Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Personalising learning – what does it mean? How does it relate to Modern Learning Environments?

A stimulating environment
Once ‘child centred’ was commonly heard phrase but it  now seems dated . ‘Student centred’ seems more relevant –is this personalised learning? If students are helped individually some might call this personalised but , if it is moving through a pre-determined curriculum at the students pace this is simply a more an extreme form of ability grouping than personalising learning.

Even the development of ‘modern learning environments’ (flexibleschool structures that allow groups of teachers and students to collaboratewith the aid of modern technology - MLEs) do not automatically result inpersonalised learning. A look at a range of small videos illustrating the advantages of such environments seem to feature no real evidence of in depth inquiry work reminding me of the failure of the open plan schools of the 70s. They however, with the appropriate pedagogy, obviously have great potential.
Valuing kids' theories

Personalised learning is about accepting students for whothey are, what they bring with them and helping them extend and deepen theirinnate abilities.  If this were the case one ought to be more impressed with the quality thinking and presentation of student work across the curriculum to be seen rather than the architecture and the availability of modern information technology. Unfortunately it is far too easy to be impressed with what is superficially to be seen – one really has to look hard at what students are achieving and how their work is showing improvement - all too often the Emperor has no clothes.

John Holt said it best when asked what would  be the one thing that would improve schools(1970) replied, ‘It  would be to let every would be the planner, director and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him, with the inspiration and
guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he Asked for, to decide what it is he is to learn, when he is to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it .It would be to make our schools….a resource for free and independent learning..’

'The young child', Holt writes, 'is continually building what I  like to call a mental model of the world, the universe and then checking it against reality as it presents to him, and then tearing it down and rebuilding it as necessary..' We are Holt continues, 'obliged to live out our lives thinking, acting, judging on the basis of the most fragmentary ,uncertain  and temporary information.' In this respect Holt is expressing a constructivist model of learning - the teachers role is to assist the learners clarify their ideas not replacing them with imposed learning objectives.  Ideally the teacher works alongside the learner in a co-constructivist style respecting each learners  unique thinking. It is evidence  of such thinking that should be seen in  creative classrooms. It is this uniqueness  and individuality that is missing in modern classrooms

The best example available is to be found in the book ‘In theEarly World’ written by pioneer New Zealand teacher Elwyn Richardson in the 1960s. Thankfully is has recently been reprinted by the
NZCER. This book describes one teacher’s effort to develop a curriculum based on the personal concerns, interests of his students and through exploring their immediate environment. Elwyn developed his classroom as a community of scientist and artists – a community focused on developing the individuality and creativity of each learner.

If you were to visit a personalised learning environment (modern learning environment or not) you ought to see on the wails, in the student books, or in their electronic portfolios examples of the unique ‘voice’ of each learner – and it would be obvious how individual students had been helped to deepen their understandings. The teacher’s role in creating the conditions for individual creativity is as important as ever.

In such a creative environment teachers are concerned with the student’s experience – what they bring to any learning situation and what unique talents and interests that can be taken advantage of, amplified, or uncovered. This is not to say that the curriculum is to be totally determined by the students. Teachers need to provide learning opportunities that studentswill want to find out more about. As educationalist Jerome Bruner has written, ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation’. Such a learning environment might feature provocative displays (focussing on, or integrating Learning Areas) to ‘attract’ student’s curiosity. By such means the ‘emergent’ curriculum will expose students to the various strands of the official curriculum.

Teachers in such environments need to appreciate that all students have an innate desire to make meaning of their experiences and, by capitalising on this innate need, all students can develop and extend their learning strategies. Whatever the students choose to do provide opportunities for teachers to capitalise on, to strengthen students’ insight, to develop greater
Goethe - a most important quote about creativity
awareness, to deepen their understanding, and to encourage imagination and, in the process ensure their students learn to value the need for perseverance and effort required if their students are to improve on their personal best.

Teachers, if they are to help all students continually challenge their personal best, need to have the ‘artistry’ to know when to intervene and when to leave students to work on their own. Teachers act, as guides, instructors if required, or merely involved as an interested adult. To do this requires teachers to become expert observers of their students so they can help individuals (or small groups) as needed. They will also have to negotiate with their students work patterns and organisations to provide the space and time so students are able to achieve what they have agreed to do. This is best done at the beginning of the day and planning for tomorrow during an end of day reflective time. In such an environment students will need to appreciate that there will also be times when choices are limited.

It is through the qualities of an artist a scientist,  a writer or a craftsman that students learn the discipline involved in any learning.

Perhaps the most noticeable features of a truly personalisedlearning environment is the absence of ability group in such areas as readingand maths. This is not to suggest such areas are unimportant but more that they need to be ‘reframed’ as ‘foundation skills’ necessary for students to complete their individual, or group, inquiry tasks. Language and maths can also be transformed in research tasks as well as being integrated as and when needed. Reading to learn and Information technology, in this respect, is also another equally important ‘foundation skill’.
Importance of real experinces
learning to read go hand in hand.

Personalised learning places real responsibility on students for their own learning.

How to develop such a personalised environment needs to be seen as an evolving process – the important thing is to keep the ‘end in mind’ of how the class will look in term four. As confidence of both teachers and students grow set routines can be relaxed passing more responsibility over to the students to plan their own tasks. As success is achieved, and as students take more self-responsibility, the vision of personalised learning will be realised.

To help every learner achieve their personal best in this age of fast information creative teachers have found that it is important  to encourage students to ‘slow down the pace’ of their work so as to develop a sense of craftsmanship allowing, in the process, time for teachers to come
Value student 'voice'.
alongside learners to assist those in need. ‘Slowing the pace of work’ also encourages students to develop appreciate the need for perseverance and effort to counteract the need to finish first which all too often  spoils so much of students work.

Such a quality personalised learning approach could well be the basis of learning in a flexible ‘modern learning environment’ but can equally be found in a single classroom.

The concern of a personalised learning is with the experience of each individual learner and content, while still important, is to be seen as a means to the end of each students develop a positive learning identity; it is also about developing the individuals sense of control of his, or her, own learning adventure - for them not only to take responsibility for their lifelong learning but also for the welfare of others in their learning community.


Anonymous said...

Like you Bruce I have been bemused by this enthusiasm for Modern Learning Environments as if this is something new.

I remember well a similar enthusiasm for the Open Plan Schools of the 70s.

The only open plan schools that worked in the 70s were those run by teachers with a strong student centred philosophy ( now personalized learning?). Those who held this philosophy were more likely to be found in 'normal' classrooms ( I refuse to use 'single cell' classrooms).

As in the 70s today's teachers, who found themselves in-these flexible spaced classrooms, can glibly articulate all the advantages but, as in the 70s , their rhetoric may not be seen in reality.

As you say the Emperor may once again have no clothes.

It is, as always, the pedagogy that counts not glitzy wired up buildings. Kelvin Smythe summed it up with his perceptive phrase 'cathedrals of vacuity'.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Anon

Maybe these Modern Learning Environments will prove us wrong. I have looked at the video clips of NZ MLEs and looked carefully for examples of quality work - interesting research studies in science, cultural studies, imaginative art work, quality personal or descriptive language but all I see are examples of the bland formulaic teaching one sees in 'normal' schools.

But I hope to be proved wrong.