Fragile foundations, Learning community, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam discuss personalised learning with special guest Tim Oates CBE, the Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge University Press & Assessment. What are examples and the dangers of personalised learning? When did it first appear in England? Plus, Tim shares an experience of a Singaporean teacher, readying up their class of 14 year olds… with primary topics.
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Hi. I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi. I'm Robin Potter.
Hi. I'm Adam Gifford.
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Well welcome back everyone, to another episode of the School of School Podcast. We've got a special guest today. Tim Oates from Cambridge University Press & Assessment, I think it's now called. Is that right, Tim?
That's right. That's the new organisation. Exactly.
Fantastic. And of course, we've got Robin and Adam joining us as per normal. So welcome, Tim. And I think today we're going to talk about personalised learning, and why it's not the panacea people think it is.
But before we do that, Tim do you just want to give us maybe a quick roundup of who you are and what you do? And how you've come to join us today?
Sure. Thanks so much indeed, Andy. Yeah. It's a great pleasure to join you today. I'm group director of assessment research and development at Cambridge University Press & Assessment. Long. Quite a mouthful, but that's my role. That's my job title. Essentially, I've been in the organisation since 2006. It's a big non-teaching department of Cambridge University. We do a lot of educational development work, and educational research work. We provide assessment services, but we now provide a lot of learning services too. We investigate curriculum, we investigate assessment. We do a lot of transnational comparative work.
We try to understand what works best in particular contexts. We try to understand how things are panning out in different nations. And of course, we look at mathematics. That's a key area for us.
So Tim, one of the things that you've been working on recently is personalised learning. And can you maybe just explain a little bit what that is, and what you've been looking at in particular?
Yeah. Hardly a day goes by without me looking at a particular tech company, or a politician, or an educational commentator advocating personalised learning as the future of education. And it's just a bit more complex than the public statements actually give light to. I've traced it's origins. We analysed it in speeches and public policy work, when it first began to emerge.
This statement about personalising public services, personalising education. And we've traced the different meanings that it has. But we've also traced the way in which it plays out in different technology applications, and in different schools and different school systems.
It's a single term. But my goodness, it means many, many different practises. Some of them are good, some of them are very problematic. And we've done systematic research to discriminate between those which we think are promising and good, and deliver benefit. And those that are problematic, and may cause very significant problems for individuals, for schools and for nations.
It may be too simplistic, but can you give us an example Tim, of where it's been a positive thing and a detrimental thing?
Well when I do lesson observation around the world, I see classrooms where they may look very traditional, but they're really engaged in personalised learning. In other words, the teacher is really concerned about how the ideas, the skills are building up in each and every child in the group. They'll ask penetrating questions. They'll ask questions which cause the kids to think, and to think about what they think. There'll be rich discourse. It's actually very personalised, even though they're all discussing the same idea.
We're actually looking at the same topic. Now, work like Jim Stigler's work on Japan during the fifties and sixties highlighted the way in which in Japan, teachers follow the way in which conceptions and misconceptions are building up in each and every child in the group. And for me, that's very high quality personalised learning. Conversely, I've been into schools where schools are using data recording processes, assessment processes which can cause kids to have reduced curriculum.
Now typically, this is where the claim is each child at their own pace, following their own interests. Following their own individual curriculum. Now typically... Not in every case. But in many cases, what you see as a widening of gaps. Kids tending to limit themselves, and actually crystallising their learning identities in dysfunctional ways. I'm this sort of learner. So those are two things at the extreme of the spectrum. Very good approaches, very detrimental approaches. There's lots in between, but that shows the kind of contrasts that I've been engaging with.
Okay. So you've got a year five class, for example. And with all different... At different learning stages. And you want to get the best out of every student. And so you're looking at this, and personalising it. But you don't want to... I don't... You don't want to prevent those that are academically at the head of the class to fall back. But you don't want to limit those that are needing more personalised attention or attention, to not also succeed and grow as learners.
So what I'm trying to understand here is, so how... You talked about the Japanese, but what is the best way then to do this? I mean is personalization to a point, a good idea? Or are we just going too far with it?
I think we have to think about what we mean by personalization. So it first appeared in education, as a very strong commitment in public policy in the 1990s. In England, it was pioneered by a group of people including Charles Leadbeater. And it was seen as a way of ensuring better engagement between the public and public services in health, in education more generally. Commercially of course, it's interesting. And what the research says is even if it's driven by AI, if somebody feels as though they're having a personalised experience, they feel more satisfied with it. Quite interesting. So it's tapping into something quite deep, psychologically.
Now in learning, we have to think quite carefully though. What are we trying to achieve through... Let's just take school for a moment. We want high equity, don't we? That's why we have a national curriculum. That's why we have standards. In some cases, the core standards in the States. But in... Massachusetts had it's own core curriculum, well before the core standards.
It was a commitment to every child having access to a full broadened, balanced curriculum. We want every child to have access to that. Now where does a person... Where does, and should the personalization occur? Well of course, it's each and every child's learning. It's their own learning. But what we need to be concerned with is, how each child's learning is building up. But if we think about a school in the context of a learning community, how can they engage in that learning community? How can they be a member of that community? How can that community best support them? One of the... Support each and every child. Where Japan is interesting... And Jim Stigler's work is fascinating is that... You talked about stages, Robin. But there in Japan, the idea is that actually, you want to encourage all kids to be tackling the same topic.
There will be different ability levels. I'm not going to say there are not different ability levels. There are. If a particular child has grasped an idea very swiftly and they want to move on, what they're encouraged to do there is explore the topic more deeply. And they can go and do a bit of work by themselves. But the obligation is to bring it back to the whole group, for the whole group to discuss this child's perceptions the way they see it.
Make their thinking external, available to the group. That's what learning community really means. What we do know from the research of transnational research comparing systems, which is that where that kind of approach is used, you tend to be better equity and higher overall attainment. That's what Eric Hanushek's work shows us, from Stanford. You see a high... If higher ability kids just race ahead and suddenly start tackling new areas, new topics, their thinking is no longer available to the group. And very often, this race through material can lead to very superficial learning for those seemingly high ability learners. Which can lead to fragile understandings, and so on. So this is a very important area of discussion I think, Robin. And it's very important to understand the underlying assumptions about ability. And the learning model that it gives rise to, in terms of grouping, setting, streaming. Pace through the curriculum, and so on.
I think there's another thing at play here too, which we sometimes overlook. Which is that if... You can't treat education... And in particular, I'm talking about mathematics. But it's probably true about most topics, as just a bunch of tick boxes that you need to check off. And then the faster that you go through it, the... It's not a project management schedule. It's a long-term thing. And we build upon previous knowledge. And we know that learning is a messy process. And that you have to go back and revisit something that maybe you misunderstood previously, and restructure it. And accommodate for it, in this new schema that you're building up over time. And it takes time. And it takes struggle. You have to struggle your way through it. And you have to run into all these barriers. And if you leave it too much to chance, you're not going to have the correct learning experiences at the right time.
So the likelihood is, is that you're going to have big gaps in your understanding as you progress. And then if you race through it and you have that superficial surface level experience with everything without really being challenged, then chances are you're going to fall flat on your face when it gets difficult. And it does get really difficult later on.
So as we're building this scheme up in primary school and in secondary school, we need to build working practises more around these core essential skills, or competencies that we want people to have. Which is around being able to generalise ideas, and being able to visualise what's going on. And being able to communicate those ideas. And I think often what happens with... In particular with advanced learners is, is that they race through it. And some of the things that they fall short on, is on the communication. So they may end up having a very superficial high level understanding of something, but they can't communicate it to anybody else. Or they can't generalise how it fits in with the rest of what they know. And then, that's when they start to struggle. And I think it's quite a common story to see people who fly through primary school, fly through secondary school. But then later abandon some of these topics, because it doesn't make sense anymore to them.
Two very interesting things on the basis of what you said, Andy. I mean, that's fascinating. I think one is that Lisa Jardine-Wright and Mark Warner in Cambridge, produced a brilliant online application for support of the teaching of advanced level physics, called Isaac Physics. Brilliant, brilliant thing. Using a range of questions with prompts and hints. It's a lovely structure. She and I discussed this issue of deep understanding of fundamentals, within discipline knowledge. And what she then realised was that a lot of the stress and tension that these elite kids who come to Cambridge experience in the first year at Cambridge, is a weakness of their understanding of the fundamentals in physics. And so she's changed her first year teaching, to actually check... Personalised learning. Check what each student understands, in respect to the principles of the discipline. And she said she had no idea that some of these young people's understanding of these principles will be so fragile in precisely the way you describe. Leading to stress, and real issues of sense of failure and poor learning identity in the first year.
So that's the first thing. Second thing is, I did a lesson observation in Singapore. And they were 14, these kids. So they were very much on the lead in to their crucial examinations. The teacher was going back over some primary level topics. Very interesting. And what was... I was looking at why they were doing it. And what was clear is that one of the most vocal and mathematically precocious members of the class, who wanted always to respond to things. Who the class knew was a guy who was the really competent mathematician, displayed misunderstanding of a couple of geometric principles. Really interesting. Now what was clear there was, something fascinating was going on. The teacher was not making assumptions about the linear nature of the progression of the discipline. It wasn't shameful to show that you had a misunderstanding. This student actually... When the misunderstanding was pointing out was quite interesting, said, oh. Oh, yes. Right. Yes. That's... Oh. I misunderstood that, haven't I?
But this high ability kid was suddenly making his misconception available to the rest of the group. So it was personalised. Revealing a misconception. Dealing with it in a sensitive way. Making the learning available to the whole group. So the whole group could spot that this is a common misconception, and they shouldn't fall into it.
And it was important to go back to check whether you understood the fundamentals in particular areas. In this case, geometry. So I think what you've said is fascinatingly important, Andy. I think what it gives rise to in terms of understanding personalization is that, you should ask rich questions. You should assess, as a teacher. You should not make assumptions about linear nature of progression in subjects. You should use misconceptions to reveal the thinking of children. But use those misconceptions to support the learning of the entire group. And then I think you've got a learning community in which the way in which each individual's understanding is building up, is catered for and used as an asset for the learning.
I think that's one of the challenges, Tim. I think what's being said here is, it's about the preparation of the teacher to understand those conceptual steps, and the progression in these ideas. Which can sometimes, be the limiting factor in whether or not we can support the children in our class. And what I mean by that is if... When I first started teaching, often I'd have quite senior teachers talk to me about the tricks and tips. Here's the trip to finding a fraction of a quantity. These sorts of things. That you just memorised this. And if you memorised it, you're okay. You're able to come to a solution.
But if I didn't know that they were missing something from the first time fractions were being introduced, for example, then I'm in trouble.
Because, I have to fall back on this. And I've had a brief bit of work, working with secondary maths teachers. And I remember one of the students said to me at one stage... He said, I think I was really, really good at mathematics in part, because I had a really good memory.
He said, but when you asked me about to unpick this, what are some of the really early ideas in this idea? This particular student really struggled with it. And I was trying to explain to him that this would be really useful if you were in a class and you're teaching at any level, you've got to know that progression. But that in itself, is a big ask. And I think sometimes, that link to that level of preparation is not as obvious. Or not... The expectation isn't as great, that we should do it. Even though, of course it is. And in order to support children, it has to be there. But it's a big ask as well.
I think that's great, Adam. I mean, that sounds like genuine personalised learning. We've differentiated three forms of personalization. If the questions and the teaching practise explore the way each and every child's understanding is building up and the emerging misconceptions, then you have personalised learning. I think we've recognised through our research and our transnational comparative research, three forms of personalization. Personalization one, every child at their own pace. Following their own preferences. Well, I'm afraid I summed that up as, if we want fewer girls to study science, then let girls follow their preference in primary school at the age of eight. That's what you'll find. So each at their own pace following their preferences, that's not a form of personalization we support.
Assessment, and then assigning to route. A lower level curriculum for these kids, a more demanding curriculum for these kids. Often with assessment to allocation to route, and then it's fixed. A lower level, less demanding curriculum for the rest of their education.
We think that's wrong too. And we've seen plenty of examples of that. And quite a few of those being data, and technology supported. The form of personalization I think we find giving benefit both in terms of equity and attainment, and encouraging. For example, good learning identities. And more girls to do science, does involve a lot of assessment. But it involves dialogic teaching as well. And rich engaging exchanges in the classroom.
Personalization three, the good one we see as screening, supporting. Engaging, rich oracy. Variation in the presentation of material, and practise. And at that point, you have solid personalization which enhances both equity and attainment. And tech... It can be technology enhanced. I saw a brilliant lesson recently, where all the kids working on a problem. The smart board was being used brilliantly. Kids were tackling problems for three or four minutes. The teacher could see on the screen, which was segmented into the 28 kids who were in the class. Was segmented, so she could see how each child was tackling the problem. It was paused. And then some of the kids who were struggling, that was discussed. Some of the kids who'd got a very economic solution, that was discussed. For me that was brilliant, technology supported personalised learning. Which supported the learning community.
And I think in order to do that, teachers need to think about what is their role in this. And part of it is making sure that you've got access to the right content that's going to allow for this to happen in the classroom. And that you really focus on those four critical questions. Those lesson planning questions. Going into the classroom it's like, what are the children going to learn? Be clear about what you want them to learn. Because, if you don't know... And that's really different from what you plan on teaching them.
What I'm going to teach, and what the children are going to learn are two different questions. And fundamentally different. And the next one is, how do I know when they've learned it? Because, what's your assessment criteria? What does success look like? What's the non negotiable at the end of the class? You need to know that. A lot of teachers go into the class, I believe sometimes not even asking those two questions. And then from then, the two follow-up questions should be obvious. What am I going to do if they already know it? And what am I going to do if they don't get it right? And if you have a sense of those four questions going to class, I think you're much more likely... Consistently over the 190 days of school that you have in a year, if you go in everyday thinking like that, I think there's a much better chance that you're going to get to where you hope to get to.
I mentioned Jim Stigler a couple of times, and perhaps we'll finish on a recommendation. So what you've just described as a process, is brilliantly outlined in his article, How Asian Teachers Polish Each Lesson To Perfection. They're able... They have clarity as to what it is... What concept they're focusing on. They want the children to acquire. And it actually describes brilliantly, that process of adaptation to the unfolding understanding of each child and the group. It's a great thing to read. And I'd really commend it to people wanting to pursue I think, really effective forms of personalization.
Fantastic, Tim. That was really outstanding. I wish we had more time to talk about this emerging artificial intelligence aspect to personalised learning, and the use of technology. Maybe that's something we can come back and talk about another day. But thanks so much for joining us today. That was really eye opening.
Thank you very much indeed, Andy. Thanks, Robin. Thanks, Adam.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School Podcast.
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