Certainly throughout my thirty five year teaching career one of the key aspirations has been that of ‘Personalised’ Learning. It has been notoriously difficult to pin down exactly what personalisation meant in the shifting sands of educational policy and school based practice.
When I started teaching in 1980 this was a desire to see the large and indigestible chunks of the curriculum broken down to bite size chunks which were digestible by each and every learner. It at times, also strayed dangerously close to recognising ‘special educational needs’ within a mainstream setting! It may have encompassed a range of differentiated curriculum resources which were seen to be appropriate for the specific needs of each learner in a class of thirty. This was asking a lot for individual teachers when the full range of information technology available to produce these differentiated resources was the Banda machine and a series of packs of carbonated paper.
Given the practical and logistical difficulty of feeding the monster that was differentiation posing as personalised learning, some teachers turned to published and printed resources which were characterised as ‘reading schemes’ (such as the SRA Reading Laboratory). These consisted of a massive box of work cards, ruthlessly colour coded and numbered which the individual moved through from the starting point indicated by their score on a standardised reading test. Unfortunately the boundaries of personalisation did not extend to the student being able to choose to reject this mind-numbing grammatical treadmill.
What I say next is either hilariously funny, or incomprehensible, depending on whether you lived through the experience as a teacher or student. Weeks were spent simply moving from one work card to the next in which a piece of text was presented, a propos of nothing of any significance, unless you could find a cunning sub-text which linked a piece of comprehension on the Alaskan pipeline with the mating habits of the opossum and the native folk dances of the Portuguese hinterland. Turning the card over, there would be a number of formulaic comprehension questions that demanded you reconsider the use of the word ‘fortitude’ in line 14 and come up with the word that was the best approximation to it. In answer to the question “What did you learn in school today the answer, literally was, Brown 7b and 7c and Buff 1a. Potentially the nation gained a generation of wizards in the general knowledge of the arcane and difficult spellings with a silent ‘h’ for this investment. I certainly remember teachers who loved the Reading Scheme box for allowing them to function for a lesson on automatic pilot.
Similar schemes made the cut for development as computer programmes and there are still schools pushing such ‘programmes’ as the basis for developing a robust and consistent foundation on which to build basic literacy skills.
Personalisation of the curriculum has certainly had many iterations since then and many have turned out to be blind alleys in terms of learning and counter productive in terms of engaging the individual student.
The romantic liaison with Gardner’s ideas of multiple intelligence, led to attempts to characterise students as predominantly a particular type of learner. In some school students were given colour coded exercise books to indicate “I am a visual learner”,”I am a kinestheic learner” and to indicate to the teacher what the dominant methodology was for engaging the individual student. An attempt at changing the didactic nature of teaching for something that took on the learning preferences of students thereby fell foul of a desire to classify and codify rather than personalise.
Ironically, the closer we attempt to move towards personalised learning, the less personal it seems to become and the latest iteration is built around the use of ‘Big Data’ – the predictive and diagnostic ability of large volumes of data to generate patterns and meaningful interventions through algorithms.
‘Big Data’ harnesses learning technologies and Management Information Systems in such a way as to use feedback from student learning outcomes as the basis of determining future learning pathways. Does the use of so called ‘Big Data’ in this way represent a personalised learning experience or something else? Graham Brown-Martin shares some thoughts…