You may want to discuss at your school the ideas and practical suggestions in this important report. The report was written after a roundtable discussion about personalised learning. The Crowther Centre for Learning and Innovation and VICCSO co-hosted the roundtable discussion that attracted many stakeholders. We are also developing a broad partnership and network around personalised learning.
At your school
Circulate inforrmation through the school newsletter and website about how educators and all school community members can in partnership further develop personalised learning. As a teacher, parent or student, get involved in your school's education, policy or curriculum committee. Promote discussion about how your school is developing personalised learning, and what else may need to be done. See the Great Schools Checklist - Part 4: Teaching and Learning - for practical questions about learning.
At the larger level
Help develop a broad network of principals, teachers, parents, students and community members to share ideas and information about personalisation. Or you may want to help build a local community partnership around personalisation involving local government. Contact us for more information.
The question of how to build education systems and schools around personalised learning through better partnerships and governance is arguably the educational challenge of our time. Indeed, in educational practice and research in relation to improving schooling and learning outcomes and life opportunities for all students, two things stand out:
Personalisation and partnerships (Hargreaves, 2004; Leadbeater, 2004) are two sides of the same coin and comprise a paradox (Weigel, James, and Gardner, 2009: 2): learning becomes more personalised and focused on an individual’s needs, interests and all-round development, and yet more social (involving teams, networks, clusters, partnerships and collaborative forms of learning and school organisation and provision on an unprecedented scale).
This paper affirms that personalisation of students’ learning through strong partnerships may be the main way to end the performance plateau in education systems, engage many more students in learning, especially in the middle years, and close the gap in educational attainment between students of different socio-economic backgrounds. It may also be the source of renewal in public education, and the best way to build parent and community participation.
Given the boldness of these claims, in this paper we discuss three key questions:
There is obviously a long history of personalisation both as an ideal and as a practice in schools, colleges and universities. Educators already have a rich repertoire of ways to assess students’ respective strengths, weaknesses and learning needs, and tailor teaching methods and the curriculum in response. Certainly parents favour an education that supports their children to become well-rounded individuals and caters to their individual needs (Saulwick Muller Social Research, 2006: 31). Personalised learning builds on these practices and aspirations.
Given what we know by way of research findings and the ideas and creative work of teachers over decades – notwithstanding the resource, time, curricular and system constraints on what schools and educators can provide – four key dimensions of personalised learning are as follows.
The first is co-creation and control: the extent to which all students can lead, manage and co-create (Leadbeater, 2004) their own learning, participate in significant decisions affecting student learning, and progressively (as is age-appropriate) take control of their own learning journey. The journey is for the individual, not a narrowly defined, institutionally prescribed academic, vocational or other ‘pathway’, and thus supports his or her basic right to all-round personal development.
Student voice drives this personalisation (Fielding, 2004; Hargreaves, 2004). Student talk via the power of dialogic teaching (Alexander, 2008) is pivotal. Alexander places emphasis on rethinking and adjusting the balance of writing and talk in the curriculum; redressing the balance of written and oral tasks and activities; and shifting from random, brief interactions to sustained and longer ones. Dialogic teaching serves to develop student learning and understanding and mainstream student voice, participation and leadership. Students’ skills in time management are also critical.
The second is deeper and more powerful learning: the extent to which students’ personal everyday experiences, ideas and insights and formal school instruction are combined to engender deeper student learning, knowledge and understanding. As per Vygotsky’s insights, which inform the best ways to challenge deficit views of students’ backgrounds, when students’ personal experiences and ideas and an educator’s scientific concepts and understandings (which are not limited to science subjects) merge, learning is deeper. Teachers often use classroom talk (such as paraphrasing strategies to extend students’ vocabulary and inviting students to converse about their concrete, empirical and personal experiences and interpretations) to merge the two.
By contrast, concepts abstractly presented to students (as with an old-style academic curriculum) with little or no connection to their concrete, empirical and personal experiences may amount to empty formalism (Renshaw & Brown, 2007). On the other hand, concrete, empirical and personal experiences remain limited in their depth and generality if not connected to more scientific ideas, concepts and understandings. Both extremes make it more difficult for students of diverse backgrounds to develop their own personal and empowering blend of both deep academic knowledge and understanding and practical and applied learning and real world problem-solving.
The third dimension is whole life learning: the extent to which students’ learning can draw upon, and make robust connections between, the multiple areas of their life (e.g., Abbot et al., 2009; West-Burnham, 2010). These include the school, extra-curricular settings, home, workplaces, community and community organisations, sport and recreation, and culture and ethnicity. Challenges are how best to monitor the development of the whole student as distinct from only assessing progress in specific subjects (Johnson, 2004), and to empower students, parents and the community (Banks, 2004) as real learning partners. The Harvard Family Research Project (2008) uses the term ‘complementary learning’ for integrating school and non-school learning.
The fourth is personal futures planning: the extent to which students are able to make use of planning to target individual and common life and learning goals and to specify activities that may enable the attainment of these goals (e.g., Duckett and Jones, 2006). Some schools are, through the joint work of teachers, students, parents and others as well as the optimum use of new technologies, reworking personal learning plans for students to better support the needs and aspirations of learners as well as longer-term goal-setting for learning and personal well-being.
All four of the above dimensions are interlinked. If one is diminished, the other three are weakened. Together, the dimensions comprise a coherent model of personalised learning.
In feedback to the author, many teachers affirmed that these dimensions, in the words of one educator, comprise "a powerful paradigm for change in education". Likewise, among the many responses from parents, one parent described the model as "an excellent starting-point for working out what all school community members should be striving for", and another parent made the point that this kind of model "can open pathways of communication across all stakeholders at the local school level", as a basis for deep dialogue between teachers, parents and students.
Is the potential of personalised learning real and what are the risks? Or is the flurry of interest little more than hype? In short, is it the next big thing or another fad? The term ‘personalised learning’ can be a new label for what is old. As Hargreaves laments, governments can pollute the term by “using it as a clothesline on which to hang existing policies” (2009).
There are also risks. If only cashed-up parents can purchase for their children the best and most personalised education, personalisation will widen inequalities. Middle class homes can also obviously be far more conducive to personalised learning than other homes that may have less space and fewer computers and books (Leadbeater, 2004).
But there is enthusiasm among teachers, students and parents for personalised learning. Parents of diverse backgrounds can relate to personalisation and feel that they can do something about it. As well, the capacity to further personalise learning for all students will continue to improve, driven by teachers’ pedagogical innovations and Web 2.0 tools and other technologies.
Students are powerful agents of this educational change. They want their own personal learning pathways into and out of education, training and work. They may freely mix and match subjects – favouring their own personal blend of both deep academic knowledge and practical and applied learning. As well, some begin with university and then attend a TAFE college, and vice versa.
Personalisation does signal something new but is double-edged and contested, consistent with the tensions between old and new ideas of personalised learning. The former UK Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Charles Clarke, suggested:
“The central characteristic of [the] new system will be personalisation – so that the system fits to the individual rather than the individual having to fit to the system.” (Department for Education and Skills, 2004: 4)
Such hyperbolical statements also beg basic questions: ‘What kind of new system?’, ‘What can be done to build new systems?’ and ‘What barriers exist that impede this development?’
The factory system of mass schooling was historically an efficient way of delivering consistent, uniform instruction to large numbers of students, vastly improving levels of education. However, with a tendency to suppress difference, complexity and diversity and increasingly preoccupied with targets and standardised testing, this system now constrains the emergent and exploratory in schooling. The effect of this is simply to postpone systemic change and frustrate teachers working to further personalise learning. As Green et al. explain:
“For many teachers, the idea of personalisation is familiar and is one of the ideals that brought them into the profession. However, at times, the assessment, funding and institutional contexts in which they operate act not as a driving force for personalisation but as a barrier to it. Personalisation asks us how these systems can be re-shaped around the needs of the learner” (2005: 3).
There is a looming contradiction between the multiple sites of a student’s personalised learning and the narrow focus of school improvement efforts on classroom practices.
With students spending only 14 percent or so of their time at school (Bransford et al., 1999), learning experiences at home, in the community and during leisure time, posing learning activities and challenges to be solved (Marsick & Watkins, 2001), mean that formal education will continue as a central site but also as one site of learning among many, and that there is likely to be an exponential increase in forms of informal learning. As Wyn writes:
"Young people take what they need from a wide variety of sources, of which formal education is only one element. Formal education is only one part of young people’s learning repertoire, and if it remains in its current form, it may become increasingly marginal to learning and ossify as a credentialling mechanism for university, further education and employment" (2009: 35).
But although the school, family and community are the three “overlapping spheres of influence” which directly affect student learning and development (Epstein, 1995), many education systems have become singularly obsessed with classroom practice, with top-down prescription and micro-management undermining teachers’ professional autonomy and judgment. The effect is to:
School strategic plans can compound these problems, particularly if they are so full of departmental goals, targets and knee-jerk reactions to ‘the data’ that there is no space for truly shared school-family-community goals that reflect a school’s shared policy and pedagogy.
If broad agreement on a framework for personalised learning could be reached, and if it could be promoted by teachers, parents, students and other stakeholders, an exciting, transforming and 21st century movement (O’Toole & Meyer, 2006: 30) might be created. As grounded in the actual work of schools and informed by research and the best policies, a comprehensive and coherent framework for personalised learning may include the following four key areas. These are:
We briefly discuss each of these four areas.
Personalisation offers a tremendous opportunity to rethink what it means to be a 'leader' in a school community, which may necessitate new formal and informal leadership development opportunities. School leadership for personalisation can only be dispersed (West-Burnham & Coates, 2005; Allen & Onyett, 2009), a broad community focus which places big demands upon - but also enhances - the leadership role of principals, including within school councils and boards.
Many more schools will develop leadership teams, comprising school leaders, teachers, parents and students, focused on the different aspects of personalised learning through partnerships such as a whole school community strategy for the optimum use of learning technologies. For parents who may feel uneasy in formal meetings and school settings, such teams, by tapping into everyone’s knowledge about students’ learning, can be vehicles for participation. Some schools have also created family and community liaison positions.
Without addressing school governance, efforts to develop personalisation will amount to no more than tinkering around the edges of an outmoded system. School councils and boards can spread responsibility for personalisation throughout the whole school community. School councils as mechanisms for dialogue, partnerships and policy making will be renewed through this work.
This 'good governance' is about school communities building and sustaining a genuine dialogue and developing widely shared goals, values and strategies. It depends on professional support for principals as executive officers of school councils evolving as high-level, strategic governing bodies. Key initiatives may include developing shared school-family-community goals in a school’s strategic plan and a learning compact that defines the shared goals and contributions to personalised learning of the school, students, parents and community groups. In this respect, VICCSO is developing good governance guidelines (at viccso.org.au/content/governance).
Both leadership and governance are underpinned by high-quality management; indeed, if personalised learning is to develop to a new level, school management will be decisive. West-Burnham (2010) is among the few who has discussed management strategies to personalise learning, including giving students greater say in curriculum design and re-thinking the way that time, space and people are organised in a school. Among the key challenges is managing students’ personal learning plans. Models are needed of how plans can be best managed via on-line tools, without imposing an administrative burden on teachers, and how the roles of parents, mentors and community members can be best developed.
Principals, teachers, parents, students and school councils/boards may co-create new models of interdependent leadership, governance and management, and striking a balance among all three is the key to the future of school improvement and personalised learning.
Broad agreement about pedagogy is the basis of partnerships for personalising learning. Alexander (2008) distinguishes between teachers’ work in the classroom and pedagogy which includes, but is broader than, teaching and argues that “this wider context matters no less than what goes on in classrooms” (2008: 4). Teaching practice and pedagogy are the two halves that have to be brought together to further develop personalisation.
In other words, the very best teaching practices are most likely to evolve in tandem with the core values, vision and goals, links to evidence and research and school policies and plans - in short, the shared pedagogy - of a school's leaders, staff, parents, students and community. To assist school communities with developing a shared pedagogy, VICCSO is creating a school community conversations and planning toolkit called www.talkandaction.org.
How do schools go about developing a shared pedagogy? An education team or sub-committee of a school council/board as well as professionally facilitated school community forums can bring together school leaders, teachers, parents, students and critical friends to:
New technologies are obviously pivotal to personalised learning. Web 2.0 tools have huge consequences for the school-home-community partnership, but, notwithstanding the truly pioneering work of many schools, the potential uses of these tools to strengthen these partnerships are yet to be fully realised. Examples from schools of the contribution of new technologies to personalised learning include a resource bank for the opportunities available for each student’s learning in the school, home, extra-curricular settings, workplaces and community and making it easier for students to develop and monitor personal learning plans and for teachers to provide personalised feedback.
Hopkins rightly emphasises the curricula implications of taking personalised learning seriously (2010). This requires a comprehensive and content-rich education, not a narrow focus on the ‘basics’ or literacy and numeracy at the expense of other learning areas, given that the possibilities for genuine personalisation depend critically on the quality and range of the curriculum (Alexander, 2004: 12) that includes science, the arts and languages. As Alexander argues, the old - and still current - formula of ‘basics plus the rest’ must be abandoned, for it denies universal entitlement and thus erases genuine personalisation and student choice.
Supported by the right resources, it is the mix of advances in pedagogy, technology and content knowledge that puts the ‘power’ into powerful personalised learning experiences for all students and ultimately improves learning outcomes for all students and reduces the achievement gap.
Banks (2004), like Hargreaves (2004), affirms that the best results will be obtained when change initiatives are linked in a complementary way, providing integrated support for the different aspects of personalised learning. Hargreaves proposes nine 'gateways' or complementary perspectives on personalisation including curriculum, workforce development, assessment, school organisation and design, new technologies and student voice.
The Harvard Family Research Project (2008) also proposes 'complementary learning' to integrate both school and non-school supports such as early childhood programs, out-of-school time programs and activities, higher education, health and social service agencies, businesses and libraries. It includes complementary forms of educational provision such as mainstream schools and community languages schools. Schools can map their current and potential complementary practices and mix of school and non-school supports and services that will propel 'systemic change' (Reigeluth, 1994) toward further personalisation and performance gains.
Systemic change and performance
With a broad focus on the multiple areas of a student’s life, a school cannot work in isolation from all of the other partners (West-Burnham, 2010: 28) that contribute to a student’s learning and development. The challenge is to draw teachers, peers, parents, mentors, health workers, community leaders and others into stronger partnerships, which is how schools bring about a shift from piecemeal to systemic change. As per complementarity theory (e.g., Pettigrew et al., 2003), such complementary practices between a range of stakeholders in school communities and with other providers may lead to significant improvements in performance and outcomes.
An important form of systemic change is P-12 schooling, which takes shape when primary and secondary school teachers complement each other by sharing their expertise and developing a truly unified P-12 approach to pedagogy and a seamless curriculum. P-12 schooling, involving small collaborative clusters of primary and secondary schools, is poised to significantly boost achievement for all students and improve performance among students of low SES background.
How principals and teachers will be best supported and remunerated in the years ahead to build high performance learning systems within and between schools is the performance question.
Personalised learning obviously requires the right amount and kind of resources, facilities and support. It also encourages us to focus on the totality of resources available for learning, at school but also at home (Leadbeater, 2004). It may mean that the more that services become personalised the more that public resources will have to be skewed toward the least well-off (Leadbeater, 2004: 22). Johnson also suggests:
"If the concept of personalised learning is really intended to generate debate about change this radical, it may be that there is an urgent requirement for a modelling exercise to test whether such an organisation could be affordable within any likely budgetary constraints" (2004: 13).
The costs may be partly offset, via a strong policy of school collaboration and partnerships, by economically efficient forms of reorganising education and schooling around personalisation. For instance, in a small collaborative cluster of primary and secondary schools and other institutions, focused on shared strategic goals, personalisation is likely to be more cost-effective.
To provide the quality of education required to improve the engagement and achievement of all students and reduce the achievement gap, it is essential for schools to be adequately supported and resourced to further develop four dimensions of personalised learning:
In turn, personalised learning requires a coherent ‘macro’ framework which can be used to:
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There have been scores of responses to the discussion paper from educators, parents, students, researchers, stakeholder organisations and policy makers. The paper also prompted interest in a possible personalised learning project.
A professor of education replied that there "is great value in a project along these lines". A school principal commented that "members of the school’s leadership team and teaching and learning coaches would be very interested in such a project".
Teachers discussed what they affirmed to be "a powerful paradigm for a change in education". Many parents also responded. One parent described the model outlined in the discussion paper as "an excellent starting-point for working out what all school community members should be striving for", and another parent made the point that this kind of project "can open pathways of communication across all stakeholders at the local school level".
The responses can be grouped into five key areas:
1. Developing a truly shared understanding, definition, vision and model
Many people emphasised the obvious need to develop broad agreement - and deeper understanding - about the 'what', 'why' and 'how' of personalisation. As a school principal wrote:
"There is incredible confusion on what we mean by the term 'personalised learning', its implications for professional practice (and training and professional learning) and what it looks like 'on the ground' in classrooms for teachers, students and members of the broader community. … I thus certainly believe that an exploration of the possibilities and opportunities to advance this further would be a very worthwhile exercise".
The challenge is amplified by the emergent nature of personalised learning (in part due to its linkage with rapid technological change); educators and school community leaders obviously need to give direction and strive for clarity as to what personalisation really is while encouraging innovation in an uncertain terrain. As one person described this conundrum:
"Is it a matter of laying the groundwork for a further unfolding of practice, as there really isn't enough mainstream good practice in evidence at this time? If this is the case, then our difficulty is providing sufficiently concrete ideas for people to grab hold of, while allowing scope for some of these ideas to be wrong and for other ideas to evolve and flourish. Or is the purpose more a matter of identifying, deeply understanding and promoting lots of current and emerging good practices?"
In this regard, an educator suggested that there needs to be greater awareness of the rich history of personalisation – both in terms of the centuries-old theoretical heritage and past, current and emerging innovations in classroom practice.
2. Engaging school communities as co-creators of personalised learning
Some respondents indicated that they liked the way in which the framework in the discussion paper linked the 'micro' of improvements in classroom practice with the 'macro' of school and system change and community support and participation.
People noted the challenges in identifying the specific, practical contributions that teachers, parents, students and community members may make to develop personalised learning. The concern was also noted that working on a larger scale may seem daunting, considering the workload issues for principals and teachers, and that for this kind of change to succeed school community stakeholders would need to be brought together in new ways.
As only teams of teachers, parents, students and community members really working and learning together have the best chance of further personalising learning, one person wrote that VICCSO’s school community conversations and planning toolkit called www.talkandaction.org (yet to be launched) could be a useful means for supporting broad-based dialogues in school communities, as required for shaping a shared vision and strategy.
3. Leadership and governance for personalised learning and inclusion
It was recognised that leadership will need to come not only from educators but also increasingly from parents, students, school councils/boards and other stakeholders. It was suggested that personalisation offers a great opportunity to rethink what it means to be a 'leader' in a school community, which may necessitate new formal and informal leadership development opportunities.
A principal noted that this broader community focus places big demands upon - but also enhances - the leadership role of principals, including within school councils and boards. There is interest in the question of how a school council or board can spread responsibility for personalisation throughout an entire school community. It was suggested that this 'good governance' was about the capacity of a school community to build and sustain a genuine dialogue and develop widely shared goals, values and strategies among its members.
Leadership and governance in the context of cultural and social inclusion were noted. For one person, this means knowing much more about who is currently involved in school councils and boards, and how governing bodies can become far more representative of their communities and more effective.
This is not only an equity issue; if a school community is to co-create the best ways to develop an inclusive - and personalised - learning experience for all students, it is also a basic pedagogical issue. This raises an interesting question: what are the key issues in developing leaders of personalised learning and cultural and social inclusion?
Student voice, initiative, participation, planning and leadership for personalised learning were mentioned by teachers, parents and students. As a secondary school principal powerfully put it:
"There is a critical need to develop rich resources to support the shift in pedagogy, but an even greater need to educate students on the possibilities for personalised learning and their right to access them".
4. What does 'success' look like and what practical support is required?
A challenge is to develop precise criteria for what 'success' in personalising learning looks like, including its potential impact on improving learning outcomes for all students and reducing the achievement gap, and what may be done to best assess success and support its development. As one person wrote:
"An interesting possibility would be matching schools and community data and designing a pilot to consider the effect of the different factors identified in the discussion paper (e.g., governance, technology, resources, classroom practices, etc.) on personalising learning and improving both educational performance and school community building".
Emphasising the importance of getting down to the nitty-gritty of personalisation and what can be done to support it through professional learning, a principal wrote:
"I would be interested in discussing the possibilities, especially about the issues at the coalface (e.g., time, parental expectations, curriculum requirements, etc.) and practical ways to support teachers to improve their skills in developing strategies and programs that are more personalised to students".
Mention was made about the tools that may be needed to support personalised learning. Using an analogy with how medical interventions can target subtle mixes of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors for specific patients, a teacher put it this way:
"We could be arguing that the school influence on students' learning experiences and outcomes needs to become even more diagnostic. But diagnostic tools are really still in their infancy, and education is still more akin to factory production lines where we can customise the 'product' to some extent, but are constrained by bells, time slots, etc. to deliver a standardised curriculum".
5. Resources and the role of information and communication technology
There was interest in the idea of looking at the totality of resources available for learning, at home, in the community and at school, and what this may mean in practice and in the context of the current federal review of funding for schools.
Further, there was interest in how the costs of further personalising learning may be partly offset, via a strong policy of school collaboration and partnerships, by economically efficient forms of reorganising education and schooling around personalisation. These include P-12 clusters of primary and secondary schools.
Finally, it was noted that the pivotal role of technologies, in supporting a more tailored and personalised learning experience for all, needed much more careful investigation, conceptual models and adequate resources.
Next steps ...
Given the range of positive responses, there is strong support to develop a personalised learning project (PLP) team. A practical step may be a roundtable discussion at some stage soon. Please contact us with your suggestions about how we may best progress this.