Working within the framework of 'Personalised Learning' how can I ensure there is a real learning space for my pupils, where they feel involved in what they learn and how they learn it?
Ros Hurford – Educational Enquiry Masters Unit. Submitted for examination, University of Bath, February 2008
A personalised approach to supporting children means:
* Tailoring learning to the needs, interests and aspirations of each individual
*Tackling barriers to learning and allowing each child to achieve their potential (Every Child Matters 2003)
This educational enquiry has its roots in two linked areas. One is an awareness of myself as a learner and how I respond more enthusiastically when I am interested in the subject or skill. The other is linked to my role as a senior manager within my school and the current drive for personalising learning.
It is from these two areas that my enquiry begins, taking the form of an action research cycle guided by Belle Wallace's TASC wheel (2001) framework and those of Whitehead and McNiff (2006). Within this framework I have tried to establish how and why my practise in the area of developing personalised learning has evolved and in which direction it still continues, in the light of my own reflections and assisted by discussions with colleagues at work and at the Tuesday Masters group at Bath University.
The stimulus for this enquiry was a request by the head teacher to read the current government documentation about personalised learning in order to assist the school to audit and develop any necessary strategies within school. Before I felt able to make a valuable contribution to whole school policy on this, I thought it pertinent to examine my own classroom and whole school strategies to see how personalised it really was, not just how I hoped it to be. By using the action research cycle and involving professional colleagues I am also endeavouring to bring to the professional body of knowledge about professional practice my own embodied knowledge. As Whitehead (2008) states:
'We, as professional educators, are providing values-based explanations of our educational influences in our own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of the social formations in which we live and work.'
My enquiry will also be available to a wider audience, and thus subject to further scrutiny. In doing this I am using Habermas' (1976) criteria for validity. (p2) This is a personal narrative of what I have found, reflected on and understood, but I trust it will resonate with others and be completely comprehensible.
Beginning from within
'The young child is the greatest philosopher of all ... He or she is open minded, trusting and honest, and greets people without any pre-conceived opinions. They see the world as it is – something wonderful and new and full of excitement.' (p. 148)
This quote from Gervase Phinn (1999) sums up completely what it is about working with children that continues to make me passionate about what I do, even after twenty years. This is the particular gift of children, in my view, that they have the ability to make the world a wonderfully new and curious place to be. It's an excitement and passion that seems to dull as they grow older and is sadly lacking in a lot of adults. It is this sense of wonder about the whole vast and intricate complicatedness of being that I willingly absorb into my life. I see my role as an educator, not in the filling of empty vessels with a mishmash of approved knowledge, but as a co-learner and creator in an attempt to make the world work for us and link to our understanding of who we are and what we are capable of.
I am unable to separate teaching as a professional role from the person that I myself am. My ways of working, my relationships with my pupils and the knowledge and skills I put across are all linked to who I am and what my values about life are. To some extent it involves performing in a role each day; one that meets the expectations of the pupils, their parents and other professionals; but within that there is space to be myself – to personalise my teaching. Were I to totally act a part each day then my pupils would very soon spot the gap between what I say and what I do, and I would have little authenticity in their eyes.
The official view
As with any responsibility in education I cannot ignore the views and advice from government sources, so for my research into personalisation this was my starting point. I had already attended an afternoon's training course on personalising education and was keen to discover how all this fitted into what we already do. I confess that at that stage I couldn't see how it differed from what was already considered good practice within school. My investigation into this area soon left me feeling I had accidentally stepped into another world. I include here some extracts from some of this documentation.
'Personalised Learning is about tailoring education to individual need, interest and aptitude so as to ensure that every pupil achieves and reaches the highest standards possible.' (p11)
(Institutional Quality Standards in Gifted and Talented Education User Guide Mouchel Parkman, 2007) )
Personalizing learning is the deliberate and systematic process of focusing all of a school's resources to ensure that each learner is able, with support, to decide what they learn, how they learn, when they learn and who they learn with. (John West-Burnham) intro
Personalisation in education should enable structures and organisations to be
developed that result in personalised learning for all children. Personalised learning
means that all children and young people, whatever their starting point, are able to
fulfil their potential as learners. (DfES Pedagogy and Personalisation June 2007 , p.11)
Personalising learning and teaching means taking a highly structured and responsive approach to each child's and young person's learning. (2020 Vision 2007, p. 6)
Maybe the formal language, the standard 'government-speak', caused me to feel a conflict between the official idea of a personalised classroom or school, and the relational values I aim to achieve in my own practice. The learning experiences where I want children to have 'freedom to be creative in a safe environment' (Hannah, Tuesday evening group) seemed to have no place among the use of data, structures and tracking results.
In his National Conversation about Personalised Learning (DfES 2004, p.8). David Milliband defines the key components of personalised learning as:
Again this is dominated by the key phrases that read like a mantra, but require translation into the 'people' world I inhabit at work.
I found myself questioning some of David Hargreaves' (2007) research and conclusions in the guidance section for the Institutional Quality Standards in Gifted and Talented Education. For the pupils personalised education would mean having a 'safe and secure environment in which to learn' and 'a real say about what and how they learn'. So far, it sounds promising. But then comes the section on what personalised education will mean to the teacher. Here we have the well worn phrases such as 'high expectations of learners', 'access and use of data', 'development of teaching strategies including ICT' and 'access to CPD'.
At this point I wanted desperately to tell someone with influence over official guidelines that all these strategies are fine when we are measuring the ability and attainment of a pupil against targets – but where is the advice to remember that each child is a valued individual and should be treated accordingly. Is it just that I see what I do each day in terms of human values, and feel the official descriptions of my role are soulless and bear greater resemblance to a production line manual?
Despite many of the promising and hope-inspiring proposals in the 2020 Vision report there are still statements which I would wish to see qualified rather than written as self-evident truth, such as:
'Personalisation is a matter of moral purpose and social justice' (p7)
Nevertheless, all hope is not lost. The report also recognises that there are 'soft skills' which need to be developed even though they are not measured by tests or recorded adequately (p10) and that although primary schools have not been involved in the implementation of personalised learning to the same degree as secondary schools:
'many of its principles are seen in the most effective practice in good primary schools'. (p14)
There were many positives to draw from the official documentation, despite the language. Moving towards an education system that offers a wider choice of learning experiences to children, welcomes their feedback and involves them in the planning of their own education is, to me, a step in the right direction, despite the organisational headache of doing all this and ensuring that basic curriculum requirements are met.
Whole School Personalisation
At this point my focus returned to my own school. I wanted to see which 'boxes' we tick as whole school policy – and there are plenty to tick. The school ethos statement, which promotes opportunities for learning and realising potential is more than a document. It is thankfully a living statement, evidenced by the variety of daily activities. There is a vocal and active pupil council, consulted on lots of school issues, given the responsibility for guiding important (inspectoral) visitors on learning walks, having a say in organisational changes, and lately, following my literacy group's work on interviewing new teacher candidates, has helped draw up the qualities they would wish in the new head.
Besides this there are a wide variety of extra-curricular clubs, activity weeks, such as multi-cultural weeks, science weeks, to mention a few. Children have responsibility jobs around the school, take turns to be football captains, and help deliver messages. The list is endless. We promote the school as a family – and just like real families we don't always agree, but we share a sense of individuals belonging to a group. In a parental survey last October, 81% of parents agreed that the school took account of the children's views.
Last December's DT Christmas week will remain memorable as this was also the week we were 'inspected'. With the economic realities of raising funds being hammered out, rooms covered in glitter and glue, barely a learning objective or lesson plan in sight as staff responded daily to changes in situation or needs - was this the ideal time for Ofsted to visit? Staff agreed very definitely yes. Chaos it might have looked, but this was how our children work best – taking the lead in their own education, supported and guided by adults. These weeks are often where the valuable 'soft skills' are taught, the social skills of co-operation, planning together, the evaluation of the role they have played, regardless of any academic ability. They are also the times when teachers come to appreciate the less obvious talents the children have, and work with them on a personalised level.
Personalisation in my class.
Having assured myself that in terms of general school provision we were able to demonstrate good examples of including pupil voice and giving the children some choice and involvement generally with their education, my next step was to scrutinise what goes on in my own classroom.
Checking my practice against Milliband's key components of personalised learning the verdict is fairly positive. I do monitor the data on pupils, use aspects of assessment for learning and plan teaching and learning strategies that enable all children to have access to the 'broad and balanced curriculum'. But the curriculum also require me to promote spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development and prepare the children for the opportunities of adult life, which is a broader remit than teaching individual subjects.
It is at this stage that I become aware of personalisation needing to be split into two components, in order to find a creative way to deal with my sense of conflict. There is the 'Personalisation' of checking each child makes the best of their talents and succeeds within the education system – this is the aspect that seems to best fit the phrases about potential and targets – the more measurable things promoted by official documents. Then there is the other component which I define as the relational aspect of engaging children in learning situations – seeing them as individuals and knowing that unless I have some relational point of contact with them, I might as well give up and go home. Interestingly I see the first as something standard, belonging to the job, taken for granted, but the second is at the very heart of my teaching.
My relationship with each pupil is of great importance to me. Yes, I am aware of how they perform according to targets and levels, but this for me does not adequately define the person I am teaching. What I am to achieve is to get to know that developing individual and respond to their needs and strengths in a way that is absolutely personal to them. It's not setting individual work assignments for every child, which would be physically impossible anyway, but rather being able to read their body language, know about background influences, knowing when they need a firm push or whether they need support. This acknowledges the conditions for profound learning which West-Burnham (2007) describes as requiring:
'the positive interaction of a range of complex variables...... It is only by understanding the relative significance of each factor for any one individual that it becomes possible to be confident about their potential and capacity to learn.' (P3)
And he identifies this type of learning as being:
'what makes us a person, it gives us a sense of uniqueness and determines our ability to think and act for ourselves. Profound learning is the way in which we develop personal wisdom and meaning, which allows us to be creative, to make moral judgements, to be an authentic human being who is able to accept responsibility for our own destinies.' (P9)
This is the type of learning that I want to see going on in my classroom. It doesn't exclude working within levels and targets, it matches the overall aims of the National Curriculum and it works in harmony with the wider aims of personalised education. But whereas the current focus on personalised education suggests it is another extra to tag on to the overload, this deeper, more human and loving form of treating each child as an individual is for me the foundation of everything I do.
I believe it comes from my own understanding of how I learn, in the widest meaning of the term. From conversations with colleagues, and linking it also to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, I believe the need for individual recognition, from whatever source, is fundamental not only to our well-being, but also to the way we take control of our lives and learning. If I do not feel valued, or recognised for the individual I am in some way, then something essential is lost in the amount of personal investment I am prepared to make on something.
Making an audit
When I began to look for evidence of relational personalisation in my class, I must confess to being disappointed at how little seemed to go on. There was the 'good morning' at register time, some conversations with more confident pupils - my intentions were there but only if you could mind read. I did not make it overtly clear to the children that I respected their views as learning partners or I was interested in them as people. Marking comments were even sometimes extremely terse and negative sounding, although that was not the intention.
Making the first steps.
Having reflected on this, I decided my first move should be to talk to the children about how they saw things. I explained that I was concerned that I could only see things from an adult point of view and that a lot of the time that was dominated by the demands of QCA documents, school timetables, learning objectives and levels – all of which I had to do, but I wanted some way of involving them with what they learned and how they learned it. I told them how when you really want to learn something, nothing gets in your way because it's you in control, and related how I learned to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata years before I was really considered of the 'right proficiency' – the amount of practising I willing undertook because my heart was set on it. And I compared this to the endless lessons I'd had on Australian sheep farming, which were of no interest to me and the only real learning had been that daydreaming can be more interesting.
Their suggestions as to how I could involve them were, as ever, very sensible. Sometimes I think adults need to regularly read the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. We dress so many things up in complicated terms and yet a child can get straight to the heart of the matter. Could I write comments to them when I mark and use their name, could I ask them to plan themselves how they could show me what they had learned? Could they have 'Golden Time' on a Friday when they could work on things they were interested in –and share them with the rest of the class?
Much of this was easy to implement and caused no problem with the curriculum. I'd make a point of remembering something they were doing, marked with a comment specifically for them, joined them at lunchtime for a chat and gradually began to know them better as individuals.
We continued the circle time sessions whenever possible and investigated together what sort of things they needed to know to be adults. I was interested to see if they had the same opinions to White (2006) who proposes that the type of curriculum we have will determine the life of the individual as an adult:
Flourishing depends on success – in intimate personal relationships, in worthwhile and absorbing activities, in family life, in self-understanding, aesthetic enjoyments and in other things ......What is important is not that they (young people) have life-targets in mind from an early age and strive to reach them; but that somehow they get involved, caught up, in valuable activities such as those mentioned. (P155)
Amongst the children's responses was the idea that you need to learn how to communicate, how to get along with other people, how to support yourself and how to find your way around. It reminded me of Robert Fulgham's essay 'All I ever really needed to know I learned in kindergarten.' The statutory curriculum may have been chosen for us, and we may have to follow it for the time being , but school learning also needs to touch on skills for life.
Having raised my own awareness of how much more productive and informative it was to involve the children, I found that opportunities to do so became more frequent. During film week I gave two groups the task of making their own film using model animals. One of these groups I videoed and reviewed with them later. Of the three boys L has literacy difficulties and is a restless pupil, K prefers being out on the football pitch to sitting at a desk and S would far rather spend his day playing computer games. In routine lessons none of them shines, or looks particularly engaged. Yet, when they had to organise themselves, produce a narrative, take photos, construct a film and add music, they were completely different. There was animation in their voices and movements, I had trouble getting them to leave the project over breaktime and they paid attention to the tiniest details.
We talked about this transformation later, and although they had no solutions for me generally, they could explain that the project had interested them and didn't require sitting still – being passive learners.
Another opportunity to invite the class to participate in their own learning arose when I looked in despair at the QCA music activities. We don't possess sufficient electronic gadgetry or software to modify sounds and I felt it was asking rather too much of children to compose a 'space soundscape' with just an odd assortment of percussion instruments. I would have found such a task a real grind. Again I put the problem to them and explained how I felt, but suggested that we might be able to adapt the objectives to something more creative. They weren't short on ideas and eventually we selected telling a 'space' story in pictures, making it into a film and adding their own compositions to it; a far more creative an idea than I could have thought of myself, and with the bonus of involving them in their own learning.
The Futurelab site 'Enquiring Minds' suggests a move towards this when it states:
'if we are asking students to be more and more self-aware about how they learn, then a core component of that exercise is to enable them to engage fully with what it is that is being taught. Our attention needs to be drawn not only to students' learning processes but to the relationship between this and what they are learning.'
My final example of how involving the children enables me to create with them a learning space in which they demonstrate talents and abilities that would otherwise go unnoticed relates to Appendix 1. The session began with a general unpicking of the task, and, after peer discussion, they fed back their ideas and questions about alien planets. Two hours later the room was still buzzing with enthusiasm; they were all busy and involved (bar the child mentioned in appendix 1). The presentations from each group at the end were delightful. Unfortunately I have not been able to get parental permission for the photos I took , but the radiance of pure pleasure that shines out from their faces is a joy to see, and was wonderful to feel. This for me was creating a situation in which the children felt secure to explore creative ideas and learn at a deeper level.
There was just time to ask them why the afternoon had gone so well, had been so enjoyable and productive. Every child offered a suggestion. These included:
*we used our own ideas
* we could make it up, there were no 'wrong' ideas
*we worked in a team, it wasn't a personal success or failure and that's not so scary
*we were allowed to use our imaginations and that's more fun than facts
* you didn't have to work with one group – you came round to all of us to see what we were doing.
Conclusions and reflections
The curriculum is too prescriptive at times and this can make it very difficult to keep the learning of each child to the front of planning. It is however possible to accommodate much of the official view of 'personalised learning' within the normal structures of planning and assessment, bearing in mind that the aim is not a form of individual tutoring.
However, there is still a long way to go, and much to be gained by changing the relational quality of the classroom; from one where the teacher makes all the decisions – even the ones based on the adult's perception of the child's best interests – to the relationship of mutual trust, respect and participation, where teacher and children are co-learners, co-planners and understand each other on a more 'human' and relational way. This is encouraged by Robinson & Fielding (2007) when they state:
'Where time and space is made available in schools for pupils' voices to be heard on issues that affect their learning, teachers can gain insights into pupils' perceptions of teaching which helps, and teaching which hinders, pupils' learning'. (P90
What comes across as being much more effective with the children involved is that they are very creative and when they are working on something which interests them, they invest far more time and energy in their learning. This might sound obvious, but when they are involved in planning their learning, this outcome is more guaranteed than when I plan a lesson I think they will enjoy. There are practical difficulties to iron out, such as having time to plan together and fitting in with a school policy of pairs of year group teachers preparing planning in advance, or how much freedom can we have, but I see this as a positive way forward and a step towards a real community of enquiry as defined by Edmiston (2007)
By changing my approach I have taken the initial steps to developing a greater awareness in the children as being independent learners. It thrills me to find on a weekend or evening they are working on their wiki page stories, without being told to, or when they bring an idea into the class and have no hesitation to share it with me. For my part I've had to make adjustments to my perceived role, but this new one seems to be a better fit than the previous one. The development of trust and honesty between us and the growing relationship as learning partners has been such a wonderful surprise. It's great to get an email from a pupil telling me what she enjoyed about the day and giving suggestions – a feeling that this 'learning stuff' is something we're all engaged in as part of the school family.
Finally I include part of an email sent to me by Chris Jones, the Senior Inclusion Officer for Bath and North East Somerset. She visited my class as part of the IQM scrutiny recently – and watched one of the music lessons that the children had helped to plan:
You have a wonderful relationship with the children and there is a tremendous amount of respect demonstrated between you and the children and amongst the children themselves. The children worked so well together in their groups and listened quietly when each group played their composition. They were all very involved in what they were doing and it was obvious that they were enjoying the whole learning experience.
Ensuring that I provide my children with a real personal learning space has meant some changes, a lot of surprises and not a few re-examinations of my ideas about what learning really is. The benefits have been fantastic in terms of our personal growth. There is still much that could be developed, such as learning conversations through the wiki site or unpicking the skills and attitudes of good learners. The foundation of the relational would appear to have been laid for this.
The official personalised learning can exist harmoniously with the relational personalisation. Asking children to be involved in what and how they learn does not prevent the teacher from monitoring data or setting targets. But if we are to make children feel that they matter in school, we must go further than this and push the personalisation into knowing better each individual as a person.
Besley,S. (2004) Personalised Learning. Just what is it? Policy Briefing. Retrieved 18/12/07from www.edexcel.org.uk
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DfES (2003) Every Child Matters retrieved 21/12/07 from www.standards.dcsf.gov.uk
Edmiston, B Classroom Communities of Enquiry retrieved 22/1/08 from www.mantleoftheexpert.com
Fulgham, R. All I ever needed to know I learned in Kindergarten. Retrieved 4/7/07
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My partner teacher is out with dental problems today. It's PPA all morning but this afternoon, instead of having sets for Numeracy and Literacy, we will have our own classes with a few extras as his class will be split around the school.
It's a time to think fast on your feet – what can I find for them to do that will be suitable for all abilities, interests and can be set up without too much trouble?
I find help in the form of 'Outside the Box', a book of creative thinking activities. Apart from needing to get out the felt pens and find some paper it doesn't require endless resources and looks feasible with a class of 32. At least I have just enough tables although I have to find extra chairs.
I put the children into working tables of 5 or 6 per group and give out the task. They have to imagine that they are from an alien planet (too near the truth on some of them) and are writing a holiday brochure for visiting Earthlings. We go over suggestions of what could be put into this brochure, what a visiting Earthling might find useful to know – and link it to the TASC wheel of defining the task and 'what do I know about this'. Then they split back into their groups and begin sorting through the ideas they want to do in their particular group – and who is going to do what.
For the next two hours I became mainly an observer of them being busy, engaged totally in what they were doing; a facilitator rather than directly teaching. The room buzzed with enthusiasm. It didn't matter what general level of ability they were, the majority found a level to work at, or a way to produce their bit that suited them. Children with poor literacy skills drew diagrams and made pictures, some cut out models.
Only one group had a problem getting going and they were the children who regularly have problems sharing ideas – the ones who lack the social skills to work comfortably in a group. They'd got stuck on what to call the planet –and nothing beyond that was happening – just a blossoming argument with two sides threatening to go elsewhere and not co-operate. They had great ideas – and yet came unstuck with choosing the best idea. In the end it was solved by picking the name out of a hat, a few temporary sulks and a quiet word with the 'winner' that gloating wouldn't help the group along.
The more able children found the lesson a creative delight – imagination taken as far as they could. I met two of them later in Sainsbury's that evening. One was still speaking 'alien' and the other, normally a disinterested child, was actually enthusiastic about the lesson and said how much he'd enjoyed it. They had been challenged by how far they could take their ideas; the less able had found a way of showing their talents.
Only one child sticks out in my mind over the afternoon. He's an average ability, not particularly good at language skills or social skills, watches a lot of tv and enjoys quite aggressive computer games – the type that need skill in blowing your opponent to bits, rather than anything productive or needing thought. He really found the afternoon difficult,. The group repeated several times to him what the task was, made suggestions of what he could make but he seemed to find real difficulty in making that leap from reality into imagination. In the end he drew a flag for the alien country but even then he couldn't see why aliens had a flag.