I once read this slogan on a poster: “You are unique; just like everybody else.” As parents we know that our children truly are unique.
That’s why we are delighted when a school tells us that they will treat each child as an individual. But what does it really mean when a school says they are personalising learning and why is it important?
Research by the Australian Council for Educational Research shows that, from the youngest ages, there can be up to six years of variation in ability between the most advanced and the least advanced students in a single year group. Treating a class as one-size-fits-all is thus clearly not the solution. Every child deserves to make at least a year’s progress for a year’s learning. The only way teachers can achieve this is to personalise or differentiate the learning to the individual learning needs of children in the class.
Personalised learning is based on the belief that, given the right support, all students can (and should) continuously make progress in learning. For some students this may involve extra support or scaffolding whilst other students may need to be stretched or challenged to extend their learning beyond the traditional expectations for the year group. It is not just about doing more or less work – doing even half of what you don’t understand is useless and doing double of what you already understand is just as useless. Differentiated learning involves engaging with the learning content at a different level of challenge based on the individual learning profile of the student.
Professor Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leading expert on differentiated instruction, suggests that teachers can adapt learning tasks for students in three key ways: by student interest (for optimal motivation to learn), readiness (for optimal progress in learning) and by learning preference (for optimal efficiency in learning).
In a personalised classroom relationships are key. The teacher knows the individual strengths, interests, learning styles and learning needs of every student, they constantly know where students are at in their learning and continuously make adjustments in teaching and planning accordingly. This is often a key feature of small or multi-age classrooms, but it possible (and desirable) in any classroom.
Teaching will also look different in a personalised classroom and may be different to what parents expect. The teacher will not stand at the front teaching to the whole class for the majority of the time, since that will not serve everybody’s learning needs best. There will be a balance between whole class teaching, small group instruction, individual work and sometimes computer-mediated learning. Students will have personal targets based on learning progress and their classwork and homework may look different.
In a personalised classroom the focus is ultimately not on the teaching, but on learning. It is about having high expectations for every child, because every child is unique – just like everybody else.
Mathilda Joubert - SCEA Education Consultant