July 2007

Transforming Education Through Personalisation of Learning

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Over the last hundred years the design of schools, the curriculum, teacher roles, student roles and organisational structures have all evolved together and just like an ecosystem, are now entwined in complex interrelationships. Research is continuing to demonstrate that changes are needed to improve the system but there is a nervousness and lack of clarity about how we achieve this given the complexity. The introduction of new technologies is a much faster process than turning around an education system so we must start the change process towards e-enabled schools now, even though the prospect of every child with an Internet enabled device seems a long way off, the prospect of a transformed education system seems further.

In 2006 the author was commissioned by Microsoft to write a number of holistic future schools visions.  The intention was to have an 'off the shelf' resource for Headteachers that not only provided them with a range of future schools but, once they had decided on which vision they subscribed to, a clear route map for how to efficiently use resources to get there.  He developed three models in detail and then, rather surprisingly found that these three encompassed the views of all the Headteachers and agencies with which we debated the model.

Three future schools visions were based on what future relationship would exist between the teacher and the pupil.

Evolved School Models (The T-route) 

  • This assumes that despite the growing research evidence to the contrary, the current system is the best we can achieve. In this scenario ICT would tend to be used to make the role of the Teacher easier by providing them with greater tools with which to teach.  

Transformed School Models (The P-route)

  • In this case ICT would tend to be used in ways which provide the Pupil with better tools with which to develop their own learning and work collaboratively with others to construct knowledge.  

De-schooled Models

  • If there were a third option it would be that schools cease to exist because they can't compete with home learning or don't offer a route for the child towards greater opportunity for themselves or their families. This third option is increasing evident in developed countries with numbers of home schooled students increasing yearly and the performance of home schooled children in the UK, Canada and USA now greater than schooled. Systems that place such little importance on collaboration and considerable value on individually written examinations are, in effect, favouring isolated learning and so it is not surprising that if resources of a similar quality are available at home, students will increasingly choose this option. 

In India, the drive towards universal education has seen a ten fold increase in attendance of schools, largely constructed as elsewhere in the world, around the T (Teacher)-route. For the remaining students yet to attend school there has been some excellent initiatives around P (Pupil)-route development including the 'joyful learning' and a 'child-centred' approaches associated with the revised, competency-based school curriculum. Further developments such as the upgrading of learning environments and positive role modelling through schemes such as the 'Girl Star' project have further developed the community's assessment of the value of education thus reducing those within the no-school group.

The concept of P-route schools is not new and there are numerous examples across the globe of systems which provide learners with greater choice and self-determination ranging from the Microsociety schools in the USA and Japan in which children run the school as a mini society to the Danish schools such as HGO based on democratic empowerment. Despite the well researched success of these two examples and many others, it has not been possible to accurately assess how effectively such schemes have delivered in terms of lifelong competency development. Ironically, the instrument which is frequently used to assess their effectiveness is how well the students perform on standard written tests. A good example of this is the education system in the UK in the 1970s. This was an attempt to develop P-route practice on a wide scale but without the monitoring control of a national curriculum and assessment system.

In order to ensure that ICT systems can be used to best effect in new P-route schools to identify valuable progress across competencies, we need to be certain about the core design principles including the importance of the following factors.

Collaborative knowledge building

We still don't know enough about how the contribution of individual team members develops shared understanding and how to assess each person's contribution in terms of the overall outcome. What we do know is that the ability to work in this way is a key component of a 21st century knowledge economy and yet most of the skills development is happening unknown to schools through learner's online social networks, the growth of which is astounding.  An estimated 40% of all UK teenagers have adopted an alternative identity online in order to collaborate anonymously.

Choice of learning context, creativity and approach

Every society has different views about what pieces of information are essential and such content would be required in P-route schools although how and when a learner accessed it may be more within their control. In the author's own school for example, he delivered the national curriculum by providing each child with teacher training and then commissioning them to deliver it. Students had complete creative freedom as to how they achieved this; the only requirement was that they had to evidence what proportion of the class had learnt what they were teaching. Although all 300 children performed better in standard tests than those taught traditionally, but it was in terms of their core competencies that an incredible acceleration of three years was achieved in one year. Hence in the P-route school it is the competencies framework which unites students and drives collaboration rather than the subject content.

Ownership of assessment

Research concludes that the more assessment is integrated into the process of learning, understood and owned by the individual the more effective and the less damaging it is. Assessment used overtly to monitor teachers, school performance and norm referenced milestones tends to label individuals, negatively impact on learner independence and learner self-image.

In Finland, teachers own the data and use it to conduct active research into their own practice.  This acts as a powerful role model for the students who can interpret assessment as a tool for reflective practice and development. The monitoring role of assessment is not shared widely so that government agencies can use the data to direct support without placing a pressure for driven targets. 

Sites such as fanfiction.net have grown exponentially as learners demonstrate that integrating review and assessment into leaning acts as a fuel rather than an inhibitor especially when the learner is of a similar age or ability. The most striking piece of evidence is this was the e-viva project operated by Ultralab.  This replaced written questions with recorded messages to the child's mobile phone. The research discovered that learners would give more complex answers when the recorded message was someone of their own age. PbyP (personalisation by pieces) is the first system to provide such peer assessment as authentic qualifications without the need for teacher verification and will be discussed later in this paper.

Student leadership

Schools which offer the diversity of a P-route curriculum need to develop wide ranges of 'real' learning opportunities. In the Five Islands School the author set up teams of student leaders who designed a training course to cover the ICT requirements and manage the equipment. They now deliver the programme to all of the students including the assessment and monitoring. Such opportunities increase the capacity for project leadership and enables genuine empowered partnership as described by Hart's 'Degrees of Participation' which he derived from the work of Arnstein (A ladder of citizen participation, 1969).

One of the most stunning examples of such transformed practice is the Room 13 project in Scotland. In this case, students from ages 5 to 11 were given a room and the budget to run it including funding to employ an adult to supervise. The students employed an artist in residence. To gain access to the room, students had to complete their school work for the day.  Students were soon requesting the work a day early so they could complete it at home and spend the next day in room 13.

Over the past fifteen years, the author has been devising and implementing projects which can bring about P-route transformation. Many of these such as the 'Access Manager Scheme', 'Eggbuckland Peer Learning Project' and the 'ICT passport project' have achieved national and international recognition having demonstrated significant value added in terms of 'value added' measurements and final examinations.

In 2004 the author left Eggbuckland Community College to try to develop a toolkit that would enable schools to plot their own P-route without external intervention. Such a toolkit would need to introduce personalisation piece by piece at a pace which enables the school to transform other interrelated practices and structures rather than through radical and instant change. It would need to provide services over the web to every individual student that would allow them to manage their own working and peer assess the work of learners from other schools. It would need to be competency based and enable the school to monitor progression in these competencies at a whole school and individual level.

The first step in developing the PbyP toolkit (Personalisation by Pieces) was to define the basic building block of learning at all ages. The author defines a learning cycle which involves the learner choosing a target, discussing this with a mentor, devising a way of meeting the target, carrying out an activity to meet the target, gathering the evidence and finally submitting the evidence for peer assessment before returning to the start of the cycle with a different target. The targets needed to be accessible by the individual and needed to be based on core competencies rather than knowledge. The content of the targets was less important than ensuring they could be achieved and evidenced independently. 

Children who choose this target can use the PbyP web tool to see how other children from around the world have achieved it. This inspires an idea such as submitting a picture of themselves in front of the class.  The child organises the photo to be taken and then submits it.  The work goes to another child who has already achieved this target. This second child could be in a different country studying different content but they are effectively an 'expert' in achieving this statement and so are able to assess it.

If this 'expert' agrees that the work has passed then it enters the child's e-portfolio and adds to the examples on the web that could inspire others. Like on eBay, the child gets to rate the advice they have been given so that a set of ratings emerge which are capable of monitoring progress measures through feedback. The learner can now progress to the level two statement or switch to another competence. He developed PbyP last year and it is currently undergoing extensive trials in over 30 UK learning institutions ranging from infant schools to university degree courses. He applied the model to a 5-11 school in 'special measures', meaning it was nationally identified as failing its students. 

Within 18 months of implementing a change management plan based on the vision of a P-route school employing PbyP it was declared 'Outstanding in all areas'. All of the other trials have involved less direct intervention, but all are already reporting improved outcomes, which in two cases have been externally verified.

The simplicity of the concept, the ease of adoption and the flexibility to introduce new competences means that the concept will grow as its use diversifies. Examples of this include developing multiple language versions which will allow students to have their language work assessed by a native speaker, implementations in different international education systems to demonstrate the overlap of universal competences and the introduction of specific entrepreneurial skills.

In the world's largest democracy, greater collaborative empowerment and personal ownership of learning will require schools that act as both centres of community learning and brokers of opportunities. In this way the democratisation of learning in the classroom will support the sustainable economic growth of India both within the local and global economy.  

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