Will personalised learning ever be the norm in schools?

Personalised learning has been at the forefront of educational discussions for years, piquing the interest of billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, among others. But can it work in practice? One researcher lays out his thoughts
29th May 2020, 12:02am
Personalised Learning


Will personalised learning ever be the norm in schools?


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It is perhaps hardly surprising that research has shown that students learn better when lessons are personalised to their individual needs. But it’s also fairly obvious that the idea of classroom teachers across the country adopting personalised learning approaches presents huge practical challenges.

One man who understands the scale of these challenges is John Pane, a senior scientist at the Rand Corporation in the US, who has researched the implementation and effectiveness of innovations in education, with a focus on personalised learning. He led the first large-scale evaluation of school-wide personalised learning. Simon Creasey caught up with him to ask him a few questions.

How do you define personalised learning?

“It is trying to redesign education so that it is much more customised for individual students, including their specific academic needs, but also their interests.

“It also tries to give them more agency over what they’re doing in their education, rather than just having everything fed to them. So, the students would have some input into the curriculum materials, at least in terms of selecting from some choices that may have been provided by educators.

“However, I think that there are so many different dimensions to what people could be doing with personalised learning that it’s almost as if no two implementations are exactly alike.”

You undertook a study into personalised learning in the US. What did the study consist of and what did it show?

“We were asked by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study a set of schools that were already selected to implement personalised learning. Collectively, these schools served children throughout the elementary and secondary grades.

“Practices in these schools included time for one-on-one tailored support for learning; using up-to-date information on student progress to personalise instruction and group students; students tracking their own progress; competency-based practices; and flexible use of staff, space and time.

“We were asked to evaluate the outcomes at those schools. Coming in late like that did not enable us to do the most rigorous research design, but we did the best we could, which was a matched comparison group design. We tried to find similar students in similar schools around the country and then look at how they compared in performance.

“The study did find that the personalised learning schools produced larger test score gains than the comparison students. It was not a huge difference and not always statistically significant, but it appeared to be a positive effect and possibly one that accumulated from one year, to two years, to three years of personalised learning.”

So, can we conclude from that what the benefits of personalised learning are?

“In my mind - and not everyone will agree with me - one of the most fascinating ideas mixed in with personalised learning is really rethinking the traditional way of schooling, where all the students of a certain age are together, learning exactly the same thing, on exactly the same day, regardless of whether they are well prepared or not.

“Finding a way to move away from that paradigm to something that is more flexible and more individualised for the students has a tremendous amount of promise, in my eyes. That is only one piece of what personalised learning could be but, in my mind, it’s the most promising aspect.”

We’ve seen some big names from the technology sector such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, looking quite closely at personalised learning. Why do you think it has piqued their interest?

“Firstly, I think that to accomplish the kind of personalisation that personalised learning schools are attempting, it’s necessary to have technology. One of the reasons our education system is designed as it is right now is that it was created at a time when it was infeasible for teachers to customise instruction for every student. There was no way to keep track and there was no way to manage what one child was doing while the educator was working with another child.

“Technology opens up opportunities here in terms of managing the process and offering a variety of learning activities that students can undertake that don’t always have to be instructor led, which then allows the instructor to help other students and give them more personalised attention. I think that the technology sector recognises that there’s an opportunity here to have a big impact and they are trying to take advantage of that.”

What do you think are the main challenges and hurdles that personalised learning needs to overcome before it is embraced and widely rolled out?

“I think it’s hard for teachers and schools to pull this off because there aren’t a lot of prepackaged materials. There are many possible components, including technologies and other resources, that are being marketed in various ways, but assembling it into a coherent and effective package is a challenge.

“This is magnified if educators want to give students choices - then even more materials might be necessary than typical. Right now, that puts a lot of burden on the educators to get everything together and especially to make sure that the materials are high quality and challenge the students in appropriate ways.

“So, I think one big challenge is that there aren’t many off-the-shelf personalised learning systems that they can just adopt and not have to do a lot of work getting things prepared.

“The other thing that is challenging is related to the more adaptive pacing, or having students work at their current level and not at the same level as their classmates. When they want to do that, they encounter a lot of policies attempting to counteract that flexibility. There are grade level standards, end-of-year assessments tied to those standards, and incentives for teachers and schools to have the students do well on those assessments. That poses a tension with the idea that students in a certain grade may be learning a lot and catching up, but might not all be working at grade level yet.”

So, do you think that we will ever see personalised learning widely rolled out?

“I don’t think it will be a global phenomenon immediately. Whether it eventually comes to pass is a little hard to predict. My worry is there’s a lot of experimentation going on right now and there are chances many of these attempts will fail in some way. They may be too difficult to implement or appear not to work, causing people to abandon the idea.

“I think it’s perfectly possible that this will pass by like many other education reform ideas without ever having gained the traction that would enable it to stick - [it needs] things like well-designed systems and materials, professional development to help educators fully embrace the new approach, new policies that are compatible with the new approach, and an understanding of which of the many ideas encompassed by personalised learning are truly helpful for students.”

Simon Creasey is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 29 May 2020 issue under the headline “Will personalised learning ever be possible?”

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