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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Personalised learning revisited: is technology the answer? Part 2


This week Curriculum Leadership publishes the second of two articles on personalised learning. The current article cites evidence of the success of personalised learning in Finland and Singapore. It also argues the relevance of Hargreaves and Shirley’s ‘Fourth Way’ for educational reform. The article then turns to the potential of technology as a tool to personalise learning. For example, ICT can provide multi-media suited to a student’s learning style. It allows the learner to adapt the pace of instruction to their capability, and it can provide any time/any place instruction. Personalised learning revisitedwas originally published in ISQ Briefings September 2010.

In a 2007 paper from the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood and Development the writers noted: ‘because personalised learning is still in its embryonic stages there is little evidence of its overall success. Nevertheless there is substantial evidence that many of the components of personalised learning approaches have been successful in a variety of contexts around the world.’ (DEECD 2007) 

While the USA, UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia, as well as other countries around the world, have made some steps towards personalising learning, Finland has been transforming education and leading the world in performance in literacy, maths and science in international tests for some time ‘by quietly lifting all students up one at a time’ (Hargreaves & Shirley 2008). Hargreaves and Shirley describe the Finnish transformation thus:

The nation’s effort to develop a creative and flexible knowledge economy was accompanied by the development of a significantly more decentralised education system. Finland now has a largely local curriculum . . . Even though teacher pay is only average for industrialised nations, teacher retention is high because conditions are good . . . Within broad guidelines, highly qualified teachers create curriculum together in each municipality for the students they know best. The sense of delivering a curriculum devised by others from afar is utterly alien to Finnish teachers. In classes rarely larger than 20, Finnish teachers know their students well . . . They receive generous specialist support as needed. With these advantages, teachers strive for quality by quietly lifting all students up one at a time. Principals share resources across schools and feel responsible for all the students in their town and city, not only for those in their own school . . . They are often recruited from within their schools; in fact, it is illegal for a principal to be recruited from outside education. Assessments are largely diagnostic and internal to the school. External accountability is confidential and undertaken on a sample basis for monitoring purposes only, not to impose sanctions on individual students, educators or schools.

In such a system, teachers have time to care for each child without the pressure of external accountability and standardised tests. Decision making is at the local and school level and schools are able to make decisions about how best to cater for the needs of their students. Each school is able to develop a personalised curriculum that suits its students, families and district. Specialist support for both gifted students and those struggling in literacy and numeracy focuses on the individual child and his or her needs.

Similarly, in Singapore, arguably one of the most structured (and most successful in education) nations in the world, education is moving towards personalisation and focus on the individual needs of students. Singapore mandates that all teachers must have ten per cent of their time free in order to prepare ‘independent lessons designed to enhance student motivation and creativity’ (Hargreaves & Shirley 2008).

While not using the term ‘personalised learning’, Hargreaves and Shirley describe a ‘Fourth Way’, or a new paradigm, for education that embodies many of the important aspects of personalisation as described at the beginning of this paper.

They describe the ‘First Way’ of education in the 1960s as the ‘welfare state’; where there was a sense of mission and a willingness to innovate but wide variation in quality and implementation. The ‘Second Way’, promoted during the Reagan era in the US and the Thatcher years in the UK, encouraged entrepreneurial drive, increased regulation by the market and the state, and promoted individual responsibility; it also widened the gap between rich and poor and began the collapse of ‘professional motivation and crises of teacher retention and leadership renewal. High-stakes standardisation, driven by government performance targets sucked the passion and pleasure out of teaching and increased the workload and vulnerability of education leaders’ (Hargreaves 2003).

The ‘Third Way’ of educational reform during the 1990s was somewhere between and beyond the first two, resulting in the rise of Charter Schools in the United States and specialist schools in the United Kingdom. While teachers worked towards developing professional learning communities and more money was spent on resources and infrastructure with some resulting gains, albeit short-term in education outcomes, political interference in education increased. The rise in standardised testing, bureaucratic control and increased accountability and paper work has resulted in a frenzy of change for educators but little lifting of education outcomes.

Hargreaves and Shirley’s ‘Fourth Way’ for educational reform, takes the best from the past but learns from high-performance exemplars like Finland to develop a system where there is deep public engagement and commitment in the education of all children; where students are partners in change, involved in their own learning and learning choices; where schools are collectively responsible for all children in their schools and community; and where education leaders and teachers are ‘the ultimate arbiters of change’.

The role of technology in personalised learning

Critics of personalised learning emphasise the importance of educationalists keeping an open mind. They argue that personalised learning may be over-ambitious and it may fail because teachers who are already stretched to the limit will not embrace an idea that is likely to increase their workloads; and the lack of clarity about what personalised learning really is may result in misconceptions as it is confused with ‘individualisation’ or allowing students ‘to do their own thing’. There is also the concern that personalised learning increases inequity as students from middle class homes tend to be more conducive to the ‘self-provisioning’ that is attached to personalised learning (Field undated).

These criticisms, while possibly valid in the past, may be overcome in the future by the use of technology to personalise learning. 

Over the past thirty years or so, schools have been exhorted to embrace technology. At the same time, many teachers have been sceptical about technology in the classroom and its correlation with improved education outcomes – and with some justification – as little evidence has been available to link technology with school improvement.

A recent Issues Paper (Pearson 2010), however, makes the case that ‘educational technologies including formative assessments linked to instruction, learning management systems, longitudinal data systems, flexible and adaptive content delivery, interoperability standards, teachers, professional development and institutions . . . must serve the learner in a more personalised way if we are to realise our greatest aspirations’. And a strong basis for this claim is that research is, at last, detecting a connection between effective use of technology and improved student outcomes. Although the findings are based on limited studies and much of it is qualitative, there is an increasing trend towards more positive outcomes from the use of technology than previously reported.

For example, the Pearson paper cites research from the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, NCREL (2003). NCREL conducted a meta-analysis of 42 research studies including approximately 7,000 students on the impact of technology on student’s cognitive, affective and behavioural outcomes. The research found an average positive effect size across studies was .410.

Similarly, a research review, albeit sponsored by Cisco Systems, showed a small, but significant increase in learning when technology was implemented effectively (Lemke et al 2009). While the review was not exhaustive it did show some encouraging results (Lemke, C., Coughlin, E. & Reifsneider, D. 2009).

If the research on the use of technology in the classroom continues to provide some evidence of positive academic outcomes for students and if teachers are using the technology effectively, then it is possible schools might be at the ‘tipping point’ with regard to widespread use of technology to personalise learning.

Already technology is providing access to education for students who cannot gain it through traditional means, or do not want to. Online credit programs, virtual schooling, blended virtual and on-campus programs are all giving young people more choice or more personalisation of their education.

Technology is further personalising what students learn by delivering content and developing skills in ways that are more personal and individualised for the learner (Pearson 2009). For example:

  • using multi-media to provide pathways to content suited to the student’s learning style;
  • adapting the pace of instruction to a learner’s capability;
  • providing any time/any place instruction;
  • increasing content relevance to the student’s interests and goals;
  • engaging students, increasing time-on-task and, perhaps, developing critical thinking using games, project-learning, mobile learning and so on;
  • providing diagnostic testing and formative assessment that adapts the content based on the student’s prior knowledge;
  • identifying misconceptions in student learning and offering remedial programs;
  • providing unique social networks, peer learning and collaboration that personalises learning;
  • allowing teachers to customise/personalise instruction to individual students;
  • providing frequent self-checks on progress by students themselves so they are more motivated and self-directed; and
  • scaffolding content adapted for a student’s dominant learning style.

The added advantage of personalising learning as outlined above is that students tend to spend more time ‘on task’ because they can keep working while the teacher is addressing the needs of other students (ibid).

Mark Treadwell (2008) suggests that technology allows educators to meet the needs of each individual student in their care in ways that have not been available in the past. It allows ‘gifted and talented learners, learners with special interests, and learners with particular learning difficulties to gain access to appropriate resources and communication tools that allow them and their educators to personalise their learning program without increasing the workload on the educator’.  

In Treadwell’s new education paradigm, teaching and learning is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year; and it is available at school, from home and anywhere in the world. Teachers are able to communicate with students and parents wherever and whenever they wish and they can provide personalised schoolwork and homework which meets the needs of each learner. In such an environment, learners are at the centre of the system and teaching is shaped around the way young people learn.

Independent schools in Australia already place students at the centre of what they do, but personalising learning so that all students are able to achieve their potential and pursue their passion is immensely complex and time consuming.  The price, however, of not engaging all students may be disastrous for the individual, and for the country as a whole. The solution may be to embrace the new paradigm Treadwell envisions where technology has the potential to allow truly personalised teaching and learning without, as in the past, the commensurate increased workload of providing book-based resourcing and teacher development of resources.


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.

Field, S (undated), Personalised learning, definition and commentary, Teacher Training Resource Bank.

Hargreaves, D 2004, Personalising learning: next steps in working laterally, http://www.schoolsnetwork.org.uk/uploads/documents/4402.pdf.

Hargreaves, A & Shirley D 2008, 'The fourth way: changes next exit', Educational Leadership, October.

Lemke, C, Coughlin, E & Reifsneider, D 2009, Technology in schools: what the research Says: an update, Culver City, CA, commissioned by Cisco.

Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood and Development, Personalising education: from research to policy and practice, Paper number 11, September 2007.

Treadwell, M 2008, The conceptual age and the revolution, Hawker Brownlow Education, Heatherton, Vic.


Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Teacher-student relationships
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)