With increasing pressure to deliver personalised learning, John Blanchard offers strategies for putting it into practice where it counts: the classroom

What is it? Why do it?

Personalised learning (PL) favours individual learners’ interests, talents, needs and aspirations. It attempts to correct the inevitable impersonality of prescribed curricula. Personalised learning is concerned with negotiating courses that enable learners to extend and apply generic, as much as specific, capabilities independently beyond the classroom and after they have left school.

Personalisation enhances learners’ motivation, hence their achievement and satisfaction, in turn enriching teachers’ sense of fulfilment and commitment. It has also been advocated in many national initiatives, including Every Child Matters (ECM), the Secondary Curriculum Review from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA, 2007), and the 20:20 vision put forward by Christine Gilbert and her team (20:20 vision: report of the Teaching and Learning in 20:20 Review Group, DfES, 2006). It is also a formative contributor to ‘Wave 1: providing positive, proactive, behavioural support for everyone’ of the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) initiative (SEAL for secondary schools guidance booklet, DfES, 2007).

Personalised learning originates in perceptions that education is less than adequate when the academic and utilitarian overwhelm the creative and personally meaningful. It takes constructivist and dialogic principles as a basis for holistic teaching whose aim is individualised and community-orientated learning. It offers strategies that enrich teachers’ and learners’ experience and help to raise standards of achievement.

Develop PL in classrooms

One way to develop personalised learning in the classroom is to use an approach to teaching that helps learners both engage and reflect. We need fruitful ways of thinking about pupils’ first-order activity and cognition, on the one hand, and about their second-order decision-making and meta-cognition, on the other. Accordingly, offered here are ‘five kinds of activity’ to promote engagement and ‘10 things to be clear about’ to promote reflection.

Engagement
At the centre of lessons there is activity. The first step towards personalised learning is to construct activity as something worth engaging in. This means being deliberate about just what you are asking your students to do. Here are some examples.

Five kinds of activity: engagement Think about your pupils at any given time in a lesson as doing any one, or a combination, of these five things:

  • getting information = listening, watching, researching …
  • rehearsing = repeating, practising, revising …
  • puzzling and exploring = solving problems, probing, thinking laterally …
  • presenting = writing, doing a talk or performance or display …
  • applying = using learning in a real life or simulated context.

This encourages you to envisage the students’ task in concrete detail, even and especially when they appear not to have much to do, when they appear to have a passive role. The main enemy of personalised learning is any sense students might have of boredom and disengagement. Things go well when they have sufficient sense of purpose and audience for what they are doing to be physically, emotionally and intellectually involved. The premise is that if the tasks are worth your students’ effort, it is worth your being precise and careful about the way you frame their thinking and performance. For examples of how to maximise engagement, see the box below.

Maximising engagement: an example When you are showing or telling your students how to do something, what are you asking them to do during the time they are observing and listening? Are you asking them to get information? In which case, what will they do with it? Will they make headlines? Will they prepare an answer to a question to share with the class? Will they make a picture or diagram to display for others to look at? It might be that your showing or telling is a chance for pupils to rehearse the performance of a skill or a set of facts. Do you ask them to talk about the images they make in their mind’s eye, or jot down words or diagrams? Your showing or telling might be an opportunity for pupils to solve a puzzle or explore some issues. Do you ask them to analyse the component parts of what they see or hear and so prescribe a training or coaching programme to help one another perfect the skills? Do you ask them to diagnose how you might improve your performance? Your showing or telling might be an opportunity for your students to present what they observe or hear. Do you ask one or two of them to give a commentary on your performance? Do you ask them to pick out the sequence of steps or the main features in the performance or body of knowledge and pass this on to the rest of the class?

Your showing or telling might be a chance for pupils to think about how to transfer and apply the skill or body of knowledge in another curriculum area or in life outside school. Do you ask them to spot the similarity with skills used in other subjects? Do you ask them to suggest what occupations or leisure activities might use the skills or knowledge?

Can you see your pupils as the main performers? Being clear about what they are to do is a necessary prelude to being clear about what they are learning.

Reflection
We can turn now to strategies for pausing the action, when you and your students can stand back and examine aspects of what they are doing. These are our ‘10 things to be clear about’ that will help to promote reflection in learning. They may well slow the pace of lessons to bring purpose, direction and energy to renewed effort.

10 things to be clear about: promoting reflection To promote reflection, help pupils to:

  • construct an effective ethos for working well with teachers and co-learners
  • express their existing knowledge as a basis for new endeavour
  • formulate worthwhile and motivating learning intentions
  • explore their interest in tackling tasks
  • be clear about how to set about their work
  • have ways of dealing with difficulties and mistakes
  • understand and influence how their efforts are assessed
  • realise their successes and strengths through specific, constructive feedback and by assessing themselves and one another
  • see how they can improve, and have time and support to do so
  • apply what they learn in different contexts.

To begin with and from time to time, you will have to model these ways of being clear about essential aspects of activity and learning. You will have to describe, explain and explore these mindful manoeuvres for and with your students. You need to ‘train’ them in how to think about what they are doing. By no means all at once, or all in one lesson or sequence of lessons, but over time, in the course of a term or year, you might expect to address all of these 10 things with your classes one way or another, and increasingly you might expect to help your students to take decisions about these things.

As they become familiar with these ways of working, your pupils will be able to contribute more and more to decisions about lessons. This is when personalisation is fulfilled.

Strategies and illustrations for how each of these works in practice follow.

Constructing an effective ethos
There is no prospect of personalised learning if learners do not feel safe in the classroom. They need to feel secure enough if they are to enjoy learning and make progress. This includes knowing what to do when they are stuck or in difficulty.

Underpinning classroom ethos are rules and routines. In the first instance and ultimately these are your responsibility. You may have to lay down your groundrules for the classroom – regarding safety, for example, and for a code of behaviour. You might insist on respect for person and property. You might not tolerate put-downs. As time goes on, as you and the group develop your relationship, you might ask them to evaluate, revise and add to the rules. There is significant value in your students’ gaining a real sense of co-ownership for the rules that govern their time spent in the classroom. They are much more likely to comply with reasonable expectations if they have a voice in defining and refining those expectations.

You can communicate your commitment to developing with your pupils a positive and supportive yet challenging environment by the types of structure you provide for activity and reflection. Common among these are likely to be: talk partners; circle time; think-time; self- and peer-assessment; and discussing what helps and what hinders success.

Betty Port’s ‘Think Pair Share’, including ‘think time’, is a good example (see the case study). Another is having a rule that biases criticism in favour of the positive. It means having a ratio of two-to-one in comments that identify what has been done well and what might be improved. This helps to avoid negativity when students mark one another’s work. For another example of how to achieve the right environment for learning, see the box below.

Ethos: an example

Towards the end of a unit of work, the class has a short discussion about what has gone well in terms of organisation and behaviour. They identify ways in which things could go better. For example, how did students help one another? How easy was access to computers? How were frustrations and disagreements dealt with? Two students record on a display board things that went especially well. One group-target is agreed for everyone to work on over the next few weeks in the new topic. By looking back over previous successes and targets, the pupils offer comments on how far the class has come since the beginning of the year. They can recognise specific ways in which they have developed as a team. They acknowledge there are still areas to work on in their treatment of one another and of resources.

Expressing existing knowledge as a basis for new endeavour
It helps for learners to build on what they already know and can do. A standard way of doing this is for you to lead questioning that recaps previous work. You might also highlight areas of interest and capability that you know your pupils have from their leisure and work experiences. This can become interactive, for example, by the class working together to construct ‘mindmaps’ or ‘learning walls’ (displaying what the class has planned to find out or do and what has been done already ), showing areas of existing knowledge and skill as well as avenues for further learning. Here is one example of how to start from existing knowledge.

Prior knowledge: an example

A class is about to start planning an investigation in groups. They recap what they have learned recently about planning and working as a team. They mention giving themselves a definite aim and sharing out roles (such as time-keeper, note-maker, observer). They use these ideas to give themselves some process criteria for the new work: ‘We will know we are doing well if we sometimes check exactly what we have to achieve and if each person has a specific job to do.’

Formulating worthwhile and motivating learning intentions
Often you have to say what the topics are, what the goals are. You may try to give these appeal, relevance and coherence by helping your students to see how one topic fits into the overall picture, how this skill or knowledge relates to certain areas of study, leisure or employment. You may try to help your pupils have a sense of personal progress: ‘Last time you did really well with …; now we are going on to …’, You may express the next phase of a course in terms of a challenge for individuals and/or for the group. You may try to give the activities you have planned an authentic function: ‘Can we improve on what my class did last year?’; ‘We are going to find out about X and then make materials to teach other classes all about that’; ‘Let’s see if we can solve this problem and offer our solutions to … ’

Learners benefit from having purpose and direction. One of the best ways of clarifying this is to provide examples of the intended outcome. It is becoming common practice for learners to analyse other people’s efforts, to spot the successful features and see how the performance could be improved. Looking at neutral or anonymous examples is a useful prelude to self- and peer-assessment. The box below outlines one way to engage pupils in defining learning intentions.

Intention: an example The teacher says to the class:

The next big topic we are going to work on is … I am going to tell you the two main things we have to achieve. I want you to talk in pairs about this and come up with your version of what it’s all about. Put it in your own words. Then we’ll decide which version we think best and use that to launch us off on the first stage.

This process takes five minutes. It feels like time well spent because the students have an investment in the framing of the learning intention. Having done that, the teacher shows two examples of drawings done by students the previous year:

Can you work out what these students must have concentrated on most? And what makes this one better than that one? Even though this one is probably not so successful, what positive achievements does it actually show?

They have five minutes to talk in pairs about the drawings they see projected on the screen and displayed on the board. Then a 10-minute plenary session, led by the teacher, collects all the positives the class can suggest. These are recorded on a flipchart under the heading ‘what we are aiming for’, and put up on display to be a reference during the project.

Exploring their interest in tackling tasks
Classroom activity acquires personal meaning when learners bring to the surface whatever interests them in relation to a topic or set of skills. For each unit of work you might decide which of the motivators set out in the box below you will try to tap into.

Motivators

  • Curiosity Can you set things up so your pupils want to find out about … ?
  • Fun Can you open up activities to your students’ sense of humour or creativity?
  • Play Can you give scope to your pupils’ imaginations? Do they like playing roles? Is the topic suited to a fictional or real-life scenario?
  • Relevance Can you link the topic to an area of leisure or employment that has an appeal for your students?
  • Challenge Can you encourage your students to raise their game to achieve something special?

Whichever tack you take, give your students opportunities to talk about their interest and its connection with the business in hand. In particular, give space to those pupils who are positive about their interests and learning: let them be the role models for the class.

One of the things many pupils comment on when asked about what makes for good teaching is the teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject – enthusiasm is infectious. Share your interest in and fascination for a topic. It is an extension of this to enable learners to express and develop their preferences and passions. See the box below for an example of how to engage students’ interest in tackling the task.

Interest: an example

Towards the end of a lesson, one member of each team in the class briefly explains what they are finding most interesting about their activity so far. They say: ‘We found out things we never knew before, like … ’; ‘We found a good way around a problem we had’; ‘We decided the world would be better if gravity was only half as strong’ and so on. Then the teacher says, ‘Your homework is to talk about those things at home, and in our next lesson we’ll find out what people at home said.’

Being clear about how to set about their work
Being clear about how to set about their work is not the same thing as having criteria for quality or assessment. This is like a recipe, helping us to look forward, whereas criteria can best be used to help us look back. Knowing how to get started and what steps to take gives students confidence. It can take the form of having a model to follow, or a checklist with the main steps outlined and even with timings for each. If the task calls for cooperation, then everyone needs to understand their role. You can underline the main feature of a task: is it getting information, for example; practising; exploring or solving a puzzle; presenting; or applying skills and knowledge in a real-life or simulated scenario?

Criteria: an example The teacher says:

We said we would use these four things to decide how well we have done this task. Well, you’ve done the task, you’ve assessed yourselves, and you’ve had some feedback from me. Can I now ask you whether those success criteria have proved valid? Are there any better ways of stating what quality work is in this area?

The students suggest some new criteria that could be added to the marking guide for the task. Then the teacher sets the class the task of writing a new set of criteria with a brief explanation of their reasons for each item. He says:

Your new criteria can go in the revision section of your folders because they explain exactly what you are going to have to remember about all of this for your final assessment.

You can help pupils be on top of what they have to do by giving them time and support to rehearse it. A simple device, for example, is giving your students time to read through a text on their own, in pairs or small groups, before it is read aloud in class. This helps avoid nerves, reduces errors, and allows your students to become more familiar with the material. See the box below on page 5 for an example of how to help ensure pupils are clear on how to set about the task set.

Method: an example The class has been talking about an activity they are about to start; it will last through this lesson and into the next. The aims and key things to look out for have been highlighted and written up as a poster. Now the teacher has given six pairs of pupils each a long card and a felt pen. She says:

I am choosing six pairs to do a writing job. The rest of us have got to think hard about the steps we are going to take to complete this task. This is how we’re going to get ourselves ready. Sam will start and then we’ll take it in turns around the class like this. Sam has to say what she thinks is the first thing we have to do in this task. If we all give it the ok, then our first pair will write that on the card so we can all read it and refer to it as we work. Then Faz goes next and says what the next step will be. And again if we agree, the next pair get to write that on their card. See? We’ll end up with four, five or six cards each with one of the main steps in our task. What we have to make sure of is that we identify the absolutely crucial stages in the task. So no minor points, just the big essentials. Ready?

Having ways of dealing with difficulties and mistakes
The more resilient your students feel, the better they will persevere through difficulties and mistakes. You can help them to develop a proactive attitude towards problems in two main ways – see the box below.

Helping students deal with difficulties Talk about and use routines and reminders for what they can do when they are stuck or when they have gone wrong. Use posters and regular prompts such as: ‘Have you done what we recommend when you hit a problem?’ Do not be afraid to let your students see you having to overcome obstacles. Let them see you not being fazed by going wrong. Enlist their support. Encourage them to see activities as experiments with ups and downs. Help them to see what you get out of a task as depending on how much you put into it.

Share feelings and views about ‘ability’. Ask your pupils, for example, how much they think ability is the reason for success and how much effort. Is it 50% ability and 50% effort, or what? The more you can wean them off learned helplessness, the greater will be their achievement. Look out for opportunities to illustrate and commend examples of pupils’ seeking alternative solutions and sticking at a task. Help them see how much progress they are making. Consider examples of people who accept the limitation of disability but make the most of all their abilities.

See below for an example of how these approaches might work in practice.

Resilience: an example

A pupil looks up in the direction of a poster that says: ‘What to do if you’ve started but you’re stuck: check the aims of the task; tell yourself what you have done well so far; talk to a fellow pupil …’ She stares at it for half a minute, then swivels round and has a short conversation with the person behind her. She returns to what she was doing, apparently content — for the time being at least.


Understanding and influencing how their efforts are assessed

When assessment criteria are set by public authorities, you need to find ways of helping your students to understand and use them. Where there is scope for your pupils to suggest how they would judge quality, you should set them this challenge because it brings them face to face with the best questions about their activities and learning: what counts as quality; what are we striving to achieve?

There is usually more of a role for pupils to play in arguing with and designing criteria than we normally think. For the purposes of many classroom activities there is plenty of room for fresh thinking about what constitutes good performance. Even if we all have finally to knuckle down and accept published criteria, there is a formative journey on the way to internalising what is being asked of us. See the box right for an example of how to involve pupils in setting assessment criteria.

Realising their successes and strengths through feedback
A simple and immediate way of signalling understanding and success, or otherwise, is thumbs up (or thumbs sideways or down). Over recent years, teachers have found many different ways of enabling pupils to use criteria to signal their achievements. These include colour-coding features of performance, traffic-lighting levels of understanding or skill, and using a mindmap or learning wall to chart plans and progress.

The crucial element is the clarity of criteria. What you should strive to do is lead by example by giving pupils criterion-specific, constructive feedback that emphasises achievement. For an example of how to involve pupils in assessing their strengths, see below.

Strengths: an example A group of students has been working on a problem. They have noted some possible solutions, and they are ready to give their group reporter a chance to practise presenting their ideas, which is what they will have to do in five minutes’ time in the final plenary session. The student who has the chairing role turns to the pupil who has the observing role and says: ‘Right now, feed back to us what you saw. In what ways have we been meeting our success criteria?’ The observer uses her notes to tell the group: ‘You have been listening to one another because you asked what you meant sometimes and you agreed and disagreed with what different people were saying. But you could have done that better because once you completely ignored Kerry and twice Carlton was interrupted ….’ At the end of her report, the group agrees on two strengths in the way they tackled the task. They then let their reporter run through what he will say to the whole class about the problem they tried to solve. The observer reports the group’s strengths to the class, and the reporter gives his account of their solutions to the problem. When every group has finished, the teacher summarises under two headings: all the strengths in the groupwork; all the solutions to the problem.

The class is learning that there are two kinds of ‘Well done!’: process successes and content successes.

Seeing how they can improve, and having time and support to do so
Although it is not always possible to let your pupils use feedback as a guide to improving their performance, allowing revision, correction and extension time is preferable to wasting the effort of whoever provides the assessment (self, peer, teacher or someone else). You want your students to get the message that what they do deserves reflection and further effort. Trying to get it right, or right enough, is a strong motivator.

You may find you ask your pupils to do less, to cover less ground. You may be asking them to do what they do for greater purpose, with greater care and commitment, and to a higher standard – see the box below for an example.

Improvement: an example As the class comes into the room they find their exercise books on their desks. They are reminded to open their books and read what their teacher has written. Each pupil has a prompt or question they have to respond to. This takes five minutes, at the end of which the teacher asks for attention. She says: ‘We’re just going to go around the class and hear from each one of you one thing that you have improved on in that last piece of work compared with your previous work, and one thing that you have learned you needed to work more on.’ The students have half a minute to collect their thoughts, then off they go.

These are some of the things they mention they have made progress in: ‘I have got better at using paragraphs for the main sections in my answer’; ‘Separating my opinion from what other key people have said ’; ‘Doing a brief introduction, then main points, then a summary and conclusion’; ‘Checking the spelling of key words’; ‘Using my notes to help me focus on the main ideas’ … These are some of things they say they need to do more work on: ‘I need to use more technical vocabulary’; ‘To sum up my key points at the end ’; ‘To check the question more carefully’; ‘To give examples for each of my main points’; ‘Always to give reasons for my own opinion’ …

Applying what they learn in different contexts
As they prepare to launch into a new topic, you can prompt your students to refer to activities in and out of school that link with the skills and concepts they are about to meet. As things progress and when a unit is coming to a close, you can ask the class to locate aspects of what they have been doing that represent important study and life skills.

One of the most direct and formative ways of applying what has been learned is to teach it to someone else. You can exploit this through talk partners and occasions when you ask your pupils to teach, coach or mentor one another or students from other classes or year groups.

When your students have work experience, they have opportunities to explore the relevance of what they have been learning to real-life contexts. More frequently than that, you can arrange for pupils to work in lessons and/or at home on projects of their own choosing and design, so that they can use and extend their interests and talents. Your pupils can use a simple three-part structure for this:

  • What am I going to try to achieve?
  • What help do I need?
  • How do I want my work assessed?

An innovative way of having your students present their work is for them to put the skills and knowledge they have been dealing with into a study or life context. So, for example, instead of merely speaking about what they have found out about a certain issue, they have to give that information showing why that is important outside that course and classroom. See the example in the box below .

Application: examples

Example 1

A pupil explains: ‘I have been finding out about what it was like to be a king in Tudor times. This has a lot to do with power and greed and how some people can think they are above the law. The same can happen nowadays.’

Example 2

The teacher says: ‘I want you to tell me how you could use what we have been doing over the last three lessons in another subject area. Work in your twos or threes to come up with one or two examples. So how can what we have been learning help you to do well in another subject? ’

Sharing experience

Personalised learning grows in an ethos whereby everyone is enabled to take a critical, experimental, reflective stance in relation to intentions, processes and outcomes.

Whole-school development of personalised learning requires coherent, long-term commitment from leaders who create safe conditions for sharing and risk-taking. To help change ways of working:

  • establish the strengths and weaknesses of current practice in how personalised students and other stakeholders believe their schooling is
  • plan and consult on possible changes
  • trial, monitor and evaluate improvements.

Prioritise focuses for auditing and development. It is not feasible to cover all of the vast territory of personalised learning in any single event or project. So do not be daunted by the potential scope. Take a broad view first and then home in on a small number of focuses that will allow you and your colleagues to realise current achievements and make coherent progress in one or two specific areas.

Only with clarity of vision and a will to persevere is it possible to find the purpose and energy to realise these aims.

Dr John Blanchard, Independent Educational Consultant

  • See the related case study on restructuring lessons.
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