Ian Warwick, senior director of development at London Gifted & Talented (LGT), explains his vision of personalised learning and describes LGT’s personalised programmes.

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.’   Emile Chartier

Not that I am suggesting for a microsecond that ‘personalisation’ is the only idea rebounding around DfES offices – it’s just that it is becoming ubiquitous (and it in danger of becoming ‘all things to all people’.) A whole chapter is devoted to it in the recent schools white paper. Last October the prime minister talked of ‘personalised lessons’ and both David Miliband and Ruth Kelly have waxed effusively, if not lyrically, about it. Academics have adopted and adapted it by contributing phrases such as ‘co-constructed learning’ and ‘decoupling age/stage progressions’.

The 2020 Vision report

The most recent and detailed workover has been delivered by Christine Gilbert and a working party, in the 2020 Vision report, where she was given the task of establishing ‘a clear vision of what personalised teaching and learning might look like in our schools in 2020’.

It may be a little tunnelled in its vision but I both agree with the majority of her recommendations and her belief that, ‘personalisation is a matter of moral purpose and social justice: pupils from the most disadvantaged groups are the least likely to achieve well and participate in higher levels of education or training’.

Most teachers I know went into education for a very simple reason – to make more universal the life chances of the most unfortunate, on the basis of need, not the ability to pay. Our collective job is to ensure that schools are in a position to be able to identify the potential of every child and give them the means to achieve it. We all know that while such potential is clearly not linked to class, the opportunities for it to thrive too often have been. So how will a ‘personalisation’ strategy help?

Origins of personalisation

The idea of personalisation is not new to education, but originates in business. In the 1980s in America, academics Charles Sable and Michael Piore wrote The Second Industrial Divide, which argued that the era of mass production would be superceded in advanced economies by the age of ‘flexible specialisation’. The radical idea that products previously produced for a mass market would be tuned to personal need, trickled-down as an idea into social norms and public services. 

Personalised learning’s manifestation in education is the demand for high standards suited to individual need, and more choice in the way our students learn; it is shaping teaching around the different ways in which children learn. Schools can tailor education to ensure that every pupil achieves the highest standards possible, and educators are challenged to teach in a way that is flexible, equitable and accountable for all.

Issues

Personalisation has been confused with individualisation, where children work individually or are left to their own devices. Gilbert describes personalisation as a ‘highly structured and responsive approach’. Much of what has been regarded as personalised provision for gifted and talented students has been of an additional enrichment model, which is bolted on to the curriculum, is high cost and is not transferable into classroom learning. This is a top-up model with a high value-added product for those who can afford it. If we are to move to a genuine model for personalised education for the gifted and talented, then we need to deliver a structured and flexible menu of choices, which can be delivered in sufficient volume to serve as an entitlement model.

Some £930m of earmarked funding is available within the Dedicated Support Grant to support the development of personalisation over the next two years. However, it is clear that G&T education faces serious competition for its share from the ‘catch up’ agenda. 

As teachers, we would love to believe in an ecology of learning in which both the learner and their teachers are the drivers of the educational bandwagon. The reality is that assessments, in the form of innumerable exams and specifications, squat toad-like at the centre.

There are challenges to providing personalised learning in schools, such as questions of conceptualisation, authenticity and realism (both from student and teacher perspectives). Despite these practical and theoretical concerns about personalised learning, it is essential to utilise this important model in teaching. Many students tell us that they find exams get in the way of challenging and innovative ways of learning. Lessons are most interesting when the teacher is not just dictating, but questioning and triggering students to work it out for themselves.

The five components of personalised learning are ‘assessment for learning’, ‘effective teaching and learning’, ‘curriculum entitlement and choice’, ‘school as a learning organisation’ and ‘beyond the classroom’.

Of the five elements it is perhaps assessment for learning that is the most critical tool in developing and personalising learning for the gifted and talented. It is interesting to note from the NCSL view of personalisation that pedagogy is considered a part of AfL. This can be understood as the richness and quality of learning relationships within the classroom – between teacher and students and crucially between students themselves. We may identify G&T students as a group, but it is very much through AfL that teacher and student come to a purposeful understanding of the individual’s learning needs.

High-challenge learning activities based on content and resources are brought to life through the use of classroom questioning, differentiation, formative feedback and other techniques that result in a personalised experience for the individual.

Educators need to harness personalised learning, and in particular AfL, in order to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs, interests and aspirations of each individual student.

At a very basic level personalisation for G&T students could be about the creation of open-ended learning opportunities, but this very much a short-term solution and tends to lead to a patchwork of one-off experiences. A more systematic approach is required.

Learning beyond the classroom complements and provides for additional flexibility, but it must be whole-class learning on which personalisation is based. To meet demand, flexible specialisation for gifted and talented requires that planning allow for a high degree of customisation not just by the teacher but also by the student, who needs to be an active and informed partner in this process. Secondary schools are increasingly using learning guides or managers to help to ensure that the experience of the individual is rounded – for personalisation to be a reality this is a crucial role. In support of this, extended schooling offers a huge opportunity, but also significant challenges.

LGT and the personalisation agenda

London Gifted & Talented is a centre for expertise in G&T provision and educational technology. We deliver personalised programmes and services that raise the aspirations and attainment of G&T students within all 33 boroughs of London, and which develop the capacity of educators to do the same. We work on the principles that all students are entitled to be stretched and challenged, and that the most effective gifted and talented provision is rooted in good teaching and learning within the classroom.

At LGT we have for many years argued that the learning must be at the heart of the system rather than the system at the heart of the learning. This fundamental reversal would have profound impact on recognising the needs and abilities of the learner. It is the essence of personalisation.

We have devised models for teaching and learning that we have developed and trialled across the capital by working with over a thousand schools. We seek to use the best of new and emerging technologies to deliver rich learning experiences that stretch, challenge and inspire. Smart students demand smart online tools that can excite and empower them to shape and evaluate their own learning within and beyond the classroom.

An example of this provision is our engagement with the e-TASC model. e-TASC is an interactive thinking skills e-tool that supports the TASC (Thinking Actively in a Social Context) methodology created by Belle Wallace . The TASC methodology takes learners through an eight-step guide to thinking and problem solving in a structured and sequential way.

It allows the learner to research, collate, upload and store multimedia content from anywhere on the web and organise and evaluate it in a single ‘online portfolio’. They can show connections – graphically and textually – between items selected; and make notes on, explore, analyse and synthesise at any time during the process. It also offers learners the facility to generate their own content and structure their interrogation of it. This promotes learner meta-cognition by inviting reflection and evaluation of their choices. Pupils can use e-TASC independently or work collaboratively with peers. The tool genuinely empowers learners, allowing them to solve complex problems while developing their thinking skills in an online environment.

It is a model that also works well for teachers, as it offers the capacity to formatively assess and support student progress, enabling teachers to keep a complete accessible record of students’ progress in electronic form. It can be used to plan and deliver lessons tailored to learner needs, as it is a hugely flexible tool that can be used across key stages and curriculum areas. Teachers can use e-TASC to create projects for pupils, and also support and assess their progress by adding diagnostic comments as they progress. Teachers can use e-TASC to prepare and deliver lessons to whole classes or small groups. They can also use e-TASC to develop and share teaching and learning resources with colleagues in their own school and across schools.

London Gifted & Talented is approaching the personalised learning agenda by moving towards tools that facilitate independent understanding, active research and enquiring minds. We are moving away from developing just content to developing transferable skills. My belief is that personalisation could be the most dynamic way in decades to help us to enable all of our students to realise their potential.

Personalised learning sets out to break the link between disadvantage and attainment. Our target learners are more able pupils from all sections of society. They are a demanding and non-homogeneous group. They seek skills that can help them interrogate the big ideas that shape the world around them. They are resourceful and questioning. And far too often they are bored… by us.

Further information

If you would like to get involved with trialling e-TASC (any school may apply, not just schools in London), please contact us through the website at www.londongt.org or register online directly. If you would like to order copies of our new national DVD on realising potential please order online www.londongt.org/homepages/en-GB/news/dvdOnlineForm.pdf

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