Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Options come as standard

Options come as standard

From Levi's jeans to holidays, customisation is the new word in business, and more customers now expect it. In education it goes by the name personalised learning. David Hargreaves of the Specialist Schools Trust discusses the nine 'gateways' into personalisation.

Personalising means taking a novel angle on current practice and on innovation.

It is not reducible to the idea that class sizes should be much smaller and that, if there were a very low teacher-student ratio, personalisation would automatically be realised. That illusion must be dispelled.

It is more productive to look at personalisation from the different but complementary perspectives afforded by a series of gateways.

From workshops with school leaders, it emerged that there are nine main gateways, each of which provides a distinctive angle on personalising learning by ensuring that teaching and support are shaped around student needs.

The nine gateways are shown below.

Curriculum is perhaps the most obvious gateway for personalising learning. In the 14-19 reforms, it is recognised that students need greater choice than they have been offered since the introduction of the national curriculum after the 1988 Reform Act.

This approach is controversial - should modern languages be optional after the age of 14?

However, choice in this age group is not merely about national curriculum subjects, but also about the introduction of vocational options as well as location for study - the workplace or the college, not just the schoolroom.

In Key Stage 3, the curriculum may not take the form of choice of subject for the national curriculum is likely to be retained here. But the choice can be about how the national curriculum is taught and learned. There will be more experiments in teaching the content in forms other than single subjects or the dedicated lesson.

Assessment for learning has already spread rapidly in the wake of the pioneering work of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. It is a sophisticated version of formative assessment in an age that has been dominated by summative assessment.

At its core is a new way of understanding the relationship between the way teachers teach and students learn.

This can help the student to learn more effectively and the teacher to contribute to the process of student learning by adjusting the teaching.

It is becoming clear that assessment for learning helps students not only to master the content of their learning but also to improve their meta-cognitive skills, including the ability to learn how to learn.

Learning how to learn is a gateway to enhanced achievement and to the independence in learning that is a crucial developmental skill for students during the secondary years.

It is one matter to ensure that students have basic skills: it is another that they want to use them and get pleasure in so doing; and it is yet another that they feel motivated and empowered to engage in further learning for the rest of their lives.

The motivation and capacity to learn independently is crucial to personalisation, because it reduces dependence on the teacher and on the traditional classroom-based styles of instruction.

This is also true of the new technologies. There is growing confidence in the profession that they are a powerful aid to better teaching. They also give students more control over their learning and greater access to the resources and content that might meet individual learning needs.

And they give students greater independence, since the technologies can be used in many different ways, places and times beyond school and so offer new flexibilities in the way learning can be personalised.

These technologies are one of the several drivers for workforce development. This involves change to the structure and function of the educational workforce, out in the community as well as in the school and classroom.

This enlargement of a more differentiated workforce is crucial to personalisation.

New roles also change the relationships between learners and those who support their learning: we can no longer speak simply in terms of teacher and taught. Many adults in the school undertake various forms of mentoring and coaching. Mentors outside the school are becoming of increasing importance, too.

This is particularly so for those with needs that are hard to meet in the school - the exceptionally able and the disengaged, for example: external mentors can be vital in personalising their learning. Equally important is the growth of students mentoring students.

The whole area of peer tutoring is at last achieving wider recognition through its potential for personalised learning.

The changing character of the workforce and the new technologies are powerful drivers of change in school design and organisation. The huge programme for refurbishing schools and building new ones will offer opportunities for rethinking school organisation in order to affect school design.

Traditional schools were designed for students in age cohorts (year groups) taught largely in subgroups (classes) in appropriate spaces (classrooms). Personalising learning may demand new forms of organisation.

The last gateway is student voice. It is probably the most recent in its development but potentially the most powerful of all for personalising learning.

For many years, those who have researched student perspectives on school and learning have been astonished at the mature and serious way the vast majority of students, even the most disengaged and alienated, talk about their experience of learning and schooling.

They have usually remained unconsulted about the many changes that have taken place over recent decades. It would be meaningless to say that we are personalising learning unless we involve them in the process.

The evidence is clear: young people are deeply interested in these matters and are ready to play a constructive role; and when they are encouraged to do so, the teachers benefit considerably.

So entry to personalised learning may be made through any one of these nine gateways: starting from one gateway soon leads to one or more of the others.

The fact that these gateways are interlinked is an advantage, for though networks of schools or teachers may start in one gateway, they are soon led to different ones, from which other networks started their innovation journey.

The challenge is to create networks of innovation starting from the different gateways, but then to bring together the outcomes. This can produce an overall, coherent version of personalisation as a well of resources from which everyone can draw.

We cannot specify - and should not seek - a formal definition of personalisation before we embark on the journeys of these innovation networks.

This is an edited extract taken from Personalised Learning: Next steps in working laterally (2004) by David Hargreaves, the first in the series of booklets from the SHA/Specialist Schools Trust conferences on personalised learning. To order a copy, ring the SST on 020 7802 0955.

Gateways to personalised learning

  • Curriculum

  • Workforce development

  • School organisation and design

  • Student voice

  • Mentoring and coaching

  • Learning to learn

  • Assessment for learning

  • New technologies

  • Advice and guidance

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