Personalised learning, inclusion and equity

John Graham

Personalised learning received a headline boost after the publication of the Gonski 2.0 report – Through Growth to Achievement – which recommended moving from a standardised approach in curriculum and assessment to a more personalised strategy centred on the learning progress of each student and linked to individual learning plans. It argued that the present curriculum structures with their orientation to age and year level standards and the pervasive influence of standardised testing may be one of the reasons why the performance of Australian students in international testing has declined. It called for a freeing up of these structures and their eventual replacement by a new curriculum based upon formative assessment and learning progress.

This is an ambitious project not only because it would need to be negotiated through the populist politics of education, but also because the details of what it would mean at the school level and in the classroom and how it would be implemented across the system have not been spelt out. It offers a direction to move in rather than something which can be properly evaluated as a mainstream policy for all schools. The easiest part of it, and a first positive step, would be to eliminate high stakes population testing of students through NAPLAN, which has distorted school education for the last 10 years by conflating learning outcomes with snapshot test results in just a few areas of the curriculum. Promoting diagnostic formative assessment as a key learning improvement strategy, with some state and national sample testing for government quality assurance purposes, would remove the NAPLAN distraction and allow schools to concentrate on individual student progress.

The other parts of the Gonski agenda are far more problematic. The transformation of the curriculum from an age/year level-based construct to one based on learning progress would be complex and experimental. In his article in this edition of Professional Voice, Glenn Savage suggests that it has the potential to create wide-scale disruption (“a logistical nightmare” for teachers) and would “require a fundamental reworking of teaching and learning processes in schools”. He also questions whether abandoning year levels would really have a positive impact, as the report spruiks its potential benefits without offering convincing research that it would work as an improvement strategy. Despite this, the federal government and various state governments appear to have adopted the idea as the way forward for school education.

Personalised learning

The wider question raised by the report is the nature and feasibility of ‘personalised learning’. Many teachers, particularly in the primary sector, would argue that their prevailing pedagogy is already one of personalised learning, albeit within the constraints of tight global budgets, the mandated Victorian curriculum and the use of NAPLAN to judge schools and the quality of their teaching. Personalised learning gets many mentions in the Gonski report as the solution to lift student achievement, but there is no clear description of what this may mean and what teachers would be expected to do differently to implement it. The closest it comes to spelling out its view of what changes in classroom practice need to occur is in the section about formative assessment.

Using formative assessment, teachers can work together to assess a student’s existing knowledge, develop personalised learning plans, set goals for where the student needs to be in one year’s time and track the student’s progress over time, intervening if progress stalls or regresses. 1 (p.62)

Rather than a change in practice, this sounds more like an intensification of what is already happening in schools.

When the Office of Education Technology in the US examined a range of different approaches to personalised learning they identified five core principles: the pace of learning is adjusted; learning objectives, approaches, content, and tools are tailored and optimized for each learner; learning is driven by learner interests; learners are given choice in what, how, when, and where they learn; and learning is often supported by technology.2 Translating this approach literally into the average classroom in Australia would not be easy, and would require a long time-line. What neither this definition nor the Gonski report canvasses is the resources needed to expand existing levels of personalised learning to the new frontiers they recommend, and the unacceptable workload for teachers without those resources. The level of work teachers face already in creating, implementing and reviewing individual learning plans within existing class sizes and teaching allotments, is an indication of how difficult further personalisation would be.  Glenn Savage ends his article on the following cautionary note:

But all the personalisation in the world means nothing if it isn’t feasible to introduce in actually existing schools, if it comes at the expense of disciplinary knowledge, or in the absence of overarching commitments to equality of opportunity for all young people.

The Gonski report links the ideal of personalised learning to a yet to be invented formative assessment technology “tool”. This is in keeping with most proposals for personalised learning, which see the enabling capacities of ICT as central to its delivery. And to some extent it already functions in this way, either formally or informally, in the lives of most students. The technology behemoths have long since recognised the prospect of a world-wide personalised learning industry worth billions of dollars. Many of the large technology companies and their entrepreneurial founders (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg etc) are at the forefront of various trial personalisation programs aimed at changing the traditional classroom model, ranging from students working on self-paced learning packages while teachers act as ‘facilitators’ and ‘problem-solvers’ to sophisticated artificial intelligence platforms where ‘the teacher’ is primarily a digital construct. The role of the (human) teacher is being gradually transformed by these developments. In some instances, it’s being enhanced by adding a series of new learning tools to their armoury, in others it’s being flattened out and narrowed as curriculum and pedagogical expertise is outsourced to corporate software developers.

The unanswered question about these innovations is whether they are helping or hindering student progress. There is presently a dearth of research validation of the tech giants’ programs so there is no knowing whether student achievement (compared to existing conventional learning programs) rises, stays the same or falls through their use. Promotion by edu-business of the idea that algorithms are better than skilled teachers at adapting to students’ abilities is more about bottom-line profit than valid evidence generated by reliable research. The interest of client authorities in such innovations rests somewhere between new ways to boost student achievement and new ways to cut costs.

Inclusive education

In his article, Umesh Sharma approaches the issue of personalised learning from the perspective of inclusive schooling, in particular the integration of students with special needs into mainstream schools. Personalised learning strategies are central to this process. The first principle of an inclusive education, according to Sharma, is identifying and addressing the barriers to participation of all learners, including those with a disability. Similarly, he reminds us that inclusive teaching is above all good teaching. For example, research indicates that teaching strategies such as peer tutoring, co-operative learning and differentiated instruction not only improve the achievement of students with special needs but have a positive impact on the learning of all students.  Two essential elements schools need to become more inclusive are school-wide professional learning and planning time. Professional learning enables the whole staff to have a consistent approach to needs-based curriculum and pedagogy and “to learn about how each student is different from another student irrespective of the label he or she has been given”. Personalised learning however, only becomes a reality when there is sufficient time to collaborate and plan as “teaching in inclusive classrooms requires significant efforts in planning”.

Equity

Inclusive schooling is underpinned by the principle of an equitable society where the life outcomes of people are not determined by their individual circumstances and backgrounds. Laura Perry’s article outlines the distance Australia needs to travel to achieve equity in our schooling system.

Inequalities between students from different social backgrounds already exist when they start primary school. Worryingly, these inequalities increase as students progress through the education system.

Understanding why this occurs is an important research priority. Perry identifies the large inequalities which exist between socially advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia, pointing out that the country has one of the largest resource gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in the OECD. To improve the educational outcomes of students who are falling behind requires effective needs-based funding and a reduction in the level of social segregation in the schooling system. The difference between Australia and countries like Canada and New Zealand with less segregated schooling systems is that:

They have a much smaller proportion of schools that charge fees, and smaller qualitative differences between schools in terms of their facilities and resources.

Perry believes that educational inequalities and underachievement in Australia will only be properly addressed when needs-based funding is in place and it is accompanied by a broader reform of school funding policies specifically designed to decrease the qualitative differences between schools in terms of their resources and facilities.

NAPLAN

The main data sets which are used to plot the unequal outcomes of students in Australian schooling are derived from the standardised tests known as NAPLAN and PISA. Apart from one of these tests being national only and the other being international, a striking difference between the two testing programs is that one has no direct negative impact on learning in schools while the other does. PISA is a sample test of literacy, numeracy and science achievement of 15-year-old students in Australia and across the world. It does not identify individual schools (or their teachers) and the data it generates is high quality and can be used for a wide range of research purposes. NAPLAN on the other hand is a high stakes population test which has corroding effects on curriculum, pedagogy and student welfare and the data it produces is used to encourage the marketisation of schooling in Australia. Nicole Mockler steps the reader through the case against NAPLAN, pointing out the yawning gap between the claims made about its capacity to sort out the school sheep from the school goats, and the reality of its flawed data for anything other than national reporting. She calls for results from the testing program to be used “only for the purpose for which they are fit” while a broader conversation takes place about what constitutes good evidence of teaching and learning in schools.

Clinical teaching

Evidence-based practice in medicine has been described as “integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external evidence from systematic research”. Geoff Masters uses this definition to illuminate what he believes should be the basis of evidence-based practice in education. Discussion of evidence-based teaching often leaves out the first part of the definition, “clinical teaching practice”, and bases itself on controlled research studies alone. Masters contends that teachers need a thorough understanding of where a student is in their learning and this may require a detailed diagnostic investigation of the errors they are making or the misunderstandings they have developed. This information can then be used “to guide and personalise teaching”. He sees the Gonski focus on learning progress as the way forward for improving the quality of teaching practice.

 Information about progress provides the most direct indicator of teaching effectiveness, as well as being key to the evaluation of educational policies, programs and teaching methods.

Technology and the environment

Neil Selwyn is one of the most interesting and insightful researchers and commentators on the role of digital technologies in education. His many articles and books elucidate the ways in which teaching and learning are being transformed within schools which are now ‘digitally dependent’. In this article he questions the long-term sustainability of the present use of digital technology because of its detrimental effect on the earth’s environment. The article sets out the evidence of ecological damage under four headings: the raw ingredients of digital devices; the environmentally destructive manufacture and production of digital devices; the energy-greedy data infrastructures that lie behind digital transactions; and the environmental cost of dismantling and disposing digital hardware. His take-away message is a hard one.

Everyone in education therefore needs to ask themselves whether they are happy to continue being part of what is clearly a catastrophic drain on the planet and a fundamental threat to the living conditions and life chances of future generations. If not, then we urgently need to start rethinking the sorts of digital technology use that are really needed in education, and how these might be achieved in more sustainable ways.

Teaching as a profession

The interview in this edition of Professional Voice is with Lawrence Ingvarson, one of the country’s strongest voices in favour of greater professional status for Australian teachers. He contends that this goal will only be achieved when teachers themselves are controlling their own profession. This includes, for example, defining their own professional standards and certifying members who attain them, rather than having these processes carried out by employing authorities or government regulators. He is particularly critical of employing authorities for claiming “jurisdiction” over the assessment of teachers for certification at highly accomplished and lead teacher levels.  

Showing a complete lack of understanding of what a professional certification is all about, many saw it as a “managerial prerogative”, not an opportunity to encourage teaching to ‘grow up’ as a profession.  

Another longstanding concern of Ingvarson’s is the failure by governments to improve the recruitment of people into teaching. The university entry data which shows teaching as the poor cousin of the other professional areas of study needs to be reversed so that teaching can compete successfully for the ablest graduates. He argues that just raising the bar for entry does not address the recruitment problem and is as “tokenistic” as the Teach for Australia program. The profession needs better salaries, better working conditions, more decision-making control over their work and much better accountability systems. He sees the need for urgent change in all of these areas.

If ever there was a time when the profession needed to be able to speak on equal terms with governments and other employing authorities about matters central to quality teaching and learning, such as the quality of entrants to teacher education programs, that time is now.

Notes

  1. David Gonski et al (2018), Through Growth to Achievement, Australian Government
  2. The Office of Educational Technology (2017), What is personalized learning? https://medium.com/personalizing-the-learning-experience-insights/what-is-personalized-learning-bc874799b6f

 

John Graham is editor of Professional Voice and works as a research officer at the Australian Education Union (Vic). He has been a secondary teacher, worked on national and state-based education programs and in the policy division of the Victorian Education Department. He has carried out research in a wide range of areas related to education and training. He has had particular responsibility for the many issues impacting on teachers and teaching as a profession, teacher education, curriculum change, and the politics, organisation and funding of public education. He has written extensively in various publications about all of these matters.

This article appears in Professional Voice 12.3 Personalised learning, inclusion and equity.