Page last updated at 17:14 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Let's not get personal

By Mike Baker

Classroom
"Personalised learning" is questioned by education experts

Do you remember "personalised learning"? It was meant to be the next big thing in education.

Tony Blair and former Schools Minister, David Miliband, coined the phrase, back in 2004.

For them it was about teaching that is "tailored to each child's ability". It was also part of a broader belief in the need to move away from "one size fits all".

Teachers cheered what they hoped would be recognition that children learn in different ways, at variable speeds, and in response to different teaching styles. Some also muttered that this was what they had always tried to do, if only the government would let them.

Meanwhile we were told to prepare for a revolution in our schools, although no one could quite say what it would involve.

Two years ago, a review led by the head of Ofsted, Christine Gilbert, attempted to deliver a definitive guide to personalised learning.

Definition impossible

It said "personalising learning means, in practical terms, focusing in a more structured way on each child's learning in order to enhance progress, achievement and participation". It added that it had the "potential to transform education".

But what has been the reality of personalised learning over the past four years?

The House of Commons Children's Committee has been trying to find out. This week it took evidence from some of the most high-powered brains in education.

It was fascinating to watch as MPs tried to get a grasp of the topic only to be told they were, in effect, wasting their time.

One MP asked, reasonably enough, for a definition of 'personalised learning'. But there was no consensus from the experts and two of them felt the phrase should be dropped altogether.

Professor David Hargreaves, probably the country's leading authority on personalised learning, said he had struggled for the past four years to define it but had now concluded that it was "a total waste of time trying to find a definition".

'Well-intentioned waffle'

He said the attempted definition in the Gilbert Review - which has just been repeated in a new government guide for schools - was "well-intentioned waffle".

He suggested it was more helpful to see it as a constant challenge rather than a particular state a school could ever say it had reached.

He favoured the analogy with business, which had geared itself to meet a "customised" market, rather than a mass-production system.

Another leading expert, Mick Waters, from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, was asked if he could help out with a definition of "personalised" education.

He neatly side-stepped the challenge, saying "unless I am pressed, I don't use the word".

Trying to help, he offered the analogy of shops that sell "coats for children aged 8 to 10", when the reality is that you need to measure each child individually not force them into a particular age range. In short, personalised education was bespoke learning.

Stages of change

Perhaps sensing the confusion of the MPs and others, Professor Hargreaves delivered a devastating blow to "personalised learning", saying "I think it has outlived its usefulness".

He added that, although it had been useful at one point, he now wished the government would 'simply drop' the concept.

So does this mean that "personalised learning" was education's equivalent of the emperor's new clothes?

Professor Hargreaves does not think so. He believes it was a necessary challenge to what teachers were doing in the past.

And perhaps that was really what it was about: a rallying call to teachers to escape the straitjacket of the national curriculum and national tests?

If so, it may seem odd that it came initially from Tony Blair. After all, hadn't his government greatly increased central government direction: national and school targets at every level of attainment and the highly prescriptive numeracy and literacy hours.

'Symbolic gesture'

Yet, in a revealing speech in 2006, Blair said his reforms were always meant to be delivered in phases.

Phase one, from 1997, required the shock tactics of change driven from the centre. Phase two, from 2001, involved the injection of "choice and contestability".

But the "final phase" was meant to be about setting schools and teachers free to do their own thing, providing they remained accountable to parents.

Yet, at a time when no teacher under about 40 had ever taught without a national curriculum, this new freedom and flexibility proved scary.

Moreover, even though the government was loosening the straitjackets of the compulsory curriculum, they were still brandishing the handcuffs of the national tests and threatening punishment if results did not come up to scratch.

Indeed, the government itself has seemed to be in two minds about all this. Ministers are, on the one hand, encouraging teachers to innovate and use curriculum flexibility to teach as they think best for each pupil.

Meanwhile, they are pressing for constant, linear movement towards ever higher test and exam scores, attempting to fit all children and schools into national targets.

In short, like parents at the school gate, they cannot let go and trust everything to the teacher.

Which is why "personalised learning" was more of a symbolic gesture than a real turning point in education policy.

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SEE ALSO
Brown backs 'personal' learning
24 Sep 07 |  Education
Making the educational personal
04 Jan 07 |  Education
Push for 'personalised' services
19 Mar 07 |  UK Politics

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