5 reasons why personalised learning benefits no one

Teachers should be the ones deciding what pupils learn and how – pupils have plenty of time to explore their own interests outside of school after all

Mark Enser

personalised learning

In a recent article for Tes, a fellow teacher offered five reasons that personalised learning benefits pupils, including that it will help pupils to be “successful citizens and employees” by allowing them to “follow their curiosities and passions through project-based learning and develop their ideas with support from technology and teachers”. 

I can certainly appreciate why people might support the idea of personalised learning; the idea of tailoring a curriculum to the needs and interests of each pupil sounds like it should be good for all concerned.


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However, I started teaching in the early years of this millennium when personalised learning was all the rage, and I remember well the problems it created for teachers and pupils alike. 

Here are my five reasons why I feel personalised learning is not all it appears to be. 

1. We are more than employees

I would start by challenging the opening premise of this argument for personalised learning – that it creates "successful employees".

To insist that schools become factories manufacturing a workforce seems perverse. We as humans are more than that and schools play a more important role in passing our collective culture down through the generation and enabling people to add to it in the future. 

2. Widening horizons

An argument given for personalised learning is that it enables schools to reflect the interests that pupils have. The problem with this is that pupils can only ever choose to learn more about something they already know about.

They can’t decide they would like to learn about something they don’t know exists, after all. Schools should widen the horizons of our pupils and allow them to, as Basil Bernstein puts it, “think the not-yet-thought”. 

3. What are we for?

Another problem with leaving decisions over what should be studied to our pupils is that it is not their job to know. That is our job. 

Leaving this up to the whims of each class or pupil would suggest that none of this really matters. That we don’t care what pupils learn.

If we do agree it matters (and I really hope we do agree on this) then we must accept that the best person to make those decisions is the person with the expertise to do so – the teacher. 

4. We are not so different

One argument made for personalised learning is that it helps learners identify their own learning styles. I remember this argument well from the early days of my teaching career when adapting your teaching to visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners was all the range. 

However, there is a lack of evidence that teaching to prefered learning styles is an effective way to help pupils. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that if a pupil prefers to learn by using method X and avoids using method Y, we should focus on helping them to use method Y. 

5. The best tool for the job

The suggestion that pupils should choose the form their work takes means that all these forms are of equal value. 

I remember a suggestion once that pupils might like to turn their work in geography on the Boxing Day tsunami into a newspaper front page, a group presentation or a rap. 

It doesn’t take much to identify the problem. Each approach takes very specific and very different skills. Are they being taught how to do each of these things well? If so, by whom? Which of these, if any, is actually the best way to present the information in geography? 

 

All in all, while personalised learning sounds like a great idea, I believe that once you scratch the surface you find something that holds pupils back and fails to move them beyond their existing knowledge and immediate experiences. 

Put it this way: pupils are typically in lessons for around five hours a day and 190 days of the year. As such, they have plenty of time to follow their own interests and the things they love. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His new book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: An essential guide to effective and efficient teaching is out soon. He tweets @EnserMark

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