In search of singularity

21st May 2004 at 01:00
The phrase 'personalised learning' is on the lips of every minister but few seem clear about its meaning, writes William Stewart

Kevin Hollins has not yet managed to digest the Government's most recent definition of "personalised learning" - he only received it the previous day.

"It is very fluid at the moment," admits the head of Knutsford high in Cheshire, one of several schools involved in a Department for Education and Skills innovation unit project which is aiming to develop the concept.

The term "personalised learning" might be tumbling out of education ministers' lips every time they make a speech at the moment, but many are struggling to pin down exactly what it means.

One of the DfES's own officials admitted as much in November, when penning the controversial blue-skies workforce reform paper.

The school of the future must have personalised learning as its starting point, the paper asserted, before confessing that it might take some time for the vision to be "fully worked out".

Some very important people in education have spent the intervening months attempting to do just that. Schools minister David Miliband has written a pamphlet, senior DfES officials have been busy preparing personalised learning Powerpoint presentations. And only this week the think-tank Demos held a two-day conference on the issue.

A similar event organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research in March, attended by academics, representatives of unions, think-tanks, the DfES, the Cabinet office and Downing Street, concluded that the concept remained unclear.

"There was a consensus that there was a lot of confusion out there about what personalised learning meant," said Martin Johnson, an IPPR research fellow.

But despite the lack of clarity, the phrase is spreading like a virus through the system, with schools advertising for teachers with experience and understanding of personalised learning.

Knowsley education authority in Merseyside has gone a step further and is in the process of recruiting its own personalised learning development manager.

For Janet Woods, Knowsley's assistant director of education, the concept is perfectly in keeping with the work done by the authority over the past two years on pupils' learning styles.

But the personalised learning project taking place at Knutsford high aims to give pupils more flexibility and allows them to focus their studies on a particular area of the curriculum.

Both these interpretations are correct as personalised learning cannot - like some academic theories - be pinned down to a single area of education.

In fact, it is probably a mistake to see it as academic theory at all.

Martin Johnson points out that the concept has not been generated by research or by practitioners explaining new practice. Rather, it has been introduced almost entirely via ministerial speeches. In essence, it is political.

The Prime Minister Tony Blair set the ball rolling in September when he spoke of "personalised learning for every child in new specialist schools and city academies" and "teaching tailored to each child's ability".

Tellingly, Mr Blair also spoke of a health service run at the convenience of the patient. Indeed, just as the school workforce reforms are mirrored by the greater use of support staff in the health and police services, the idea of personalisation is not confined to education but traverses the whole spectrum of public services.

It amounts to New Labour's big idea for a third term of office - making public services more responsive to individual needs.

The Prime Minister's advisers believe these services can be revitalised through personalisation, preventing the middle-classes - turned off by the "one size fits all" approach - from opting out.

In education, it is Mr Miliband who has taken the role of refining the vision. In a series of speeches that began in October, the minister set out a five-point summary of personalised learning.

First, he said, it embraces what the Government is calling "assessment for learning", the use of computer data to monitor individual pupil progress, set targets and boost achievement. (This is not the programme of the same name devised by academics at King's College, London, to work out how students can best progress.) Second, there is the recognition that pupils learn in different ways and at different speeds, and need to be taught how to learn.

Computers also play a part here, along with a greater use of support staff, to provide the flexibility that will allow individual and group learning and teaching.

But, Mr Miliband says, this does not mean that pupils should be left to their own devices or to sit alone at a computer - an idea he calls "individualised learning".

Next comes curriculum choice - allowing pupils to pick the "pathway" which they feel to be most relevant to them.

Fourth, schools need to consider how to organise their lessons, the structure of the school day, timetables and their buildings in ways that fit pupils' needs best.

Finally, partnerships should be built with parents, business and the wider community in order to support and encourage pupil learning outside the classroom.

All five of the above points have one important factor in common: they are covered by existing government policy. Ministers readily admit that.

"It is radical but it isn't new," the Education Secretary Charles Clarke said when he outlined personalised learning to headteachers in November.

So, why bother inventing the concept at all? Because, Mr Miliband said in March: "In education, the radical thing is to take what is outstanding and make it universal."

Charles Leadbeater of the think-tank Demos argues that the Government should be more radical still and take personalised learning to a "deeper level" at which pupils have a hand in designing and shaping the education service.

Speaking this week Mr Miliband seemed to take this view on board. But for ministers the main thrust of personalised learning is about spreading existing good practice through the system.

They say they are aware that some of the "best teachers" have already engaged with the concept. They also stress that personalised learning is not just the latest DfES initiative to be imposed from above and that it "can only be developed school by school". Even so, Martin Rogers from the Education Network, a local authority-funded think-tank, still fears that such evangelism could backfire, aggravating and alienating teachers by telling them what they already know.

He believes that the idea of personalised learning lacks real substance and condemns it as "government by illusion".

Martin Johnson appears to express similar doubts in the title of his discussion paper, Personalised learning: an emperor's outfit? Yet his real fear is not that personalised learning means very little, but that it could mean far too much. With advances in information technology and school workforce reforms, he sees real potential here for very radical change, with schools organised around individual academic success. But he warns that this could also undermine the wider social role of schools.

On the plus side, he believes that if the debate which the Government is provoking on personalised learning leads to a re-examination of pedagogy within schools, then it will have been worthwhile.

For that to happen, it seems that ministers will have to be better at getting their message across. Mr Hollins, the head at the sharp end, says his local colleagues still do not understand what personalised learning means.

"It needs to be something distinctive," he said. "Or people will look at it as just another over-arching panacea and will say, 'We've heard it all before.'"

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