Individualised learning, personalised learning - just where did it come from and what does it mean?

Recently, the trend in services which emphasise ‘personalisation’ has come right to the front of public discussion, as ownership of the data needed to drive personalisation of service offer has become a controversial issue. The term surfaces in contexts as diverse as coffee chains and medical care. Sometimes it makes real sense, such as matching cancer therapy to the specific genetics of individual patients. There, it has real meaning and tangible benefit - reduced cost of care and increased efficacy of treatment. Elsewhere it can have a superficial character - you buy a chainsaw online and then you are inundated with adverts for chainsaws. Or ‘we note that people who buy chainsaws also buy these....’. In other instances, now much exposed in the international press, there are more sinister overtones of electoral influence and cynical manipulation of public sentiment; all falling under the banner of ‘personalisation’. And the term surfaces time and again in education. Where did it come from? What theory lay behind its introduction? If it meant one thing when it first surfaced, does it mean the same thing now?

There are fashions in education, and fads, and weak arguments. Is ‘personalisation’ of learning robust, or poorly evidenced? I argue that it should be subjected to a lot more scrutiny than it has been. Also, on the basis of international research, I argue something rather counterintuitive: that it’s present in an interesting form in systems viewed in the West as traditional and outmoded. John Dewey introduced the idea of ensuring that individual students do not become disengaged and disaffected and many educationalists have interpreted that as a requirement to prioritise individual wants and needs. Easy to say...difficult to conceive in terms of curriculum and day-to-day action in the classroom. In its modern popular form, its origins lie partly in modern concepts of individual and social identity, and partly in a specific set of ideas, introduced into the system in England during the 1990s. In 2004, just after its adoption in national policy statements in England, Sheila Dainton forensically examined the origins of the term. In her forthright FORUM article, she highlighted the instability of its meaning and its shifting character, and its principally political origins: ‘...a newly-contrived conjunction’. She argued that education needs to be less prone to responding to poorly theorised rhetoric. I agreed with her at the time and I agree with her now.

This is more than a pedantic concern for words. If this were just about words, I would be less concerned but actions around quasi-scientific notions such as ‘learning styles’ and ‘skills not knowledge’ have cost systems - and individual children - dearly. The push to particular forms of ‘personalised learning’ has led to a tangible rise in pressure on teachers: differentiated lesson plans; managing the progress of children ‘all moving at a different pace’; individualised tracking systems with ‘flags’ and ‘alerts’ when ‘predicted grades’ are not being attained month by month. In other words, very specific actions, many of them of questionable value, all justified by and deriving from a notion of ‘personalised learning’.

In England, I have interviewed teachers who feel guilty or unprofessional if they use ‘standard textbooks’ or re-use specific activities; these are felt to not ‘respond to individual needs’ but at the same time, countries which display such commitments do not emerge as consistent improvers in PISA and TIMSS. Something is going on here, and a spotlight needs to be shone on it. By contrast, in Japan and China, use of high-quality textbooks is common and is seen as a way of supporting the attainment of every child. Furthermore, ‘polishing each lesson to perfection’ through repeated use - and critical appraisal is seen as a way of improving equity, not undermining it. In these systems, education meets the needs of individual students not through complex differentiated programmes of study, but by keeping groups focussed on the same ideas and topics. This harnesses social learning (children seeing and hearing what others are doing and thinking) - whilst at the same time allowing teachers to monitor the progress of individuals - through processes such as teacher-led whole-class discussion. Lucy Crehan’s brilliant ‘Cleverlands’ has reinforced the earlier insights from robust research such as James Stigler’s work in Japan - teachers there see it is as their responsibility that each and every child should understand every idea and those struggling or building up misconceptions should rapidly be identified and receive immediate support. There, this means all children following the same overall programme, not different ones. On the outside, it all looks unpersonalised, but beneath the surface, the attainment of each and every child carefully is attended to and this is what modern school systems need - well-designed and manageable roles for teachers, evidence-based practice, and learning approaches which improve both equity and attainment. It is absolutely the case that the way in which individual children are acquiring and constructing knowledge and skills needs to be attended to but we need to be very clear about what approaches actually work in achieving this, both for teachers and pupils.

In my current work on ‘personalised learning’ I am exploring some challenging questions: when does responding to young peoples’ preferences become systematic disadvantage (...I don’t like maths; I am no good at languages...)? When do ‘predicted grades’ and tracking systems become self-fulfilling prophecies, consolidating inequality? So far, the international research has shown that we need to refine concepts of ‘personalisation’ so that we know which forms are good, and which forms are problematic. If we fail to do this, ‘personalisation’ runs the risk of increasing, not decreasing inequalities, and bogging teachers down in intensive, unproductive activities.


Tim Oates is Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment. He joined Cambridge Assessment in May 2006 to spearhead the rapidly growing Assessment Research and Development division. He was previously at the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency, where he had been Head of Research and Statistics for most of the last decade. His work has included advising on a pan-European 8-level qualifications framework. He has advised the UK Government for many years on both practical matters and assessment policy. 

Tim will be a keynote speaker at the 37th COBIS Annual Conference 2018 with a talk entitled "Personalisation of Learning – An inevitability or a superficial fad?".

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