Following from my reading this summer, and my new entry into another great school, I find myself in the fortunate position of being in a place that believes in coaching. Over the past week I have turned my head to the idea of personalised learning – what it means, what it aims to do, and its most fundamental principles.

Short history of personalised learning

At the centre of the implied heart of personalisation in learning (phew!) is more than just improving the quality of teaching (and by proxy, learning): it is inspiring the desire to learn in students. The image of classrooms where lessons start on pages 1 and 2 with the homework being on page 3 (and lesson 10 being page 10) is still viral. The idea of moving on with a lesson regardless of whether the students have understood is also common, especially in the age of the NLS. While there must have been classrooms where teachers taught ‘project lessons’ and kids taught themselves everything, the focus on rigour and pace are useful.  What was/is an issue with the NLS is the apparent infantalisation of teachers who were compelled to ‘move on’ to the next scheduled grammatical idea without really quite having secured the first in their students. Teachers were expected to continue with a programme regardless of its veracity, or even its effect.This also relates uncomfortably with the issue of focusing on content-based teaching rather than criteria-based teaching (something that I have written about, and reflected upon, fairly extensively).

Fortunately, I have not been under undue pressure to cover content with classes that could not easily grasp fundamentals.

While there exists a judicious critique of content-based teaching, it is essential, though, that we prize learning knowledge as much as gaining skills (both of which are difficult to discern as separate, anyway). Despite portrayals to the contrary (thanks Ken Loach and Charles Dickens!), there has not really been a time where knowledge retention has been prioritised.


I remember students completing worksheets on Macbeth when I was a cover teacher. I suggested that I would cover again the work, and was met with surprise: the students had ‘done’ the work already. I was struck by this (as much as I was physically struck elsewhere in that school!).

What might be an effective principle of personalised learning?

The Holy Grail of learning is retention: personalised learning should take this as a criteria-based outcome.

How might learning be personalised?

Personalised learning relates to the idea of differentiation, and the common form of proving personalised learning is by resource (after, of course, outcome!).

A worksheet can differentiated depending on the class. A deputy head in an outstanding schools in Yorkshire told me a truism many years ago: we all have those resources that we like to tweak, even if it is just a font or a paragraph adjustment. She was right in saying that some teachers want to ‘personalise’ what they are doing in order to feel more in tune with it, regardless of the efficiency of such an action.

Other differentiation is by the actual tasks themselves: some might complete a drawing task while others complete academic essays. I must say that I wonder how much of this differentiation is based upon managing behaviour rather than learning (which, in some schools which I do not work, is actually a professional response to the difficulties of some). However, without actually engaging in the academic work required by the exam, such differentiation by task can be (after a time) detrimental and insulting to the chances of those students in passing.

I have seem the idea, rather bizarrely, of differentiating by handicap. That is, students have complete a task with artificial constraints (parts of a text not being shown, or having a hand tied behind their back). This is frankly somewhat short-sighted, and misses the actuality of the exam outcomes expected for each class – even if such tasks can be a little funky.

Part of personalised learning is how it breaks up the rhythm of learning: if a class (or a mind) is capable of taking on intense academic work without tiring, so much the better. However, fatigue can set in, and personalised tasks can consolidate academic learning and the rhythms of learning.

My most effective implementation of personalised learning has been where students are able to self-select targets based upon expert guidance of the teach, and to apply those targets to academic work over an extended period of time. The success of this comes from the ability of students to articulate a language framework, and to believe in their ability to write and to analyse to the highest levels.

What am I trying at the moment?

At the moment, I do not have this system established. I am, however, experimenting with effective ways to develop personalised learning through the choice of task. I am using the app in order to create three levels of editing: the purpose of students choosing this type of personalised learning is to empower them to seek more difficult and challenging work, and to realise and accept the academic difficulty (and fatigue) that might accompany such work.

Final Thought

Personalisation comes from the agency of commercial marketing: through advertising we develop wants and ambitions that no other section of society would feel kind to grant us. This developed of lack, and fostering of desire, is a rather evil agent in the lives of many: it does, however, led to many wanting to better themselves. If there is something that education can do to better itself, it is to employ some of the tactics and training of marketing – make students feel that they deserve to aspire to better themselves, and make them associate that which motivates them the most with even the driest academic tasks.