New classes, new opportunities: Planning personalised learning

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For most schools in the Northern Hemisphere, September is the month of new beginnings. Teachers begin work with new classes, students change schools. A mixture of optimism, determination and more than a little anxiety generally results in positive energetic efforts by everyone. Given that the OECD and others have cited this ‘bottom up’ energy as the main driver for improving schools, it seems a good idea to look at how students, teachers, school leaders and policy makers could use this energy most wisely?

The Teacher’s Motivation Firstly let’s consider what kinds of things may be acting as motivators • Examination and performance. This is usually the top motivator if there are high stakes examination within the coming year or if there is an inspection or regulation system in place which is also focussed in this direction. For leaders, getting the balance right in terms of accountability based motivators and trusting in the following three, is critical. • Relationships. This may be anything from the negative terms, such as concern about possible behavioural conflicts and how to avoid them, through to positive excitement about getting to know new groups of students and looking forward to building up new working relationships. • Core Purpose. Most teachers have a mission or core purposes that drive them. These may be driven by a desire for career progression or promotion, or they could be driven by belief in how education should happen and what students should be able to expect from schooling. For some it may simply be the praise from their colleagues and recognition from their leaders. • General loveliness! Let’s face it, some people are just plain lovely to other people and are entirely motivated by each tiny reward that comes from knowing they have helped them. This is often coupled with a permanent feeling of guilt over not having helped enough!

Leadership Recommendation 1: Actively build motivation and adapt policies to help sustain it. Establish a common list of core purposes against which you can praise and recognise positive achievement wherever you can, ensuring the negative observations are not shared in public unless entirely necessary. Control the urge to let examination, performance and accountability be the main drivers.

Underlying Competencies are Critical So a teacher who has all of these motivations aligned and is ready to innovate sits down to plan this week ready to make a difference. Given that they will be trying new ideas, the teacher’s first needs to know the learning skills and competencies of their class. This may be a negative or cautious assessment such as when the teacher does not have confidence in the skills of the class so plans activities with high levels of teacher control. Poor leadership in schools sometimes allows negative ‘us and them’ arguments to emerge in which teachers are not challenged when they blame students inability to behave as the reason for not trying new teaching methods. Strong leadership will recognise that teachers may be anxious about losing the trust of a class and so may support their cautious start but be available to ease teachers out of this comfort zone after they have established relationships.

Leadership Recommendation 2: As leaders, it is enormously important that we take every opportunity to build the underpinning learning skills of students so that teachers can have greater confidence in the range of learning methods they can explore with students.

How to personalise The learning experiences need to be formed around clear sets of objectives and research strongly suggests that these should be known to both the student and the teacher with clear ways in which effective feedback can be given. The teacher is, in effect, a strategist who is using what is available to reach these objectives.

Leadership Recommendation 3: Teachers must have access to clearly defined agreed objectives that are common across the school. Where these objectives are skills based there should be clear rubrics showing how proficiency in the skill builds. These should have at least 3 exemplars to illustrate what each skill looks like in practice and the whole set should be accessible to students as well as teachers.

There are some who believe that once the outcomes are made clear, the students can self-teach. Some believe that these objectives can be built into computer software so that students work through them independently. The balance of research currently shows neither of these pure extremes are as effective as coaching in which activities are strategically designed to be just challenging enough to require the support of others and gain their praise, but not too challenging as to be demotivating (at their zone of proximal development and capable of driving ‘flow’).


  • Build each learning experience around a question that must be explored.
  • Ensure students and teachers have a clear understanding of the question and what success may look like (ideally using at least 3 exemplars from previous students with the names removed)
  • Give numerous choices for how the question can be addressed and leave the option for creative new ways that you have not thought about.
  • Provide a reference for the core knowledge required in order to complete the task and to enable informed debate using the correct terms
  • Make the time available between such questions as large as you can to help move away from short bursts of teacher led learning and more towards student led problem solving.
  • Build in opportunities for peer assessment. If peers are given the right support to enable them to assess then they will also use this same resource themselves so make sure it is presented BEFORE not after the question is to be explored.

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