By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent
There is a very tricky question which is bothering many people involved in schools today, namely: "What is personalised education?"
The question is important because "personalisation" is the current buzzword in the Department for Education and in schools.
Last October, the Prime Minister said the government's school reforms would lead to "personalised lessons" for pupils.
The then Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly (my, how fast they change!) characterised the reforms as being about "personalisation and choice".
So, everyone is talking about it. It will eventually affect every child in a school. All teachers will have to learn how to teach it. But what does it mean?
Ask professional educators and you might get an answer like this: "Personalised learning is about learner-managed and co-constructed learning - the shift from dependency to independence and interdependency - and invitational learning and assessment."
I took this from a website dedicated to personalised education. If you can make sense of it, you are a much better person than me.
It also talked about the "re-integration of learning, life and community", making use of "catalogue and natural versions of curriculum and assessment" and "de-coupling of age-stage progressions".
While I do have some idea of what this means, I fear personalised education could be about to disappear into a fog of pedagogic jargon.
Educators will, again, have failed to realised the importance of taking parents, employers and other lay people along with them on the ride to the latest new thing.
By contrast, if you ask the government what it means, you will be told that it is all about catch-up classes for those falling behind, more stretch for the gifted and talented, more setting by ability and extra small group or one-to-one tuition.
That is at least rather more comprehensible to the layperson. But is it really personalised learning?
More setting by ability or more revision or remedial classes for those struggling with maths or English does not amount to a radical new approach to learning. Taken together they do not warrant the whole chapter that was devoted to personalised education in the recent schools White Paper.
That White Paper said personalised learning meant a "tailored education for every child and young person".
So, behind this haziness, the reality is that personalised education could be the biggest change to teaching and learning for many decades. It has the potential to re-engage the interest of thousands of unmotivated teenagers.
But it could just as easily slip into something very vague and unfocused, resembling the mixed ability teaching and "anything goes" approach that received such a bad press in the 1970s.
Change is perhaps overdue. For all the structural changes to schools in recent years, with new types of schools like academies and specialist schools, what goes on inside them has changed little.
There are now many more computers and interactive whiteboards. Yet, the basic pattern of lessons and subjects taught has changed relatively little.
It would certainly be instantly recognisable to anyone who went to school in the 1980s or, for that matter, in the 1950s or even the 1930s.
Are schools keeping up with the pace of change elsewhere?
It is still the norm for a teacher to take a class of 20 to 30 pupils through a pre-planned curriculum for a single subject like history, geography or chemistry.
The syllabus is set centrally, the testing is externally devised and the pace of the lesson will often be geared to the pupils somewhere in the middle of the ability range.
Yet in how many other areas of modern life has the workplace and the working methods remained so unchanged?
Information technology has transformed most offices: Secretaries have disappeared, internal walls have come down, emails have replaced letters, video-conferencing has replaced many meetings, flexi-working has replaced set hours and laptops and mobile phones allow people to work from home, on the train or in the airport lounge.
Yet pupils still trudge from one four-walled room to another, have their working pace and learning style dictated to them in fixed period blocks of time and are tested by being herded into a large room and told to sit down and scribble with pen and ink on paper as fast as they can for 90 minutes or so.
As Andrew Pinder, chair of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), told a conference this week schools are "one of a relatively small number of industries that do not look as if they have changed much over the past 30 years".
"They are like the legal profession in that respect," he added for good measure.
This echoes the words of Benno Schmidt of Edison Schools in the USA who once described schools as the "last cottage industry".
Personalised education could change this. If it can be made to work.
The educational innovator, Futurelab, is trying to do just that with a three-year research programme, funded by Microsoft, called "Enquiring Minds".
Futurelab has been working with pupils and teachers in two schools in Bristol to find ways in which children can have a say in influencing what and how they learn.
For Futurelab, the key is listening to the pupils' voice. So, from next term, these schools have agreed to devote part of their timetable to personalised learning.
Children often pick up modern technology quicker than adults
What goes on during these periods will be the result of the current work it is doing to find out what does, and does not, work for pupils.
This does not mean allowing children to do as they please. The pupils have to work with teachers to "co-design" both the curriculum and the goals for their learning.
This is about finding out what is relevant to the pupils and trying to draw on the abilities and experiences they may have developed elsewhere in life.
For example, we know that most teenagers need neither adult instruction nor official manuals to learn how to use their mobiles, ipods or video games. They learn by trial and error, by sharing ideas, working together, and browsing the internet. They are usually more adept at this than adults.
So if they can learn so effectively when they are motivated and allowed to follow their own methods, then maybe this can be transferred to other areas of learning. One of the ideas that Futurelab is working on is using video games in learning.
So learning may take place outside the classroom, either at home or during after-school activities. It may be delivered by ICT as much as by a teacher or it may be aided by fellow pupils or outsiders who are not regular teachers.
Obstacles to flexibility
Of course, there will be tensions. This will be challenging for teachers and for schools. It will not be easy to organise. How will a school achieve the flexibility required to allow pupils to learn in their own way, in their own pace and in their chosen setting?
There will also be tension between a "co-designed curriculum" and the national curriculum. The nature of tests and exams would also have to change.
And therein lies the rub. The current pressure on schools to perform well in the national curriculum tests and on the 5 A*-C's at GCSE measure, will make flexibility of assessment hard to achieve.
This will be the tough balancing act for the government: how does it make its call for a more personalised curriculum match up with what many schools see as the straight-jacket of the current externally-imposed curriculum and testing structure.
The fate of personalised education hangs on squaring that circle.