The future of learning is personal
OPINION: Far from making teachers obsolete, personalised learning requires them to use their current skills while developing new ones.
Kindergarten and pre-primary children have a clear passion for learning, displaying a palpable sense of wonderment that drives them to explore new educational experiences.
Yet it appears many of them lose the sense of passion as they move through primary school and into secondary education, exposing school leaders to unfair criticism that they have taught the passion out of students.
Let’s be honest, passion is not a word many of us would use to describe our own school experience.
The lack of passion for learning demonstrated by many modern-day students has prompted an increasing number of schools around the globe to adopt an approach known as ‘personalised learning’.
Picture this. Students arrive at their classroom and check in with their teacher to determine which workstation they have been assigned to.
Each student subsequently works through an individually tailored combination of learning experiences with tablets or laptops, peers, teachers and printed materials.
Such an approach is a far cry from the one-size-fits-all classroom where the teacher takes all students through the same lesson.
In personalised learning, the teacher acts as a facilitator and works through individualised plans linked to students’ strengths, skills, needs and interests; and, of course, their passions.
While the number of variants to personalised learning is almost endless, most attempts by schools to introduce personalised learning fall into two main types: pace driven and student driven.
Pace-driven personalised learning enables students to progress through material at their own speed, typically through an online curriculum model that adapts to an individual’s needs and skills as the learning is rolled out.
Student-driven personalisation takes this one step further by not only allowing an individual learner to control the speed of learning but by permitting them a choice of the questions and issues to be explored, along with how to go about their investigations.
Those who have been in the game for some time will argue that personalised learning is hardly new.
What is new, however, is our access to technology, which has made the opportunity to individualise more real than ever before.
And while some experts are quick to condemn personalised learning as ‘learning out of control’ because of a perceived failure to link it to academic standards, that criticism is not accurate.
Teachers who advocate for the process ensure that individualised student learning plans are linked with appropriate academic standards. They also spend considerable time monitoring students to ensure they demonstrate the expected skills as they progress through their schooling.
Underpinning the rise of personalised learning is what many experts see as a growing dissatisfaction with (and challenge to) more traditional approaches to classroom teaching and learning.
The dissatisfaction includes the fact conventional models of teaching appear to be increasingly ill suited to meet the demands of the unmanageable size of a typical classroom, with an ever more diverse student population exhibiting a widening range of learning needs.
It is too early to assess the success of first attempts to personalise student learning, though many experts believe such an approach has the potential to enhance student achievement and engagement. After all, students are more likely to be engaged when they have a passion for what they are investigating.
Just like any new approach, however, there will be criticisms.
While many teachers say they would love to personalise learning for students, some say they struggle to see how it is possible to create individual plans for large numbers of students. Other sceptics see a lack of availability of devices such as laptops and tablets as a major barrier.
Perhaps harsher, some critics warn the tech-intensive nature of personalised learning will simply turn schools into big data siphons. Others worry the individualised approach risks undermining communal values.
One of the biggest fears about personalised learning is that teachers will no longer be needed.
But far from making them obsolete, personalised learning requires teachers to use both their existing professional attributes as well as myriad new skills, including the ability to be far more proficient at hunting out a wider range of resources to support a student’s learning project.
Recognising that personalised learning can represent a radical departure from traditional teacher-centred approaches, some schools have opted for a soft launch by introducing a personalised learning academy for a single cohort of students before taking a school-wide approach.
If you rewind to your own school days and ask yourself whether you would have preferred personalised learning to more traditional approaches, there is a good chance you would have chosen a classroom in which you could work at your own pace and pursue your own passions.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA.