational opportunities.

Learning styles

The area that all schools appear to be able to explore, however, is that of learning styles. Since Liam Hudson published Contrary Imaginations and Frames of Mind in the 1960s the question of whether there are different approaches to learning has been one that has exercised teachers.

The difficulties, though, are both conceptual and practical. The quickest of dips into Google reveals a cacophony of categorisation. One site divides pupils into visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile learners. Another one talks of reflectors, activists, theorists, and pragmatists. Another talks of innovative, analytic, common sense and dynamic. Yet another divides learners into ‘field dependent’ and ‘field independent.’ In Australia a series of polarities between sequential/ global; visual/verbal; sensory/intuitive; and active/ reflective; are defined.

Some of these definitions have a commercial value to those who offer them to parents or schools. Some of them seem to be explanations of ‘why johnny won’t learn’ for worried middle class parents.

Practical action

The problem for a teacher is to know what practically can be done with this knowledge. The British Council suggests slightly plaintively, ‘If you vary the activities that you use in your lessons you are sure to cater for learners with different learning styles at least some of the time.’ (my italics); which, I suppose, is better than catering for them for none of the time.

Howard Gardner, the originator of the idea of different intelligences, which is often confused with learning style theories, had to insert a chapter in one of his later books to debunk the myths that had grown up around his ideas and the attempts that had been made to put his ideas into practice.

It is common sense, though, that there are differences in the ways people like to learn and even more, firm views about the ways in which people do not like to learn. Aren’t science experiments a waste of time when they always go wrong and you can learn what should have happened in half the time by reading a book?

It may be that once a teacher has taken on board that not everyone enjoys learning the same way that s/he did and that it is important to allow for this in planning lessons, the main benefit from the concept of different learning styles has been gained. The late Professor Hans Eysenck suggested that pupils should be streamed by extroversion and introversion; and it may be that this is about as far as learning styles can be taken. This approach has hardly been tried, however. The tendency is to tell a child what his or her preferred learning style is and leave it to the child to apply it.

Some teachers are still unconvinced; others believe in the one way to teach the subject; others take the view that once they are in the outside world children will have to learn from people with teaching styles that are antithetical to their preferred learning style and so they had better learn how to cope with those styles while they are at school. In this view, it is a positive benefit to children to be forced to learn in a way they do not wish to.

Unexciting resolutions

If there is a resolution it probably will rest in some very unexciting, unsexy prescriptions. It may well be better, rather than grouping by ability and trying to teach to every learning style, to set by learning style and allow a ‘must; may; could’ set of differentiated tasks to distinguish between the attainment levels. It will be important to have a strong and safe classroom climate; particularly where there is an adjustment to active learning styles.

If, though, groups with mixed learning styles are to be the norm, it will be important to recognise that material will have to be gone over several times in several different ways and that this redundancy will be essential, not a waste of time.

But schools need also to come to a view as to the essential instructional/learning forms which young people, whatever they prefer, will have to master to some degree. Among those will probably be: concentration and listening; silent reading for pleasure and information; group interchange for the generation and exchange of ideas; observation and reflection; and extracting lessons from direct experience.

ICT looks as if it will have a more limited role than we might have thought a few years ago. However, the remark that a computer was ‘much nicer than a maths teacher’ because the computer praised you when you got things right, still echoes convincingly enough to suggest that a computer has a role in developing individual skills. To this can be added group discussion; interaction and personal involvement through interactive whiteboards; and, in a limited way, the uses of PowerPoint presentations as opposed to overheads or hand-outs.

But in the end, it is worth remembering that the path of personalised learning ends in standardised tests; and however differently students may get there, they must all end up the same.


Dainton, FS (1968), Enquiry into the Flow of Candidates in Science and Technology into Higher Education. London: HMSO.

Fletcher, C, Caron, M, Williams W (1985), Schools on Trial. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Gardner, H (1999), Intelligence Reframed. New York: Basic Books.

Hudson, L (1966), Contrary Imaginations. London: Methuen.

Hudson, L(1968), Frames of Mind, London: Methuen.

Miliband, D(2004), Personalised Learning: Building a New Relationship with Schools. DfES.