Personalisation: an evidence-based approach from principle to practice

Image: Rawpixel /

It is an essential fact of educational life that there is no such thing as a homogeneous classroom. John West-Burnham, an expert in leading teaching and learning, argues for more personalisation in schools.

A child’s learning journey starts in a culture that is focused on the individual – the best early year practices follow the child. Sadly, as the child progresses through primary and secondary school, so the possibility of genuine choices and being an active participant in their own education diminishes. By the age of 16 the student’s experience is overwhelmingly generic. What is lost is a recognition of the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each learner and their ability to be active participants in their learning journeys.

One of the strongest negative factors in student engagement and disengagement is the principle of automatic chronological cohort progression, i.e. schools are organised by student age, and every year the entire cohort moves to the next year quite irrespective of their personal stage of development.

Teachers work incredibly hard in order to compensate for the challenge of teaching a heterogeneous class in a homogeneous way. Great teaching transcends individual differences but is not enough to ensure that every student is learning to optimum effect. We need to understand the issues expressed in the simple formulation “stage not age”.

It is not enough to recognise differences on a session-by-session basis – the system needs to be designed around the individual. For Howard Gardner, “possessing different kinds of minds, individuals represent information and knowledge in idiosyncratic ways.” And for Blakemore and Frith, “it is unlikely that there is one single all-purpose type of learning for everything.”

There is increasing scientific evidence that to secure the potential of every child and young person, we need to start with the learner as a unique individual and build their education around who they are.

...pupils need to be taught in a way that makes sense to them, and their precise level of understanding at the beginning of the learning process has to be identified in order for education and skill formation to progress in a logical, hierarchical sequence. Supporting these children should be the top priority for all schools. (Asbury and Plomin, 2014)

Rather than starting with the subject or the class or year group, we should be starting with the individual learner and recognising, at the very least, that learning actually works on the basis of “stage, not age”.

Personalisation might be best understood as a process that seeks to respect the dignity and uniqueness of every learner, enhance equity in education, maximise personal potential, address the needs of all learners but especially the most vulnerable and most able, and enrich and enhance learner and teacher engagement. In essence, personalisation is giving the learner increasing control over what they learn, how they learn, when and where they learn, and who they learn with.

Any model of learning that seeks to recognise the complexity of the cognitive processes involved must surely start from the premise that the active involvement of the learner – in both what is learnt and how it is learnt – is an essential prerequisite to learning for understanding. The key areas for active learner participation (and so increasing levels of personalisation) might include:

  • the aspects of the curriculum to be covered and in what depth
  • the appropriate teaching and learning strategies to be adopted
  • the learning skills and strategies required
  • the methods of assessment to be used
  • the nature of the coaching and tutorial support required

Successful learning means that learners need to be confident in making significant decisions, negotiating with adults and their peers, articulating their interests and needs, and being able to accept responsibility for their own learning. In any learning situation there are multiple variables at work; skilled differentiation can make an enormous difference to the engagement and success of learners, but a movement towards personalisation may be necessary to secure real equity and consistency of opportunity.

Professor John West-Burnham is an independent writer, teacher and consultant in education leadership with a particular interest in leadership learning and development and innovative approaches to learning in schools and communities. He has been a school teacher, teacher trainer and education officer, and has held posts in six universities. John is the author or editor of 30 books, including Understanding Leadership and Leadership for Tomorrow, and has worked in 27 countries.