Personalised learning: everyone’s doing it

13 July 2015
Posted by Heidi Salmons
“Personalised learning” is a mantra that few decry. But what does it look like in practice? Insight asked leaders in four HMC independent schools to describe how it is realised in their community.

Alistair McConville Deputy Head Academic, Bedales School, says that individualism has to be tempered with the ability and desire to collaborate.

Bedales has always put a strong emphasis on communal activity. We work the land together in Outdoor Work, raise pigs for collective feasts, and symbolise our togetherness with twice-weekly “handshaking.” Our motto is “Work of each for weal of all.”

So, we’re all for individualised learning since the sense of ownership it nurtures is highly motivating, though it is our conviction that this needs to be carefully balanced with collaborative activity so that students develop their crucial interpersonal skills as well as ploughing their own particular furrow
in areas of specialism.

However, our liberal leanings have always attracted people with a strong desire to show their individuality as well as develop their corporate identity, and in recent years we have increasingly made choice central to our curriculum. Our intuitions about the effectiveness of giving students choice in
stimulating motivation were borne out by the findings of a research project we conducted with the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Our Bedales Assessed Courses provide the best examples. In these courses, which we write and assess in lieu of their corresponding GCSEs, we enable students to explore their particular interests within broad subject areas.

Flipping Great Lessons

Simon Brian, Director of Teaching and Innovation at Cheltenham College, describes how teaching and learning have been reversed in his school.

We introduced the concept of “flipping lessons” at Cheltenham College in the Summer Term of 2014, followed up with full staff training at the beginning of the Autumn Term and have continued to implement it via informal, targeted training on a half-termly basis.

Flipping involves switching the traditional set-up of what happens in lessons and what happens with homework. So, the conventional model where pupils are taught in lessons and consolidate for homework is reversed.

The key principle of Flipping appeals because it frees up the teacher in lesson time in order to allow individual pupils to work at their own pace with support from the teacher, and to receive the teaching as part of their homework.

A key strand to Flipping is independent learning, and this calls for engagement with the video. We ask pupils to do three things: to watch it, to summarise its content and to formulate questions that will take their (and their peers’) learning further when they pose them in the lesson. We expect to see an active response from pupils, and this may be in the form of notes or completing an online assessment post-Flip.

Shifting fundamental perceptions about learning

Mark Fenton, Associate Member and Head of Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, Amersham, describes an ethos in which everyone works towards common learning habits.

What do you do when you don’t know what to do?

Equipping today’s students to deal with the unpredictable challenges of tomorrow has always been the “holy grail” for educators. Schools often talk about this in mission statements, but too many trust to luck to make it happen in practice while others opt for discrete “learning lessons” in the hope that skills taught there will somehow permeate more widely.

Over the past eight years, a growing cadre of schools - including Dr Challoner’s - has taken inspiration from Guy Claxton and sought to place the development of studentsas learners at the heart of everything they do. This advances debate beyond the sterile dichotomy of “skills versus content” and gets everyone working towards common learning habits such as questioning, perseverance and collaboration. Focusing on this over a sustained period, eschewing or absorbing other initiatives, has led to a fundamental shift in perceptions about learning.

Students, staff, parents and governors have all played their part in translating this vision into practice. Teachers engage in research activities based around our learning habits, while “learning reviews” are conducted by staff, students and governors with the feedback used to shape pedagogy and innovation across the school.

A learning technology to unite nationalities

Paul Young, Vice Principal Curriculum at Doha College, reports on how pupils from 70 nationalities are using iPads to learn much more collaboratively with their teachers.

An ever-present task in education is how best to enrich a curriculum that is focused on developing each individual student in such a way that it has challenge, creativity and breadth, so preparing them to become active global citizens. The demands this places on teachers have changed significantly as the influence of technology in education continues to grow. Once upon a time the teacher used to be the source of all knowledge: today all of the information we need to know is readily available through the World Wide Web. As a consequence, the role of the teacher has become more of a facilitator who manages a learning programme which enthuses, makes demands on and enriches the learner through interaction and collaboration.

Doha College is a selective high-achieving international school with 1,800 students from over 70 nationalities and in this context we have always recognised the positive impact that technology can have on learning. So, after considerable investigation we introduced iPads in 2013 for all students from the age of 3 to 18 years.

In the short time we have been running the programme, we have witnessed a significant shift in the way in which teachers and students are reacting to this different landscape of learning. Teachers are planning, discussing and implementing their lessons with far more collaboration and students, too, are working with much more openness in a number of areas of the curriculum. Our view is that technology, when applicable, is a tool which supports learning. Therefore, iPads are used to support and enrich creative learning experience – they do not control it!

To read more, see the June 2015 issue of HMC's Insight magazine.