Is the concept of personalised learning really all that new? Roger Smith investigates

I think we need to be really clear about one thing. Personalised learning is not a dynamic new initiative. I would argue that most schools will have already designed curriculum and their teaching methods to meet the needs of each child.

What does seem to be new about personalised learning is that it is a concentrated drive to make the best practices universal and consistent across all schools – particularly for those children who are the most challenging and whose needs are the most difficult to meet.

Are we really doing it already?
You might say that treating every child in each class in your school as an individual has always been an essential part of what you do day in and day out. In fact a headteacher colleague recently suggested, ‘Oh, I’ve not even thought about personalised learning yet! Doesn’t it just mean that we should be trying to meet everyone’s needs? I think we are doing that already.’  Well, let’s start thinking about whether we are. First of all, let’s understand that it is quite simply a philosophy of education that suggests how children should be taught. It is about giving every child the chance to be the best they can possibly be, whatever their talent or background. It also means high-quality teaching that is responsive to the different ways children achieve their best. This puts personalised learning straight into the Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda, which means that it is, or should already be, a vital part of the ECM umbrella underneath which all effective teachers in successful schools work.

The main components of personalised learning
Our starting point for making sure that our approach to personalised learning will actually work is the expertise and professionalism of the whole school team. The five key components for its success are likely to include:

  • assessment that gives a broad picture of whole-school and whole subject issues as well as data on individual progress that can be used to develop sharper personal targets
  • teaching and learning that raises standards for everyone
  • a curriculum that gives every child their full entitlement as well as wider choices through the enriching activities of an extended school day
  • organising the school so that all children’s needs are catered for including those whose needs are complex and difficult to meet
  • choices and opportunities both inside and beyond the classroom that will creatively support a diverse range of needs.

It will have become obvious that as well as having close links to Every Child Matters, personalised learning also relates to issues of teachers’ workload and the need to be very effective at managing time as well as planning and preparing rigorously; extended school days; creative teaching and the whole issue of widening opportunities by linking each school to its community. In fact it is about what we have been trying to achieve for years, quite simply – that is excellence for all.

What does it mean in more practical terms?
In the day-to-day working of a busy school where there are a wide range of different attitudes to learning we will need to consider a range of approaches that will include:

  • providing earlier and earlier interventions to prevent children falling behind
  • creating many more opportunities for gifted and talented children
  • addressing their needs in smaller groups by using more teaching assistants during an extended school day
  • developing a safe and secure environment where problems that affect teaching and learning such as bullying and inappropriate behaviour are dealt with quickly and effectively
  • encouraging parents and carers to be positively involved in their child’s education
  • making better use of teaching practices that support personalisation such as assessment for learning and more imaginative ways of setting and grouping
  • using data and assessments to plan what each child’s targets are and what they need to learn
  • using ICT creatively
  • creating new leadership or teaching posts to manage or disseminate good practice
  • providing more study opportunities, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • helping parents understand more about their child’s progress and what they could do to help.

What are some schools doing already?
I am sure that you will already be doing many practical things directly related to personalised learning. But, it is always useful to know what other schools are actually doing. Examples would include:

  • loosening the timetable so that children can make more choices about what they learn. This can mean all kinds of opportunities that use teachers and teaching assistants to widen each child’s experience of, for example, creative arts, music, dance, ICT, cookery – as options that take place over a morning or an afternoon
  • some schools are trying to create what they call a ‘virtual school’ by making the website more child-friendly so that each pupil has a page. ICT, used in this way, can also mean that children have access to homework and various sections of the curriculum outside the school day. A brilliant example of this is:
  • many schools have taken full advantage of PPA time and are using this to make sure that lesson planning has dramatically improved. So much so that differentiation is more precise and is able to cater for a much wider range of abilities.

These are just a few examples of what some schools are already doing. None of the ideas are ‘rocket science’ and some are responses to other initiatives in the drive to raise standards. You may well be doing as much, if not more, which suggests that personalised learning is not new and should not really be increasing anyone’s stress levels.

What should the senior management team (SMT) be thinking about?
If we are developing increasing opportunities for every individual child, then personalised learning will mean that we need to think creatively about how our schools are organised. Workforce remodelling should have meant better planning and assessment teams. More ICT provision should have meant better assessment and better opportunities for using technology such as interactive whiteboards creatively in the classroom. Behaviour problems should have been reduced by more consistent policies and, of course, because of the Every Child Matters agenda there will be an environment where every pupil feels safe and secure. A few more talking points for your SMT meetings could include whether it is important to:

  • hold more target-setting meetings – especially those involving parents
  • consult children more – perhaps through the school council – on issues such as organising the layout of classrooms, how adults (teachers and teaching assistants) could be more helpful, the kind of extended school activities they want
  • use questionnaires and meetings with children and parents to improve the children’s experiences in school. For example are the playgrounds safe and secure? Do the children all feel secure at lunchtime?
  • ask the children what they feel about the behaviour and anti-bullying polices and what improvements and changes might be needed
  • develop more strategies related to how teaching and learning can be monitored more effectively and, more importantly, how improvements can be made quickly.

What skills should personalised learning develop?
Your school has to have the flexibility to motivate and inspire every child. Managing and leading the whole process is really about pulling together as many workable initiatives as possible and collectively building opportunities for every child and every parent. The whole process demands strong partnerships between teachers, children and parents within the school as well as beyond the school into the wider community.

I recently spoke to a colleague who had been running staff meetings about personalised learning and she said that one teacher had neatly summed it up: ‘It’s really about knowing as much as you can about every child, working out what they need, developing a teaching style that suits them and finding all the resources that you might need.’

This is reflected in 2020 Vision: The Report of the Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review Group chaired by HMCI Christine Gilbert. The report actually moves away from what can be described as the ‘academic’ curriculum and recognises that some children are less likely to have access to the kinds of experiences that help them develop positive attitudes to learning. These children, the report suggests, have been in danger of being neglected and undervalued, when they actually need skills and attitudes that help them learn. So part of personalised learning is also about developing skills such as:

  • being able to communicate orally in all kinds of different situations
  • understanding that reliability, punctuality and perseverance are important
  • developing the skills necessary to work in teams
  • evaluating information critically
  • taking responsibility for their own actions
  • being able to work independently without close supervision
  • being confident in solving problems and finding appropriate solutions
  • facing up to difficulties and overcoming them
  • being creative, trying new ideas and being inventive and enterprising.

These are a fantastic range of skills. I am sure that we have all spent many years trying to make sure that the children we teach achieve them. But if we really want to make sure that personalised learning will narrow the gap between children of all levels of ability and, at the same time help us raise the achievements of all children, we need to know all our children. It is their needs and their talents that should influence what and how we teach.

David Miliband, in his 2004 speech to the North of England Conference, neatly summed up the whole process when he suggested that personalised learning ‘… means shaping teaching and learning round the way different youngsters learn; it means taking the care to nurture the unique talents of every pupil.’ Those of us who manage and lead schools and all our dedicated teachers have been trying to do this for a long time and this is why personalised learning should be an initiative that inspires us. It certainly asks us to make sure we do better – but, of course, we have a solid foundation to build on.