Welcome to the Curriculum & Leadership Journal website.
To receive our fortnightly Email Alert,
please click on the blue menu item below.
Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
Follow us on twitter

Personalised learning revisited: is technology the answer?


This week Curriculum Leadership begins a series of articles on personalised learning. The first in the series considers Mark Treadwell's call for a new educational paradigm, based on the technology of the internet and, in keeping with it, a personalised approach to learning. The article also looks at the five key competencies of personalised learning developed in Britain, and examines David Hargreaves' presentation of issues surrounding personalised learning. 'Personalised learning revisited' was originally published in ISQ Briefings September 2010.

In The Conceptual Age and the Revolution, Mark Treadwell argues persuasively that education has reached a critical point at which it is unable to improve performance without a paradigm shift (Treadwell 2008). He asserts that no matter how much money we put into the system or how much effort we make to improve it, there is no possibility of any 'substantive increase in performance'.

Treadwell compares education to other 'technologies' and points out that as a technology reaches its upper limit of efficiency, new technologies based on innovation rather than 'an iteration of present technology' emerges. Thus, for example, the technology of flight transitioned from ballooning to gliding, to powered flight, to jet engine, to scram jets. In contrast, schools have moved 'backwards' to basic skills and standardised tests rather than leaping into a new paradigm. Treadwell argues that if we are going to substantially improve education then 'doing nothing is simply not a choice unless (we) wish to deliberately empower learners with a dysfunctional set of competencies, skills, knowledge and belief about learning which are now almost totally irrelevant in the 21st century'.

What then will the new paradigm for education look like? Treadwell suggests that it will be based on the technology of the internet and that it will embrace a personalised approach to learning. For the first time, he says, teachers will be able to provide a more targeted learning environment for each learner so that learning opportunities meet their needs via appropriate contexts, media and conceptual approach(es) (Treadwell 2008).

In 2004, the Department for Education and Skills in the United Kingdom presented its Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners. One of the central tenets of this strategy was the personalisation of learning, explained as 'every student should, within their school, have excellent teaching that suits them, building on what they know, fitting them for what they aspire to, and helping them reach their full potential' (DES 2004).

Personalised learning is not individualised learning. That is, it is not simply a matter of tailoring curriculum, teaching and assessment to 'fit' the individual. Rather, it is concerned with:

  • 'putting the learner at the centre of the system
  • moulding the system around the child
  • having high expectations of every child
  • shaping teaching around the way young people learn
  • promoting learning beyond the classroom
  • focusing on developing learning skills and strategies (metacognition)
  • providing clear pathways through the education system, whilst retaining a core entitlement
  • planning for a combination of independent and collaborative learning
  • using the learning needs and talents of young people to guide decision making and
  • allowing for individual interpretations of the goals and values of schooling' (DES 2004).

In short, personalised learning should do those things that educators know constitute good teaching and learning.

Personalised learning in England and Wales

The Department for Education and Skills, UK (2004) identified five key components of personalised learning: assessment for learning, effective teaching and learning strategies, curriculum entitlement and choice, school organisation and strong partnerships beyond the school.

Personalised learning depends on really knowing the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and one of the keys to this is assessment for learning and the use of evidence and dialogue to identify every student's learning needs. The rationale for this is that teachers need clear evidence about how to drive up individual attainment; clear feedback for and from students so there is clarity on what they need to improve and how best they can do so; and a clear link between student learning and lesson planning.

Personalised learning demands teaching and learning strategies that develop the competence and confidence of every learner by actively engaging and stretching them. For teachers, it means a focus on their repertoire of teaching skills, their subject specialisation and their management of the learning experience. It requires a range of whole-class, group and individual teaching, learning and ICT strategies to transmit knowledge, to instil key learning skills and to accommodate different key learning skills and paces of learning. For students, this means a focus on their learning skills and their capability.

Personalised learning demands curriculum entitlement and choice that delivers a breadth of study, personal relevance and flexible learning pathways through the education system.

While state and national curriculums are the foundation for this, it is teachers and schools who have the capacity to harness the enquiry and enthusiasm of students and the flexibility to enrich and extend the basic curriculum. This means also offering a wide range of academic and vocational courses and flexible timetabling to allow a variety of pathways.

Personalised learning demands that school leaders and teachers think creatively about school organisation, to best support high-quality teaching and learning and to ensure that student performance and student welfare are mutually supportive. This might involve remodelling the workforce and increased planning, preparation and assessment time for teachers to ensure students receive a consistently good experience of education.

Personalised learning demands strong partnerships beyond the school to drive forward progress in the classroom, to remove barriers to learning and to support student wellbeing. This means a strong partnership with parents and carers, so that they become more closely involved in their child's learning and help improve behaviour and attendance. This could include running regular parent/carer workshops, developing strong partnerships with local agencies and integrating children's services by bringing family support, social care and health services together with education to help support all children and in particular, those with additional needs (DES 2004).

Nine main gateways for personalising learning

Hargreaves (2004) identifies nine main gateways for personalising learning:

  1. curriculum
  2. advice and guidance
  3. assessment for learning
  4. learning to learn
  5. school organisation and design
  6. workforce development
  7. new technologies (ICT)
  8. mentoring
  9. student voice.

He justifies these choices, while conceding that there are many possible gateways into the process of personalising learning, on the criteria that each theme is applicable to every school and classroom; each is already part of current professional practice in some form; each requires strong leadership, from head teachers, and in the form of distributed leadership; each is potentially a way of enhancing student motivation and commitment to learning: and no school is at the leading edge in every theme.

Curriculum is perhaps the most obvious gateway for personalising learning. In expanding choices available to students, as well as the locations for study (in offering vocational options or university subjects at secondary level, for example), students are able to choose courses of study that more readily meet their needs.

Enhanced choices, however, entail increased risks that students will make choices that are ill-considered and/or close off options prematurely. Improvement in systems of advice and guidance both to students and to their parents, are therefore essential, both for individual learning plans and for help with options and career intentions.

Assessment for learning is a sophisticated version of formative assessment. 'At its core is a new way of understanding the relationship between the way teachers teach and students learn, so that assessment feeds not back to what has been done in a learning task but rather feeds forward to help the student learn more effectively and the teacher to contribute to the process of student learning by adjusting their teaching' (Hargreaves 2004). Assessment for learning not only helps students to master the content, it also makes them think about their own learning.

Assessment for learning enhances students' ability for learning how to learn. This gateway lifts both achievement and independence in learning and leads students to feel motivated and empowered to engage in further learning for the rest of their lives. Motivation and the capacity to learn independently are crucial to personalising learning because they reduce dependence on the teacher and increase student control over their learning.

Similarly, the new technologies give students more control and greater access to resources and content that meet their individual needs; as well as greater independence as the technologies can be used in many different ways and places and can offer flexibility in the way learning can be personalised.

These technologies also may be the catalyst for changes to workforce development, with regard to the structure and function of the educational workforce, both in the community, and in the school and classroom.

Changes to the workforce also change the relationships between learning and those who support their learning so that we can no longer speak simply in terms of 'teacher and taught'. Mentoring and coaching is already common for adult learners and these are likely to become of increasing importance if learning is to be personalised. (Indeed, external learning mentors are an important part of the support system for disengaged students in the UK). Equally important is the growth of student mentors as 'peer tutors'.

In addition, the changing character of the workforce and the new technologies are powerful drivers of change in school design and organisation. Traditional schools were designed for students in age cohorts taught within four walls. Personalised learning involves rethinking how, when and where teaching and learning take place, as well as what is taught.

Finally, potentially the most powerful of all gateways for personalised learning is student voice. Despite the fact that students are central to schooling, they usually remain unconsulted about what happens to them in schools. Advocating personalised learning without involving students makes the process meaningless.

So, according to Hargreaves, entry to personalised learning may be made through any one of the nine gateways, all of which are interlinked. The challenge, he says, is 'to create networks of innovation starting from the different gateways according to the needs and preferences of individual networks (of schools and teachers), but then to bring the outcomes of the different networks together to produce an overall, coherent version of personalisation as a well of resources from which everyone can draw'.

The next article in this series will consider approaches to personalised learning being adopted or considered in the wider international context including Australia.


Department for Education and Skills (DES) 2004, Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners, presented to parliament by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, UK

Hargreaves, D 2004, Personalising Learning: Next Steps in Working Laterally, www.schoolsnetwork.org.uk/uploads/documents/4402.pdf

Treadwell, M 2008, The Conceptual Age and the Revolution, Hawker Brownlow Education, Heatherton, Vic


Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Teacher-student relationships