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Up close and personalised in class

My deputy has just returned from a conference and tells me that "personalised learning" is the new buzz phrase. What exactly is it, and how different is it from Plowden's assertion that at the heart of education is the child?

There is currently a lot of practice in our schools which reflects a pick-and-mix approach to teaching and learning. Teachers are going to courses and conferences and bringing back a plethora of strategies, suppostitions and assumptions which claim to accelerate learning.

Water is increasingly available in classrooms to hydrate the learner's brain, music used to energise and calm, brain gym to galvanise. Teachers talk about VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic), and children are being encouraged to categorise themselves as having a particular learning style, often too narrowly.

Once again, many teachers, faced with this glut of advice, are adopting methods to use in the classroom because someone has told them they work.

Those of us who have been in education for a while remember debates about the integrated day versus whole-class teaching, phonics versus real books.

Suddenly we have seen furniture being rearranged into horseshoe shapes because group work was seen to be ineffective; the teacher moved from the role of facilitator to adopting a performer's pose at the front of the class. And now we have personalised learning to grapple with. It is not surprising teachers are confused.

Personalised learning simply means that teachers take into account the needs of the learner when they are designing teaching approaches. In recent years the Plowden report, with its insistence that the child should be at the heart of education, has been somewhat discredited.

However, the think-tank report, whose 10 propositions have shaped the vision of the National College for School Leadership, refers to "learning centredness" and this is not too far from an educational focus described by Plowden.

The main difference between the two phrases is measured by our greater understanding of neuro-science. In other words, we know a great deal more now about how we learn than we did then.

So, how should schools respond to this new vision of government ministers? The good news is it is not going to be imposed from above. There is clear understanding from school standards minister David Miliband that top-down dictates do not work. Uncritically adopted, they result in an undiscerning application which further removes teaching from learning.

Or they may, after years of perceived downloading of national initiatives, be rejected. Ministers now realise that if any change is to be effective and sustainable, it has got to come about because teachers in classrooms see the need: "It's as simple as that," said Michael Fullan, the educational reform author, in Leading in a Culture of Change.

From time to time we need to take stock. I would recommend an annual internal think-tank where people in schools are given the opportunity, unfettered by the demands of the working day, to bring together their knowledge and feelings about learning.

What is it? What does it look like? What do effective learners do and say? What characteristics do they display? Is there an identikit picture, or is there a range of images which tell us that learning is happening? Can we spot different types of learning happening in different contexts?

People in the school are invited to bring personal knowledge to the table and share it. It is then possible to draw up some common threads, agreements and definitions based on the grounded experience of working in classrooms.

It is now time to bring in the findings of academics. The NCSL has packaged some wide-ranging research for us. Just get on to the college website and retrieve the relevant think pieces. Use methodologies and protocols: getting individuals to read one piece and explain it to others is an effective way of absorbing a lot of text rapidly.

We now need to ask: "how does what we have read influence what we think, and what implications are there for what we do in this school?"

I am confident, that as a result of this exercise, teachers will be well-placed to scrutinise current practice, identify barriers to learning created by their own perceptions, and suggest a menu of options for possible change.

All you have to do now is just do it. It is as simple and as complex as that.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary school near Woking, Surrey.

She has been in education for 25 years and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership. Email leadership questions to

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