The potential of personalized learning for student engagement and achievement

Chris is a good mate of mine. We started at St Kevin’s Primary School, Eastwood on the same day in 1991. We used to walk home together each day because he lived (and still lives) about 150m ‘as the crow flies’ from my childhood home in Terry Rd, Eastwood. We still see each other fairly regularly and it was a conversation about experiences at school that we had recently that really got me thinking. 

It was always apparent that Chris was one of the ‘naughty kids’. At his worst, he brought a knife to school after being dared to by another boy in the class. Despite some concerns from my parents, he was still my mate and we got along really well. In our conversation, he summed up his experience at school by saying that the vast majority of school ‘wasn’t for me’ and that within that current architecture of “school”, he wasn’t able to learn. And he didn’t. Chris was consistently unable to focus for any more than a few minutes. And was often punished for it consistently.

The thing is, Chris is one of the most intelligent people that I know. So what went so wrong? Why did he come to hate school so much? He is hampered somewhat by a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but that has not stopped him from engaging in many tertiary learning experiences.

Having listened to Chris explain his experiences, and given what I have gleaned about teaching and the nature of “school” (from over a decade working in primary schools), is that ultimately what school currently is often doesn’t serve the needs of all students. And that’s a bit sad.

Student centric

What is needed is an approach that is developed with students in mind. This means that students have individual learning goals with a positive relationship between teachers and students at its core. It also means that students should be able to learn within and without a classroom. Learning can include scope for student talents and interests but above all, their needs. Also, learning should most definitely not be ‘restricted’ to school hours, and students should stop seeing it as such.

I have found in recent years that not only has the use of technology only increased student engagement in learning but has changed the attitude of some of my former students around their approach to learning. Furthermore, with the widespread introduction of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) programs in schools, students are able to begin their learning with their teacher at school during school hours and continue with the same device to learn on the way home, in their living rooms, in their bedrooms, in the car or even on the sidelines of sports practice. 

Accessible classroom materials

For example, I like to ensure that any reading materials that I provide in class are accessible outside of school hours. I also try to publish additional sources of information for students to follow up on at their leisure. In addition to this, students need to be able to write whenever and wherever they may be. This doesn’t necessarily have to require online access to materials. Devices used in schools today allow for students to write notes on their device, with an option to upload that for their own record keeping, note taking or to share with classmates or teachers. The ability to read and write with ease at any time is hugely powerful for young learners and should be a priority for schools.

While we all seem to have developed a preference for tools to use in the classroom, it is most certainly worthwhile reviewing which tools are used with your students from time to time. There should undoubtedly be a focus on syllabus outcomes, and how you as a teacher are trying to deliver those outcomes. What exactly are you teaching? How exactly are you teaching it? What materials have you developed? Which of these materials will students need access to at all times? Are there additional materials that they could have access to? Does technology improve or impede their access to learning materials? Does the technology allow for students to manipulate, organize and ultimately learn? These are all things for you and your school leadership team to review, perhaps on an annual basis.

What this all boils down to is that personalisation for students buffered by access to learning materials is what seems to be making the difference. Students should be given all of the tools necessary for learning, so that they can go ahead and learn whenever they like. If this is something that teachers can facilitate, great. What we do know is that personalized learning has the potential to greatly influence student thinking, learning, engagement, but also achievement.

If you are interested in learning more about how personalized learning can encourage math engagement and achievement as we move into the 'new normal', don't miss Fiona Thomas's latest webinar on Re-imagining math teaching and learning.