It is not uncommon for kids to complain about school, but studies show significant numbers of students are actually disengaged with their education.
A 2017 Grattan Institute report found as many as 40% are unproductive in a given year because they are disengaged.
We know the disruptions of COVID and school closures have only increased the risks of student disengagement.
My research with Australian teachers trialling personalized learning suggests it “makes sense”. But we need to think carefully about how it is rolled out.
What is personalized learning?
Personalized learning is an educational approach that aims to customise learning for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests.
Personalized learning in Australia
Australia is also looking at personalized learning. The 2012 Gonski report talked of the importance of “personalized learning strategies” to improve school outcomes.
ACT government policy now explicitly states: the ACT education system of the future will be personalized to each child.
Other jurisdictions are also looking at how personalized learning can be implemented. Last year, NSW said it would trial “untimed syllabusses”, so students move through school at their own pace.
Personalized learning is not without its critics. Some educators say it isolates kids and risks an over-reliance on technology as a teaching tool. But this very much depends on how personalized instruction is implemented.
What does this look like in practice?
Under personalized learning, the existing curriculum is tailored to each student’s interests and needs. Students also have a say in how and what they learn.
For example, a history teacher allows students to pick their own project to work out how the past influences the present.
The teacher helps them frame the research questions and makes sure they are accessing relevant and robust data. But it is the students who are directing the project, be it about civil rights and Black Lives Matter, women’s liberation, and #MeToo or the history of how computer games have been developed and marketed.
During a research trip to the US this year, I visited five schools in Vermont where I saw three key ways of personalizing learning and culturally responsive teaching.
1. Personalized learning portfolios
These are used to gather information about students’ strengths, needs, passions, interests, and identities. This enables teachers to know their students well to design projects that fit with the students’ interest and abilities.
Teachers are flexible about both how students learn and the time and pace they do it in. They do projects instead of essays where they research topics they are interested in or they connect with communities to extend their knowledge about real-life matters.
The focus is on skills such as critical thinking, collaborative learning, communication, cultural understanding, and social action. For example, in one high school I visited, children worked with local farmers to help them resolve food waste issues, with teachers providing necessary guidance.
3. Different ways of assessment
Assessment is not grade based (where students in the same year level are compared) but proficiency based. This looks at whether students are learning and whether they are meeting a certain standard. It also allows students to be involved. In a “student-led conference,” students update each other on what they have learned.
US students who had done personalized learning told colleagues and I this self-paced approach was relaxed and less stressful. It allowed them to be themselves and they felt like their opinions and choices were respected.
But there are challenges
Personalized learning will take time to roll out in schools and communities, given it is so different from the mass education approach teachers, parents, and students are used to.
Colleagues and I are studying three ACT schools where teachers are trialling personalized learning. Our initial findings shed light on the challenges of implementing personalized learning. As one high school teacher told us:
Personalized learning makes sense […] particularly at the moment I have a class where one half is really hard working, and the other half for whatever reason, they just are not interested in work at all.
But another teacher said it was difficult to get their students interested in a different approach to learning.
I think, probably personalizing is easier with primary students. I’m trying to implement my personal reading project in my high school, but it’s looking harder.
While noting the benefits, teachers are also wary of what this might mean for their (already significant) workloads.
So each and every student, we have to cater to their learning and that is why I feel that personalized learning helps them, you know, grasp the concepts. But isn’t this a lot of work for teachers?
The future of school?
Personalized learning is not a magic wand, but it has to potential to prepare learners who are self-regulating and self-motivated for life beyond school.
However, it is a paradigm shift for many schools, teachers, parents, and communities.
Moving forward, a key obstacle to overcome will be assuring already overworked teachers it will not lead to more work and educating parents about the potential benefits for their children.