Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Fit for purpose

Fit for purpose

For SHA member Derek Wise, personalising learning has meant rethinking everything from the timetable to the furniture. His goal is a school that fits the needs and wishes of the students, rather than the other way round.

It's 7am and John wakes up to his favourite track playing through his Philips Streamium wireless media box which accesses the music stored on the living room computer.

He studies his face in his dressing table mirror which, at the press of a button, doubles as a computer screen and television. A red laser light marks out a computer keyboard onto the dressing table surface and infra red sensors work out what John is typing.

He uses the computer to turn on the central heating and his shower. Once downstairs he orders the food for his 16th birthday over the internet via the 'kitchen shopper' which reads John's scribbled notes from his tablet PC.1

Then, John catches the bus to Humdrum High School where he is studying for his GCSEs. All the lessons are 50 or 100 minutes long whatever the subject and take place in egg box classrooms. John is dependent on others in terms of what should be learnt, how it's learnt - both pace and conditions - and where.

What students want

We don't need terms like 'personalised learning' to tell us we need to change our schools. It's obvious that they are in danger of becoming an anachronism.

However, personalised learning is useful because it points the way forward. And it's about time we started to take it seriously in education.

Students will tell you that whether we like it or not, in the UK adults are in charge of institutions. Comparisons in France, Denmark and England found that English children enjoyed school and lessons the least and were most likely to want to leave as soon as they could.

Writing to the Guardian in 2000, a student said he no longer wished to be treated like "herds of identical animals waiting to be civilised before we are let loose on the world".

It was clear what they did want - light colourful classrooms, a school where their opinions mattered, without a rigid timetable, without a one-size-fits-all curriculum and where they could learn through experience.

They wanted schools to become more personalised. Instead of fitting an individual student into a system - 20th century thinking - we need to create a system designed around the needs, aspirations and interests of individual students.

But where to start? For teachers trying to find time and space for a personalised approach, technology can come to their aid. In my own school, lessons are collectively planned and put onto the intranet so they are instantly available, with their associated resources, via the interactive whiteboard.

We employ our own web designers to aid this process and we use an early finish on Wednesdays for collaboration - students go home at 2pm whilst staff work in departments or on training until 4.15pm.

Freed from protracted lesson planning and resource collecting, teachers can focus on their detailed knowledge of the students and the way they learn. Targeted questioning and intervention personalises the experience for the student.

Get the timing right

We also use the timetable in a flexible way. For six weeks of the year we reconfigure the timetable so that departments have their students for whole days or half days. Students can start something and see it through to the end without the process being interrupted every 50 to 100 minutes.

Changing the time variable eases the way to change the place. Already 25 per cent of our year 10 students work off campus and, increasingly, students can individually negotiate to work from home on specially designed learning modules.

In this scenario the school becomes the 'broker' of opportunities. Through negotiation with the student and his or her family, we help to determine where the best learning opportunities exist for the young person to achieve his or her goals.

Surely catering for individual learning styles, changing the time and place for learning and giving rich choices in a 'school without walls' is the essence of personalised learning?

Well, no. Important though it is, I believe we need to go further and provide students with the skills and attitudes they will need to continue learning throughout their lives.

Schools are very good at helping students learn more. We are also increasingly good at helping our students to learn better by allowing them to discover their individual learning styles.

But we have to go further, by teaching them how they learn and therefore how to become more effective and independent learners.

The 5Rs

At Cramlington we use the 5Rs which we developed from the work of Alistair Smith. We develop each student to be a:

  • responsible learner

  • resilient learner

  • resourceful learner

  • reflective learner

  • reasoning learner

This involves more enquiry-based work and project work and it gives students more control over the pace of their learning.

Already our AS and A level students spend 20 per cent of their time in each subject studying independently on assignments and projects. We need to stop talking about the percentage of teaching time and start talking about the percentage of learning time.

Hand in hand with personalised learning, we must start treating our students as we would expect to be treated as adults.

  • Do your students have social areas where they can unwind?

  • Are there supervised cloakrooms where they can leave coats and bags?

  • Would you use the toilets the school provides for students?

  • Are the toilets bully-free zones?

  • Do you provide students with a confidential, personalised counselling service?

We need to make schools feel more personal to students. This could include house systems with vertical tutor groups replacing year systems, the creation of 'schools within schools' either through separate self-contained blocks housing upper and lower school students, or creating career schools or interest schools for years 10 and 11.

Here, all students taking a particular career pathway would be grouped together and their maths and English courses would, through choice of topic, content and methodology, be relevant to their vocational interest.

Shopping mall schools

Above all we need to change learning environments. Too much money is being wasted on impressive facades and shopping mall-style schools which impress the public and please architects but do little to enhance learning.

We need to look at the learning spaces within our schools and this doesn't just mean the size but also the furniture and equipment. At Cramlington, we created out of an old social block a 21st century learning environment consisting of three double size teaching rooms with a large, central breakout area.

We designed round tables to house a 'home team' of four students. Each table has a desktop computer for collaborative work and underneath each table are four networked laptops for individual work.

The room is sufficiently large for the centre to be used for whole class teaching or circle time. It is carpeted and painted in cool blue. It feels spacious, doesn't look anything like a computer room though it bristles with IT equipment, and is light and airy. The students love it.

We did this internal design without an architect, hiring our own furniture makers to create what we wanted based on our analysis of the learning needs of our students.

The last thing we want is for the government, or indeed anyone else, to come up with a definition of personalised learning. It is a concept that is inspiring and potentially transformative.

This article briefly explores what I think it means for my school. There are many other important features of personalisation that space precludes me from exploring. You will have different and quite possibly more innovative ideas.

Ultimately, my philosophy, and why we have enthusiastically embraced personalisation, is summed up below by my favourite educational quotation, by B H Banathy in Systematic Change:

Touchstones for the FutureSchool.

"What we need is a metamorphosis in education. From the cocoon a butterfly should emerge. Improvement only gives us a faster caterpillar."

Derek Wise is head of Cramlington Community High School, Northumberland.

1 Every piece of technology mentioned here is available. See article House of the Future Today in the Daily Telegraph of Friday 22 April 2005.

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