Personalised learning should be our pedagogical response to an unknown future

Cultivating an attitude of life-long learning is key to supporting this generation’s ability to respond to change and to adapt. Alvin Toffler, the late American futurist, explained how the impact of the post-industrial age and its digital revolution is changing the fabric of our societies so rapidly that it is resulting in social confusion, information overload (he coined this phrase), disorientation and Future Shock (the title of his best-selling book). Toffler predicted that, ‘the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot, learn, unlearn and re-learn.’ It is no wonder then that figures of between 65% – 70% are used to describe how our current primary school students will work in jobs that do not yet exist, where more traditional careers will be increasingly automated (a quick Google search will provide a ton of research to attest this figure). One of the ways that schools can cultivate an attitude of life-long learning and support an adaptable mindset is through personalised learning (learner-centred), which is not the same as individualisation, nor differentiation (both of which are teacher-centred approaches, suited to an individual or group’s academic needs, and based on progress through a curriculum). Personalised learning will vary according to school context, but it broadly describes a provision where students have the opportunity to use voice, choice and agency to actively design learning experiences that connect to their aspirations, interests, and passions. It is the teacher’s role in this approach to support the development of students’ independence so that they can set their own goals, monitor progress and reflect on their learning – all channelled through the pursuit of personal curiosities. Through networks, students identify peers, mentors, coaches and other professionals to support their learning, using technology and other resources of their choice along the way. Personalisation, therefore, encompasses differentiation and individualisation but schools should be careful to not confuse all three.

To illustrate this, I will take myself as an example of how personalisation might occur in a learning environment –

Recently, I have been reading about the various fashion weeks that have taken place across the world. I am fascinated by the notion that history, current affairs, architecture, politics all influence a designer’s cut, colour, texture and combinations. The designs that look so extreme, outrageous or risqué will inevitably be interpreted and deconstructed in a form salable on the high street scene. It amazes me how a fashion house can leverage such creative influence over the day to day facade of the populace, and often, without it even realising. < Insert various Devil Wears Prada references here. > During my quiet internet reading, I paused to notice my inner enthusiasm; fashion weeks were rousing my curiosities and, simultaneously, I was learning so much about culture, art, materials and much more along the way. My thinking turned to schools and I pondered how crafting a personal project that followed these lines, designed by an individual based on their interests, would be an amazing agent for personalised learning. It would also involve a slew of educational pedagogies including concept-driven learning, transdiciplinary curricular, inquiry, play-based learning, but most importantly, personalisation.

Let’s imagine I am an eight year old student and I show an interest in fashion, maybe not a passion, but enough to want to explore, discover, and experiment. Fashion could be a relevant access point to develop my competencies in a range of disciplines: Math (measuring lengths, purchasing material, patterns and design products), Reading (researching the catwalk venues, current affairs, history of design), Science (how to use different natural products to create subtle hues, or how to dye varied textures), Writing (persuading my audience to visit my show or to purchase my designs), Business & Math (accounting, production, profit), Social Studies (culture, socio-economics, history, identity, sourcing of organic material), and I could incorporate a plethora of Digital Literacies along the way. In terms of taking my learning and applying to action, how about I use my designs, skills and knowledge to create an item of clothing, along with a form of communication that specifies how it represents a personal idea or a concept? To take it further, my authentic performance of understanding (evaluated performance on a task) could involve asking the ‘audience’ or the ‘customer’ to wear my design and explain their understanding of the idea or concept based upon how the items feels (functionality) and looks (aesthetics). For instance, if my intention is to create a sustainable, fashionable garment but the wearer considers the material uncomfortable and perishable, it is doubtful that the design will meet its brief. Likewise, if my message is to create a subtle fashion statement yet the material chosen is bulky and thick, the design intention will be lost on the audience. If I intended to make a brave, bold statement for a confident, self-assured wearer and yet the colours were demure and the style cut lacked any originality, the purpose will be misplaced. Asking for feedback, just like what happens in the ‘real’ world of fashion provides the student with authentic assessment, something which shows how their efforts, motivations and ideas are valued, which in turn, will help them to view themselves more seriously as a learner, inquirer and designer.

Now, if we move away from subject disciplines and focus on 21st Century Skills, let us consider how many would be nurtured during a project such as this – Collaboration, Social Skills, Leadership, Flexibility…in fact, which 21st Century Skill that would not be addressed by such a personal project?! Projects based on personal passions are excellent vehicles for the development skills, knowledge, and concepts. And…most importantly…since engagement matters, a personal project such as this, coupled with the right coach/mentor is more likely to nurture a mindset of learning, unlearning and re-learning much more effectively than a project chosen by the teacher. After all, transformation occurs when we are emotionally-roused and personally connected to the people and world around us.

If we acknowledge that cultivating life-long learning is essential for students to learn how to respond and adapt to change, and that personalisation, achieved through choice, voice and agency, is a key component to this, let us us take a moment to reflect – how effectively are our classrooms responding to personalised learning needs? The following ‘how’ questions could serve as a prompt to get us all thinking and talking about these issues further –

1. How do you empower students to be proactive about their learning?

2. How do you ensure students have sufficient time, space and resource to communicate individual passions?

3. How are you supporting your students’ social and emotional skills so that they are able to coach and mentor one another?

4. How do you co-construct virtual and physical, visual and auditory mechanisms with students so they are able to share areas of expertise with a real audience?

5. How do you to facilitate opportunities for problem seeking and problem solving so that students can respond to issues of personal relevance?

6. How do you cultivate learning explorers, students who embrace experimentation, can change directions, and who make calculated risks in order to make offerings to take action?

More than ever before, our future is unknown but one thing is for sure – the skills and knowledge that we currently teach in schools will not be relevant in 5/10/15 years time. Our school systems, leadership abilities, and teacher professional development models must all be agile enough to adapt to our society’s learning needs, which are changing at lightening-speed.

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