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Personalising Education: from research to policy and practice

Sandra Mahar

This week Curriculum Leadership publishes edited extracts from the report Personalising Education: from research to policy and practice, produced by Education Policy and Research Division Office for Education Policy and Innovation, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Victoria (2007a).

Personalisation in education has been discussed in research and policy papers for about ten years. Personalised learning, as a concept, appears to have been used first in the United States and was subsequently expanded and deepened through work in the United Kingdom as it became embedded in a wider argument for the reform of all public services. The aim of this reform was to create services that responded more directly to the diverse needs of individuals rather than imposing uniform solutions on all people.

Descriptions and definitions of personalising education have emerged at national and international levels. As a key driver of education reform, personalising education has the following common themes:

Learners are central. Personalising education involves:

  • a highly structured approach that places the needs, interests and learning styles of students at the centre;
  • engaged learners who are informed and empowered through student voice and choice;
  • assessment that is related to meaningful tasks and includes assessment for and from students;
  • a focus on improving student outcomes for all and a commitment to reduce the achievement gap.

Information and communications technology (ICT). ICT is a key enabler that:

  • allows each pupil greater diversity for learning;
  • enhances interactivity between individual students and individual teachers;
  • provides a space for personalised, flexible learning beyond the classroom walls
  • allows students to live locally while learning globally – through the use of external resources accessed via the World Wide Web.

Lifelong learning. Personalising education includes a commitment to:

  • lifelong learning and the provision of flexible learning environments;
  • a range of educational pathways to meet the needs of all students.

Communities of collaboration. A school embracing the concept of personalising education will:

  • promote a ‘community of learning’ approach and cultivate strong relationships between adults and students;
  • develop and promote the notion of networks rather than existing in isolation;
  • have strong links with the home, community, local institutions, business and services.

Interpretations of personalised learning

Differing views of personalising education have emerged. A shallow view equates it with no more than providing individual choice between predetermined options. A more meaningful view focuses on developing organisational and teaching strategies to ensure every child's education is tailored to their needs so as to support higher levels of student engagement and attainment.

The report Personalising Education (OECD 2006) further clarifies personalised learning:

Personalised learning is not a return to child-centred theories; it is not about separating pupils to learn on their own, it is not the abandonment of a national curriculum, it is not a licence to let pupils coast at their own preferred pace of learning. The rationale for personalised learning is clear: it is to raise standards by focusing teaching and learning on the aptitudes and interests of pupils. Personalised learning is the way in which our best schools tailor education to ensure that every pupil achieves the highest standard possible (OECD 2006).

A recent report, The Future of Schooling in Australia (Council for the Australian Federation 2007) identifies key challenges facing schooling in Australia. This report identifies essential components of an equitable education system as high-quality teaching, personalised learning and the development of school community partnerships. Further, the report recommends that government and schooling authorities should have ‘the capacity to tailor an education for the individual child’ and acknowledges the potential of personalisation to contribute to improved retention and attainment rates (Council for the Australian Federation 2007).

Case studies and initiatives in Victoria

The Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development offers case studies about personalising education, as part of its broader range of professional learning resources for educators. Some studies are included in its Knowledge Bank, a showcase for ‘best practice’ in Victorian schools. Case studies in the Knowledge Bank include work undertaken by teachers participating in the Teacher Professional Leave program as well as other examples submitted from practising teachers. They are categorised under five headings: Student Learning, Building Leadership, Professional Learning, Whole School Improvement and Community Involvement and Partnerships.

Building on its Schools for Innovation and Excellence initiative, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has recently introduced its Next Practice program which is informed by the UK next practice model and intended to take current best practice in Victoria to a new level. Next Practice: Design Teams pilot project has set up design teams of teachers, researchers and other experts to work collaboratively in producing and sharing new professional thinking and practice including tailoring education to individual needs. Selected schools and school networks will be closely involved in the pilot (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2007b).

Some initiatives in other Australian jurisdictions

The New South Wales Department of Education and Training funded a project in 2004–05 to support teachers who were offering more personalised learning options for their students in the vocational education and training sector (known as BVET). Eight pilot projects were supported to consider personalised approaches to the delivery of training packages, particularly the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment training package, as well as personalised approaches to career development and job placement.

In 2005 the Department hosted a two-day symposium entitled Personalised learning: high expectations. The conference explored local and international experiences of personalised learning considered essential to realising and sustaining personalised practices (Centre for Learning Innovation 2005).

The South Australian Youth Engagement Strategy (SAYES), linked to the new SACE implementation, attempts to personalise learning in senior secondary years by building engaging curricula and defining and sharing appropriate pedagogy, assessment and credentialing ‘so that each young person’s learning plan is supported and accredited within a seamless learning system’. The Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS), also in South Australia, exemplifies the new personalised approach to senior secondary schooling.

Rosetta High School in Tasmania has customised its programs and developed personalised learning for its students in a ‘transformation’ that highlights relationships, personalisation and context.

Sevenoaks Senior College in Perth, Western Australia, attempts to maximise curriculum opportunities in a technology-rich and outcomes-focused environment within the ICT curriculum. Curriculum materials and individualised learning programs are created online, and the focus is on learning that comes from student enquiry, critical thinking and problem solving, using a variety of sources. Through ICT, students are encouraged to be active learners responsible for their own learning, resulting in project-oriented, collaborative work that promotes autonomy and engagement.

In Queensland Cherbourg State School has challenged the belief that being Aboriginal means being second class, and that poor academic performance and poor behaviour are inevitable consequences. Although this case study does not explicitly address what is meant by personalised learning, it exemplifies the challenges and hard work required by school leaders if they wish to bring about change that will improve the outcomes for their students and staff members.

Personalised learning: an emerging area of interest

Personalised learning is still in its embryonic stages so as yet 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 in Australia and around the world.

For further resources on personalised education see Research eLert No. 12, August 2007. The Research eLert is an electronic newsletter produced by the Research Branch of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. It aims to support evidence-based decision making across the education sector. Each newsletter features a specific theme relevant to schools and other education providers. Summaries of related research papers along with relevant links are also included. The Research eLert is free to all. To subscribe, please send your email address to the Research Unit at research@edumail.vic.gov.au.  In the Subject line of your email type ‘Subscribe to Research eLert’.


Centre for Learning Innovation 2005, Improving VET outcomes using Personalised Learning, Department of Education and Training (NSW), Sydney, viewed 23 June 2007.

Centre for Learning Innovation 2005, Personalised learning: improving student outcomes, Department of Education and Training (NSW), Sydney, viewed 23 June 2007.

Council for the Australian Federation 2007, The Future of Schooling in Australia.

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2007a, Personalising Education: from research to policy and practice.

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2007b, Next Practice: Design Teams pilot project.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2006, Schooling for tomorrow: personalising education, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, OECD, Paris. This publication may be ordered or purchased online from the OECD.


Subject Headings

Lifelong Learning
Teaching and learning
Case studies
Education research
Educational planning
Education policy