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Personalised learning has been defined by government ministers as that which takes place when there is an education system in which assessment, curriculum, teaching style and out-of-hours provision are all designed to discover and nurture the unique talents of every single pupil.
In fact, this ideal has long been at the heart of education for practitioners. So what does it mean for teachers within schools and classrooms?
The key thing to remember is that the term 'personalised learning' was not introduced and developed by teachers and education experts. It does not arise from academic research, from grass-roots practice, or from the larger education policy community.
In terms of practical application, a number of key processes and areas have been identified at national government level to support 'personalisation':
There are limits to how far any of these forms of personalised learning can be effective within a crowded curriculum and a high-stakes testing system. And if we are truly to 'personalise' education, surely we need to hear the voice of the pupil?
The current curriculum as taught, with due recognition of the real narrowing caused by excessive teaching to the test, is based on an inappropriate academic model. It lacks balance between the parts of personality which schools should be developing; not only thinking, but feeling, doing and making. As such, it lacks appeal to risk groups.
Only when teachers are able to focus on assessment for learning, rather than teaching to the frequent tests, within a flexible curriculum framework, will they feel empowered to move on from the repetition of the ‘Strategies lesson’ to a more creative and ultimately engaging pedagogy with active learners.
What is accelerated learning?
The concept of accelerated learning is based on relatively recent ideas about the brain, multiple intelligences and learning styles. It has become a popular term to describe a diverse collection of ideas about how human learning can be fostered.
Though it has its origins in the 1970s in Georgi Lozanov's techniques of 'Suggestopedia', accelerated learning is not a single, unified, coherent theory.
One of its strongest and most well-known advocates in the UK, Alistair Smith, describes accelerated learning as:
'an umbrella term for a series of practical approaches to learning which benefit from new knowledge about how the brain functions; motivation and self-belief; accessing different sorts of intelligence and retaining and recalling information.' (Alistair Smith, 1996, p9)
Let's have a look at a number of the more popular theories behind 'accelerated learning' which have had impact within education; brain-friendly schooling, multiple intelligences and learning styles.
Stuff on brains
Brains are often mentioned in relation to learning nowadays, with claims of how brain research informs the work of educators. We can buy packages which claim that, using findings from brain research, they can help us ‘learn faster’ and 'improve our memories'. Yet evidence on brain functioning shows that the brain is not a container but rather that it is engaged in continuous, very flexible processing. Memories are not stored: they are always being constructed, refreshed and reconstructed.
Popular views of brain research use simplifications which have been discredited by neuroscientists. For example, the popular ‘left brain/right brain’ distinction is too simple – the evidence is that anything meaningful uses parts of both sides. Some neuroscientists conclude that any model that assigns collections of mental processes, such as spatial reasoning, to one hemisphere or the other is too crude to be useful. Many neuroscientists and analysts conclude that current brain research has little to offer educational practice or policy. After all, we need to focus on meaning in learning: after all, memorisation is something we resort to when what we are learning does not make sense to us.
The concepts of ‘emotional’ and ‘multiple’ intelligences have been particularly used and revived in the US. The hazard here is to encourage crude views of some learners being more ‘intelligent’ than others. The evidence does not support this: there is no connection between measured ‘intelligence’ (ie the ability to solve abstract problems that bear no relation to your goals under time pressure) and the higher-level skills and processes of an effective learner.
However, the strength of the idea of multiple intelligences is the idea of multiplicity rather than the idea of intelligence. Anything which helps us as educators see more of the diversity in learners and the diversity in successful learning is to be welcomed.
Sometimes in schools and colleges, there is a tendency to put young people into this category or that, but the effects are at times unfortunate. 'Style' is a fashionable label and it has become fashionable in some quarters to apply labels to learners. There are a number of different versions of ‘learning style’ being promulgated, and they have little in common. It therefore becomes important to ask: 'What view of learning is this based on?'
Some are about preferences for the 'intake of information', yet this notion of learning has long been seen as erroneous.
Other versions of 'learning style' are supposedly about consistent tendencies, rather like personality, but a person’s approach to learning varies across situations – and it should, in order to be effective.
It has also become popular to say that learning is more effective when learners ‘match’ their style with the context, yet there is equal evidence to support the idea that learning is more effective where there is a mismatch.
If our aim is to support learners in becoming self-directed, then they need to be equipped with a full range of styles. A hazard in current times is when the notion of style leads learners to categorise themselves in a fixed language: for example, ‘I’m a visual learner’. This could link to a less versatile approach to learning. But learners do vary – all of us do according to our purpose, or the context we are in, or other factors.
Concentrating on effective learning
Effective learners have learned how to become effective learners. This involves not just the acquisition of strategies but also the monitoring and reviewing of learning to see whether particular strategies are effective. No one strategy works for all goals and purposes, despite any claims it might make.
Learning is an activity of construction (making meaning), not one of reception. Learning is handled with others or in the context of others. Learning is driven by the intentions and choices of learners. To promote this type of learning involves action and reflection, collaboration, learner responsibility and learning about learning.
So what can I do to meet the individual needs of each child?
The job of the whole school, particularly under the Every Child Matters agenda is to ensure that each child is healthy, safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and that they achieve economic well-being. As a teacher within the school, you will meet those needs within an educational, learning context. Rather than by utilising particular styles', the individual needs of each child can be met by enabling them to be effective and self-directed learners.
In classrooms which promote self-directed learners, pupils are doing the following:
• they are making choices – of activities, within activities, when an activity is completed
• they are making goals their own
• they are involved in planning how they will proceed
• they are given encouragement to offer commentary on their learning – talking aloud
• they are supported in reviewing their experience – telling the story
• they are evaluating the end-product
• they are asking others for help
• they are motivated by internal incentives.
How can I teach for effective learning?
When planning teaching for learning, our task as teachers, is to focus on the experience for learners, rather than on what we are going to say and do.
Learners go through four phases: Do Review Learn Apply in a circular, ever-developing manner. The following matrix plots these four phases on each of the aspects which evidence has shown to promote effective learning.
Learning about learning
Tasks are designed for learner activity, using or creating materials, texts, performances
Tasks in small groups connect to create a larger whole (by roles or by parts)
Learners exercise choice and plan their approaches
Learners are encouraged to notice aspects of their learning as they engage in tasks
Learners stop to notice what happened, what was important, how it felt, etc.
Learners bring ideas together and review how the group has operated
Learners monitor their progress and review their plans
Learners describe what they notice and review their learning (goals, strategies, feelings, outcome, context)
New insights and understandings are made explicit
Explanations of topic and of how the group functioned are voiced across the group
Factors affecting progress are identified and new strategies devised
Richer conceptions of learning are voiced and further reflective inquiry is encouraged
Future action is planned in light of new understanding. Transferring that understanding to other situations is examined
Future possibilities for group and community learning are considered
Plans are revised to accommodate recent learning
Learners plan to notice more and to experiment with their approaches to learning
Helping pupils to make sense of their learning
Making sense of learning has parallels with how we make sense of other things: we do it gradually, we do it by focusing on experiences and trying out explanations. Our knowledge and language build as we go, yet also remain somewhat fragmented and partial.
There are four broad sorts of classroom practices which help learners make sense of their learning, and these have been developed with all ages, from four years upward. They build on each other and lead to a key ingredient in effective learning – one which also is reflected in improved performance.
• First practice: noticing learning
This requires that we occasionally stop the flow of classroom life and activity in order to notice. Notice what we did, what the effects were, how it felt, what helped, how we persevered, what we thought we might do with the learning. In these moments we highlight experiences needed to build up a language for noticing learning.
• Second practice: conversations about learning
This can start with pupils discussing in pairs what they have noticed, or with teacher prompts which help learners reflect on why they were doing certain things which are normally taken for granted.
• Third practice: reflection
Reflection can be supported, for example, by writing in a ‘learning log’ – a notebook or other format for jotting down noticings and thoughts, sometimes with the help of specific prompts from the teacher.
• Fourth practice: making learning an object of learning
When learning can be talked about in some detail, can be reviewed, and described more richly, explicit experiments can be set up to adapt some part of it. It can be done in any context, any classroom, by adding a cycle of learning about learning to the cycle of learning about ‘content’. For example, on one occasion we might review, examine and experiment with how we went about reading. It might be that this highlighted the goals we have in mind for our learning, so that they could be examined on another occasion. Or we could look at how we handled feelings. Or how we engaged others and how best they help. Features of the context could be reviewed and improved. And so on.
Implications for assessment
Many aspects of assessment for learning fit with a learning-centred classroom which promotes thinking and learning skills. Assessment for learning means a shift of emphasis from assessing the products of learning through tests and other similar means in order to prove something to assessing the process of learning through ongoing review with the aim to improve learning and performance.
Meeting the needs of each child is a challenging task for every teacher but it is at the heart of what each teacher does. They can best do it through taking a learning-centred approach to teaching which is far richer than one which looks at styles or intelligences but rather looks at engaging pupils directly in their own learning, not only improving their learning of lesson content but of learning itself, equipping them with the sets of skills they need to achieve the five key outcomes expressed in the Every Child Matters agenda.