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Individual learning? Let's cut the confusion

The language that surrounds the latest government buzzwords does not help us understand its real meaning, writes John White.

The Government wants learning to be "personalised". David Miliband floated the idea in his speech to the North of England Conference in January 2004.

Personalised learning, he said, "'means shaping teaching around the way different youngsters learn; it means taking the care to nurture the unique talents of every pupil". Following his lead, the Department for Education and Skills describes it as "the drive to tailor education to individual need, interest and aptitude so as to fulfil every young person's potential". For the General Teaching Council, too, "at its heart lies the need for an education system which can be tailored to the needs of the learner".

So what does it mean? Let's start with needs. If teachers have to tailor their work to learners' needs, what are these needs? How can we identify them?

This is where the trouble starts. If you ask Chris Woodhead, he'll say that children need a thoroughly academic traditional curriculum. Others will say schools should prepare them to be good citizens, or to lead a flourishing life. Some will find room to deal with pupils' spiritual needs; others will deny such things exist.

People differ about what learners' needs are. Everyone can subscribe to the idea that education should be tailored to needs. If that is what personalised learning is about, it's hard not to be a supporter of it. But this gets us nowhere. Talk of needs-based education glosses over huge ideological differences.

Of course, it suits some people's interests to gloss over things.

Politicians, for instance. Rhetorical language is part of their armoury.

Who is not in favour of freedom? Who is not in favour of meeting children's needs? Being more specific about what you mean risks losing supporters.

Generalising pays dividends.

Teachers are different from politicians. They don't have a professional interest in using fuzzy language. Their job demands that they be clear about what they are doing and where they are going.

Take another element in the MilibandDfES account of personalised learning: tailoring learning to individual aptitude. This is also fine-sounding at first hearing. But what is individual aptitude and how do we recognise it? The tripartite system of secondary education introduced in 1944 was based on "age, ability and aptitude". Some youngsters, the thinking was, were cut out for academic learning, others for technical subjects, and the majority for neither. Is that what David Miliband had in mind? Most probably not. So why use language that can be interpreted in a different way?

Teachers owe it to children not to talk and think in language that can be used so elastically. Their job requires sharper tools. It may be bread-and-butter for Westminster or Whitehall to speak of "nurturing the unique talents of every pupil" or helping "to fulfil every young person's potential". But what are these unique talents? Do they exist? Are they something we're born with? Are they God-given? Similar questions arise with "fulfilling potential". The DfES assumes potentials exist. But do they? Are we talking about ceilings of ability? If not, what do we mean by the term?

Mr Miliband also spoke about personalised learning as "shaping teaching around the way different youngsters learn". So here personalised learning is about learning styles. This is something else again. There are shed-loads of confusions and ideological positions on what learning styles are. Some pundits categorise them in terms of Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences; others in different ways. Once again, it doesn't help teachers to deal in fashionable phrases like "learning styles"; they need to cut through this verbiage too.

I really don't know what personalised learning is. I don't mean by this that it's still something of a mystery, or that, as official bodies like to put it these days, the concept is still "evolving" or "emergent". I would prefer to say that the linguistic rot that Mr Miliband and the DfES started is continuing.

Meanings proliferate. Charles Leadbeater, a government adviser, uses the term to mean learners negotiating their way through the curriculum. Other people see it as linked to smaller teaching groups - and so on.

Many ideas affixed to the term make good sense. In many cases - but not all - learners should have more choice about what they learn and the order in which they tackle it. The size of teaching groups in independent schools is often preferable to the state system's classes of 30. Pupils should have more opportunities to participate in the assessment of their work, collectively and individually. Teaching should be responsive to learners'

motivations. The curriculum needs to get away from the stranglehold of discrete subjects and equip pupils to lead a flourishing personal and civic life.

These statements need to be explained further, qualified where necessary, and supported by cogent argument. Plain language helps to chart the way ahead. "Personalised learning" and the jargon it has generated just gets in the way.

John White is emeritus professor of philosophy of education at London's Institute of Education. His latest book, The Curriculum and the Child, is published by Routledge

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