Five keys to learning: Personalise the learning

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
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Continuing his five-part series, Matt Bromley is dissecting his five key aspects of engaging and effective lessons. Key number two is personalising the learning...

In the first part in this series, I outlined my five principles (A design for learning: The five lesson keys, SecEd, January 28, 2016:

The five principles

First, well-planned lessons connect the learning in three ways: they articulate a clear learning goal that students understand; they articulate a clear purpose for the learning; and they ensure that students’ starting points are identified through pre-tests (See Five keys to learning: Making connections, SecEd, February 5, 2016:

Second, we said, well-planned lessons personalise the learning. They ensure that the learning is tailored to meet individual needs and to match individual skills, interests, and styles.

They also ensure that this diagnostic data about students’ starting points and misconceptions (both that gathered from pre-tests and that gleaned from on-going assessments) is used to inform the way the learning is planned.

Third, well-planned lessons grab students’ attentions. They ensure that the learning activities get and maintain students’ attentions from the very beginning by using sensory “hooks” and by ensuring that the learning is appropriately paced, and appropriately varied and challenging.

Fourth, well-planned lessons teach less and learn more. They ensure that students acquire the necessary experiences, knowledge and skills to meet the learning goals but in so doing they remember that less is more: they cover a smaller amount of curriculum content so that they can explore it in greater depth and detail and from a range of perspectives.

Finally, well-planned lessons provide students with regular opportunities to reflect on their progress, to revise their thinking and to redraft their work, acting on the formative feedback they receive from teacher, peer and self-assessments.

In this article, we will consider the second principle: “Personalise the learning”.

Key 2: Personalise the learning

A few years ago, in a book called A Teacher’s Guide to Assessment, I attempted to define “personalised learning” at the whole-school level using the mnemonic “personal”, whereby the letters stood for:

  • P: Pupil grouping.
  • E: Extended curriculum.
  • R: Regular intervention.
  • S: Student tracking and target-setting.
  • O: Organisation of the curriculum.
  • N: Needs identified and supported.
  • A: Assessment.
  • L: Learning environment.

Each aspect in practice

Pupil grouping: This meant evaluating the relative impact on learning of different types of teaching groups, such as setting, banding, mixed ability, and single gender groups. Pupil grouping also meant incorporating a range of different student groupings within those teaching groups (whole class, small groups, pairs).

Extended curriculum: This meant offering a full range of “out-of-hours” activities which enhance and extend the basic curriculum as well as ensuring access for all groups of students. Extended curriculum also meant involving parents/carers, as well as the wider community, in extended provision. And it meant providing access to other services, including health and social services, that help students to enjoy and achieve in school.

Regular intervention: This meant linking the learning acquired through intervention with the learning from mainstream lessons. Regular intervention also meant incorporating individual tuition into intervention programmes. And it meant evaluating the quality and impact of intervention programmes to ensure the school achieved both value and quality for money.

Student tracking and target-setting: This meant translating national curriculum or exam board targets into curricular targets, using progress data to identify individuals and groups who are not yet on target, and adjusting teaching and intervention programmes in light of this. Student tracking also meant providing regular feedback to students and their parents/carers.

Organisation of the curriculum: This meant choosing an overall curriculum model or structure which caters for the needs of all the students. It meant providing tailored support for groups of students such as those with additional and different needs. And it meant incorporating a degree of flexibility into the curriculum (and indeed into the way the curriculum is delivered).

Needs identified and supported: This meant maintaining effective communications with parents/carers. It meant developing multi-agency links in order to support vulnerable children. It meant developing the role of the tutor or pastoral leader as a first point of contact for parents and carers.

Assessment: This meant incorporating learning objectives, learning outcomes and success criteria into lesson planning – as well as everyday practice. It also meant supporting students in assessing and evaluating their own learning through peer and self-assessment, as well as group work. And it meant combining formative and summative assessments.

Learning environment: This meant adapting the way the classroom is organised in order to meet students’ learning needs. It also meant developing the use of learning resources including ICT in order to support vulnerable learners and to provide access for those with special needs. It meant making effective use of the “outdoor classroom” and using ICT to extend the boundaries of learning and to encourage home learning.

High-quality teaching

In that book, I argued that – above all these things – in order for a school to achieve personalised learning there needed to be high-quality teaching, which in practice meant:

  • Developing focused schemes of work which demonstrate high expectations of students.
  • Planning learning which makes provision for those with SEN.
  • Focusing on questioning, modelling and explaining the learning.
  • Promoting student talk, both individually and in groups.
  • Supporting student independence in their learning.

The secret to high-quality teaching, I argued, is the development of meta-cognitive skills (in other words, thinking about and reflecting on one’s learning) because, through the development of meta-cognition, students are encouraged to monitor, evaluate, control and reflect on their own learning.

That, as I say, is personalised learning at the whole-school level. At class-level, I would add the following: the best teachers tailor their schemes of work and lessons to accommodate what will always be a diverse group of students. They use diagnostic assessments such as pre-tests and low-stakes multiple-choice quizzes to identify students with gaps in prior knowledge and skills. These needs are then addressed through targeted intervention individually, in pairs and small groups.

There are several practical methods for differentiating learning in terms of content, process, and product and I’ll explore three such methods in a moment, but first a word of caution: whichever method of differentiation/personalisation we use, our expectations of students’ desired outcomes should remain the same.

After all, students with differing levels of prior knowledge and achievement can all engage in answering big questions and exploring hypothesises – it is the answers not the questions that are differentiated because, although some students will respond in greater depth, all students have the potential to deepen their understanding as a result of thinking and engaging with the discussion. Here are three ways of personalising the learning:

1, Differentiated questioning

One means of differentiating is through questioning. I have written about the ABC approach to questioning before. I have said that discussion usually takes the form of teacher-led question-and-answer sessions and the most common model is IRE – Initiation, Response, Evaluation. But a more effective model is ABC – Agree/disagree with, Build upon, and Challenge.

With ABC, students pass questions around the classroom – the Japanese call this “neriage” which means “to polish” because students polish each other’s answers, refining them, making them better by challenging each other’s thinking. I have also said that increasing the amount of time you wait for an answer to a question before either answering it yourself or asking someone else, makes students’ answers longer, more confident, and increases their ability to respond. So using ABC questioning and increasing wait time are great ways of personalising the learning because students can engage at different levels but all can achieve.

2, Mastery learning

Another means of differentiating is to employ the mastery learning approach whereby teachers believe that all their students are capable of learning anything if that learning is presented in the right way. Mastery learning works on the basis that understanding is the result of intention and effort, and that difficulty is enjoyable. In lessons where mastery is practised, teachers ensure that at least once or twice in a session students are in awe of the teacher’s own scholarship with the intention that their interest is piqued and they want to be able to do it too.

In practical terms, mastery learning is about students demonstrating they have mastered something before being able to move on to the next thing. The teacher decides the level of mastery required – 80, 90 or 100 per cent – and students are given opportunities to learn through a variety of instructional methods before taking a test. If students do not attain the right level of mastery in the test, they are given additional instructional activities to complete before retaking the test (which is usually in a different form or uses different questions).

One benefit of the mastery approach is that it avoids the negative effects of differentiation which can translate as lower expectations of what the so-called “less able” students are able to achieve. With differentiation, activities can also be oversimplified. Mastery, however, allows teachers to genuinely challenge students. Here’s how it works...

In a traditional classroom, the teacher teaches to the middle and when the middle is ready, the teacher moves on to the next topic. This sends an important signal to the class: everyone learns in the same way and requires the same activities. This approach also tells students that once the majority of students have learnt something, they all move on. Many students learn nothing but are compelled to move on whether ready or not. Those students who are ready to move on faster than the “middle”, meanwhile, have to wait for the majority to catch up.

But with mastery learning, the teacher sends a very different signal to their students: that everyone will learn and succeed, that the teacher is not going to move on until everyone is ready to do so. With mastery, the teacher also makes it explicit that every student will get a minimum of, say, 80 per cent in tests and that the teacher will keep working with them until they do so.

The teacher can tell the faster students that they can move on whenever they are ready, that they will not be held back. The teacher makes it clear that people learn in different ways and at different paces.

So, at its heart, mastery learning is about handing over responsibility for learning to students. In traditional classrooms, the teacher is responsible for deciding how students learn and at what pace. But with mastery learning, students take responsibility and this helps prepare them for life after school. The teacher guides makes suggestions but it is the students who decide how to learn and when they are ready to take a test and move on.

Mastery learning is not the same as independent learning or self-teaching. In fact, teachers who employ a mastery approach interact more with individual students. By using a variety of resource materials (such as texts at different reading levels) and addressing various learning styles (by presenting information visually, verbally, and in writing), teachers can address differences in preferred learning styles and achievement levels.

By allowing students some options about how they work (for example, independently or in groups) or how they communicate their learning (visually, verbally, or in writing), teachers can personalise the learning still further.

3, A choice of outcomes

One final means of differentiating is by giving students choices of outcomes for assignments and assessments. For example, a class working on creating a display for the local museum on local life in the 19th century may be allowed to contribute with different products such as diary entries, drawings of daily life, and role-playing particular jobs. Such an approach allows all students to participate according to their talents and interests.

It is important, however, that when students are allowed a choice of products as part of an assessment that the various results are evaluated using common criteria. In the example above, regardless of whether a student produces a diary entry, a drawing or a role play, they would all be judged on their historical accuracy and the effectiveness of their depiction of local life.

Next time

Next time we will take a look at the third principle of well-planned lessons: “Grab students’ attention.”

Previous articles

To read previous articles in this series, as well as Matt Bromley’s other best practice articles for SecEd, go to The next article in this series will publish on March 3.


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