The hope of radical personalisation1
Glenn C. Savage
Complex questions are being raised globally about the capacity of schools to prepare young people for the demands of the 21st Century. An increasingly dominant argument in policy, research and media debates is that traditional models of schooling have failed to evolve.
Schools, we are told, are relics of the past: tied to an ‘industrial model’ no longer relevant in contexts marked by rapid technological change, globalisation and ‘knowledge based’ economies that need 21st Century skills. It’s not just what is taught that needs to change. Instead, the fundamental form and structure of schooling is seen as redundant and needing to be overhauled. New 21st Century models of schooling are required that transform schools into labs of the future.
A major thread of argument in these emerging debates is that new forms of personalised learning and assessment are urgently required. In contrast to the so-called industrial model, which is seen to have relied on uniformity, regulation and conformity, the personalisation agenda promises flexible, agile, individualised and student-centred learning experiences2. Hopes for personalisation place significant faith in technological developments, big data and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) to drive emerging forms of adaptive learning and assessment, which promise to better diagnose and monitor student learning and progress.
While not many educators, parents or students would see an industrial era ‘one size fits all’ model as ideal for contemporary schooling, there are good reasons to question some of the claims in favour of new forms of personalisation. There is not only a tendency for personalisation to be uncritically celebrated and for claims of an industrial model to be vastly overstated, but claims that radical change is needed are often unrealistic and disconnected from the realities and capacities of existing Australian schools.
Gonski 2.0 and the promise of personalisation
For a taste of how the personalisation agenda is playing out in Australian schooling, the recent ‘Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools’ (sometimes referred to as Gonski 2.0) is a good place to start. The federally-commissioned report, based on a review chaired by David Gonski, places significant faith in the power of personalisation, data and technology to drive improvement and help the nation cast off the shackles of its so-called ‘industrial model’ of schooling.
While the report makes recommendations across a variety of areas, its most substantive and radical lie in the areas of curriculum, assessment and reporting. Central to the report is an argument that the Australian Curriculum, which is organised into year levels rather than levels of progress, leaves some students behind, fails to extend others, and limits opportunities to maximise personalised learning and growth. This argument strongly echoes recent work by Professor Geoff Masters, who has argued for a major re-visioning of the way we assess students to better focus on student growth3.
The report portrays the traditional year level curriculum as a relic of the 20th century and as ill-suited to producing adaptive and personalised learning experiences. Scant detail is provided, however, to support claims that schools are chained to the industrial model (which is curious, as surely today’s technologically rich and vibrant classrooms do differ considerably from when my mum went to school in the 1950s!). Nevertheless, the report argues for a shift away from the year level curriculum, recommending that over the next five years, the Australian Curriculum be reformed to present both learning areas and general capabilities as “learning progressions”. This will ensure, the report argues, that individual student achievement can be better understood and catered for, rendering schools more agile and adaptive to personal needs.
Accompanying this is a related recommendation to introduce new reporting arrangements that not only focus on attainment, but also highlight “learning gain”. This is designed to ensure young people and parents don’t just have information on where young people sit relative to so-called “lockstep” level years, but would instead get more tailored information about individual progress. This recommendation speaks powerfully to the work of Professor John Hattie, who argues that young people should gain “a year of learning growth from a year of schooling”4.
The report makes a number of other recommendations to supplement these reforms, including the development of an online and on-demand formative assessment tool, to be based on revised national curriculum learning progressions, to help teachers monitor student progress in real time and better tailor and personalise teaching.
How radical would such reforms be in practice?
Regardless of whether we agree or not with the Gonski recommendations, it’s important not to understate just how monumental some of the suggested changes would be in practice. Indeed, many recommendations would require a fundamental reworking of teaching and learning processes in schools. How realistic, therefore, are such hopes for radical transformation? And would the wide-scale disruption required to make it happen be worth it?
Take, for example, the central idea of moving away from an age-based curriculum towards one based on learning progressions. This is a very radical proposal and that should not be taken lightly. Again, while it might sound agile and innovative, it could also be a logistical nightmare for teachers working at the coal face. How many teachers, for example, are trained or equipped to abandon a year level curriculum? How many school leaders are equipped to guide teachers through such dramatic change processes?
While advances in technology claim a future of radical personalisation is on the horizon, with teachers potentially working as supplements to new learning apps and technologies (which could indeed be based on learning progressions and adapt to learners in highly individualised ways) it’s very clear the technology is not ‘there yet’. This means potential chaos, in the meantime, for teachers trying to develop learning experiences and assessments for classes that remain structured into year levels, but no longer have a year-level curriculum.
Aside from the fact that such changes would be far from easy to implement and potentially very costly, there is also a lack of evidence to suggest that doing away with year levels would have any major positive impact. My concern, therefore, is that the report makes a big leap from canvassing ideas relating to the potential benefits of abandoning year levels, to arguing that it should happen. It’s a classic case of jumping the gun, going straight into the “let’s do it!” phase. But a major step in the middle has been missed: that is, rigorous research to find out if doing so would actually have the desired result in a diverse range of Australian schools.
Think of the corporate sector. Successful major businesses don’t just take ideas that sound good in theory, but lack solid contextualised testing and research, and roll them out globally. Instead, they undertake rigorous and targeted evaluations to understand impact before making an informed decision to roll out something new. We should be very concerned, therefore, that the federal government’s response to the report has been to accept all recommendations in principle and that it is now seeking to pursue the agenda through the Education Council and Council of Australian Governments.
Some state and territories are embracing the agenda
Many of the ideas central to the Gonski report are already alive and well in state and territory education systems. New South Wales is one state where core ideas associated with the Gonski report are being strongly echoed. The current ‘NSW Curriculum Review’, for example, is being chaired by Geoff Masters and has been flagged from the outset as an attempt to transform the state’s curriculum to align with the Gonski proposals.
In a strange move for a state Minister for Education, Rob Stokes put the cart before the horse by arguing that the yet to be conducted review “puts David Gonski’s report into practice and will tailor the national education reform agenda to the NSW context”5. While the review’s Terms of Reference are more careful to pose questions rather than presuppose answers, the Gonski report is still specifically mentioned, stating that the review "will contribute appropriately to any related national processes"6 associated with it.
The ACT is also embarking on a new personalisation agenda through its recently released ‘Future of Education’ strategy, which places a major focus on reforms to ensure "learning is personalised and flexible" and promises to harness the power of digital technologies to do so. The word ‘personalised’ features 19 times in the 18-page strategy. The announcement of the strategy drew immediate criticism when ACT’s acting school improvement director, Kris Willis, made the startling claim that, "Facts and figures once held as paramount in classrooms, and knowing facts and figures, is no longer relevant in today's society". Willis appeared to be trying to argue that traditional subjects might give way to new personalised forms of learning focused on the teaching of 21st century skills. It wasn’t a good look.
Launching an agenda focused on personalisation by arguing for a rejection of facts and figures is a classic example of how futures-oriented thinking about schooling can go awfully wrong. While we should absolutely be having rich and vibrant discussions about the future of schooling and the potential of personalisation, to link such conversations to an argument that curriculum knowledge might simply be supplanted by teaching skills is gravely concerning.
Do we actually need more grand plans?
The idea that a radical overhaul of curriculum, assessment and reporting is the primary way to drive schooling systems forward and stop Australia’s declining student achievement feels a bit like Groundhog Day. This was exactly the logic that drove the creation of the Australian Curriculum in the late 2000s and led to other unprecedented national reforms such as NAPLAN, My School and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. The main difference this time around is that it’s a personalisation agenda driving calls for change, rather than a standardisation agenda.
The problem is, despite significant time, resources and investments committed to revolutionising Australian schooling, these grand designs of the past decade have done nothing to stop declining student achievement or make schools more equitable7. So, before we charge forth once again into the reform wilderness, serious debate should be had about whether these plans pass muster, and whether it’s worth the investment to put Australian schooling under another round of major surgery when the last round had minimal impact.
As part of this, we need to (once again) question whether the contemporary reform fever does any more than treat symptoms while deeper structural conditions continue to ensure, as the original Gonski report on school funding put it, an ‘unacceptable link’ between young people’s socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of achievement8. We need to be careful not to stray too far from where the first Gonski report started out. That is: addressing inequalities in Australian schooling through re-distributive funding.
This is not to suggest that pursuing personalised or adaptive learning is a fruitless endeavour. Indeed, I actually believe that in an ideal world (in which money, resources and capacities were no barriers), then personalisation coupled with a knowledge and skills based curriculum is rich with productive possibilities. 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.
Oh… and will it ever actually happen?
It’s also important to distinguish between the world of rhetoric and recommendations, on the one hand, and the actual translation of ideas into policies and practices, on the other hand. While federal, state and territory developments often imply an impending revolution, there are significant political hurdles to be overcome before any of the more radical proposals being put forward can actually be translated into action. For example, with regards to the Gonski 2.0 report, even though the federal government has signalled an interest in pursuing the recommendations, nearly all the suggested reforms relate to state and territory responsibilities.
The federal government needs to secure state and territory support to translate the recommendations into a national response, which is easier said than done. The federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan, faces many state ministers, not to mention senior bureaucrats, who are already suffering reform fatigue from the last decade of national reform and have limited appetite for further major changes. It’s also very likely for resistance to come from within schools, where long-standing habits and cultures are difficult to break.
This said, if the appetite remains strong in big and powerful states like NSW, and if that state’s curriculum review further endorses the kind of personalisation agenda promoted in Gonski 2.0, then you never know what might happen. After all, if past decade of national schooling reform has taught us anything, it’s that the seas of reform are turbulent and subject to rapid change.
- This article is an adapted and extended version of an article by the author, co-published in The Conversation and ABC Online, titled ‘Gonski 2.0 reveals another grand plan to overhaul education, but do we really need it?’. It also draws upon comments made by the author in an online interview with Greg Ashman, titled ‘Glenn Savage on #Gonski2’, available at: https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2018/05/09/glenn-savage-on-gonski2/
- Reid, A. 2018. Beyond certainty: A process for thinking about futures for Australian education. Report commissioned by the Australian Secondary Principal’s Association.
- See, for example: Masters, G. (2013). Towards a growth mindset in assessment. ACER occasional essays. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).
Dr Glenn C. Savage is a senior lecturer in education policy and sociology at the University of Western Australia. His current research examines the development of national schooling reforms and how policies in federal systems are mediated by transnational flows of policy ideas and practices. He currently holds an Australian Research Council ‘Discovery Early Career Researcher Award’ (DECRA) titled ‘National schooling reform and the reshaping of Australian federalism’ (2016–2019).
This article appears in Professional Voice 12.3 Personalised learning, inclusion and equity.