Personalised Learning – is it just for secondary schools?

Much is said these days about personalisation of learning, but the vast majority of what is said seems to relate mostly to children, or learners, over the age of 10. I’ve never really been too comfortable with the way that we emphasise secondary ages in this kind of way, believing inherently that there is much to gain for learners much younger if we turn our minds to how to apply the same ideals to them.

Take the notion of personalised learning – an approach that seeks to give the individual a pathway to success, negotiated with mentors, tutors or teachers, using modules that they pick for themselves. A kind of supermarket shopping spree with a fixed aim to get to a specific checkout. Along the way through the shop there will be advisors and discussions, checks on progress and possibly even spot checks on the contents of your trolley, but at the end of the journey you pass through the doors equipped for the future that you envisaged from the outset.

It goes further, of course, because learning in this metaphor is not just about picking up content and stuffing it into your trolley, but also about the kind of trolley you use in the first place, the time that you go to the shop, who else in there with you and what discussions you have on the way around that changes your mind about just what you buy. Indeed, you may just go to the shop to enjoy the walk, understand the available products and know in your heart that you’re not that hungry for this kind of thing – perhaps you’ll grab a take away on the way home!

This does of course challenge the way that schools are running, because the notion that a student doesn’t wish to engage with the provided curriculum or assessment procedures raises the question as to whether the school is accommodating all of the needs of its learners, or whether the learner should even be at that school. And if that’s the case then why have we even got schools, when we know full well that our society is changing around us day by day and we need to adapt to be able to give students the chance of finding their place in the world. The clear challenge then is how we provide an environment or process by which a student can nominate and negotiate a learning pathway that meets the assessment requirements we have at the moment and still prepares the chap for later life.

It could be that we look at the social networking world, and take a lead from that… or consider the really innovative approaches to higher education being championed by places such as Anglia Ruskin University (I am talking of the ‘Ultraversity’ project). Or we might design and develop tools which help teachers and students discuss the core issues and agree on ways forward.

So, would this discussion only involve secondary students, or might we usefully have a similar aproach for much younger learners? I propose the latter is not a bad place to be!

One tool which really ought to be in every school’s virtual toolbox is the ‘PLiP’ tool ( which has been created for Edison Schools by Cleveratom. This is an online tool that supports an extensive face-to-face experience whereby students are encouraged to think about how they learn best, what makes effective learning, what opportunities they get for all that and how well they rise to the challenges it presents. As tools go, this is one powerful device which aims squarely at dialogue, involvement and raising the whole debate about learning. Yes, it *is* used almost exclusively in secondary schools at the moment, but it could so easily be used in Primary schools, too.

The process involves having the students think about learning and working collaboratively to agree a set of statements which need to be agreed as relevant. The group then votes on these using the PLiP tool, by dragging and dropping each statement into a ‘bin’ where it can be used, or dropped from the process. Once the list of statements has been agreed, the students set about evaluating them in terms of themselves as learners and in the way the opportunities for personal learning are given to them. Of course, the teachers also get a say, and the interesting part really comes in when you can see the differences between the students’ perceptions and the teachers’ belief in what they provide.

This is not a punitive measure, by the way, and any school which would use such a powerful tool to criticise a learner or a teacher is vastly missing the point. This is about open and honest debate around the issue of how people learn best, and how we as educators can ensure that we do as effective a job as possible. Closing the gap between the different perceptions leads to a closer match between the learner and how they think they learn best, and the teacher in how they provide opportunities. The closer that gap, the better the experience for both, I’d say.

Now, what is there in all that which means it can’t be useful in a Primary school? Make no mistake, the staff in Primary settings generally work more closely with a group over an extended period of time (typically a year) and therefore have a much better understanding of the needs and abilities of their pupils. However, who is to say that the provision given to those pupils couldn’t be better? If we say it is possible to talk about learning and engage in meta levels of reflection with children as young as four (and it is… check out the ‘eTui‘ project), we might just raise the bar in terms of performance. If that continued throughout all schools and extended into adult life as well, wouldn’t that have a bit of an impact on standards overall? I would think it worth finding out, at the very least.

The counter argument is that students so young are not able to intellectually engage in the concepts behind tools like PLiP and that would invalidate the process. I think that’s probably doing our children a disservice, and certainly doing teachers of those children one. The task wouldn’t be to replicate precisely what happens in secondary schools, but to adapt the process and make it meaningful.

There are plenty of precedents for this, and we can see time and time again how astonishing the results are when we ask younger children to think about their learning in profound ways, and to reflect on what they do. They are often more able to be reflective practitioners (notwithstanding the level they operate at) than many folk much older. Of course they don’t have the life experience to draw on, but they do have an amazing ability to know what they need to do, if guided correctly and facilitated appropriately.

The PLiP tool would also need to be made more age-appropriate in both the language used and the look and feel of the site. But in reality this is no big deal. The harder question to my mind is whether or not teachers are able to engage in this kind of activity. Ability here is not linked to competence, but to the notion of available time and space in he hectic schedules of a school year to include such a powerful approach into their day-to-day practise. We need to find ways to enable them to do this, and we really ought to be finding them quick! The pressures of delivering a curriculum so steered by assessment routines and requiring audit of achievements at every step does present us with a dilemma. Do we continue to push content at our children, expecting them to simply remember it and regurgitate it with little analysis, or are we ready to embrace a more forward thinking approach, where we ask learners of all ages to reflect, investigate, challenge assumptions, think laterally, empathise, work collaboratively, ask questions, refine, engage in dialogue, review, plan ahead, engage creatively and learn to adapt their learning? I would say all of these skills are desirable at any age, no matter how young.

It’s whether or not we have the desire to embrace them ourselves as a society. If we do, then tools like PLiP may well become unnecessary. Until then, we run the risk of missing one heck of a boat.