Friday, 18 September 2015

The Personalisation of Education

I’m acutely aware that I work in an industry filled with creative people.  People who have a talent for interpreting a syllabus, for understanding teacher and student needs and for fashioning and developing a product or a service that meets those needs.  I’m also aware that this is an industry with a conscience.  That we believe in what we do and that it makes a difference.

Educational publishing has an opportunity to use its creativity, experience and social conscience to explore how technology can improve what we do and how we do it so that modern school needs can be better met.

Here is a phrase that gets bandied about a lot.  “School is broken.”  But is it?

In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”

In other words – school was effectively teaching students to conform; to be obedient; to work silently and alone.

And here’s why.  In 1899, school was about preparing students to become factory workers for manual industries.  Photos of these factories, showing rows of staff working alone on repetitive tasks still have a look of familiarity today because they look like a lot of classrooms that you may have seen or experienced.

So, the school system is not broken.  It is functioning perfectly for a world that no longer exists.

I picked up a quote recently from a teacher’s blog.  “I’m not against technology, but I don’t want to use it in my classroom.”  Since the average age of teachers in Australia is the far side of middle age, this is not an uncommon opinion.

But how acceptable is this?

How would you feel if your doctor said to you “I’m not against technology but I don’t want to use it for your surgery.”

The world has moved on.  And technology has had an impact on almost every aspect of our lives.

So why is it taking so long for technology to have an impact on school? We need to ask ourselves what skills businesses are looking for from new recruits straight out of the education system?  Our economy needs young people who are creative, innovative, collaborative, who can problem solve and who are financially literate.

None of this is a criticism of teachers or of schools.  Teachers generally do a fantastic job within the parameters they are given to work in.  We all know teachers who are inspirational, who care deeply about teaching modern life skills and who work in schools that try desperately to give every child the best possible chance.  More often than not these are the teachers that educational publishers seek out as authors.

But too many school leavers fail to find their talent while at school.  Fail to find a passion.  Fail to find a purpose.

Talent can be found later later – and for some of us it is.  But why can’t finding your talent be a fundamental purpose of school? 

When my son was 15 he sat through a double period history lesson at school.  He’s not usually particularly outgoing but at the end of the class he waited until the other students had left the room and approached the teacher.  He asked her why she had lectured non-stop for the whole 80 minutes.  She replied that it was very important that they covered the material in the curriculum, that this content was critical and that the students must know this content because it would be tested.  My son then proceeded to point out that modern teenagers have short attention spans.  Why didn’t she show a short video?  Give the students some research to do – anything  - just break it up a bit.  For the under pressure teacher it was about getting through – or delivering - a mountain of content in a short time. 

But if all the students have switched off then no-one is learning. What purpose does this serve? The act of teaching does not mean learning is happening – just like the act of dieting does not mean that weight loss is happening!  Teachers are not simply a delivery mechanism for the syllabus. 

We all (I hope) had that one teacher who “saw something in me”.  What if all teachers were empowered to look for the talent within each student? What if the student was able to see something in herself?  What if the focus was on personalised learning so that every student discovered their passion and did the best that they could do?

True passion for something, true talent is liberating; it is motivating.  Students who leave school having discovered their talent are more likely to create jobs – perhaps jobs that never previously existed.

To enable more school students to find their passion we have to consider limiting standardized instruction; stop treating every child as if she is the same as the next child; and personalize education.

And this is where educational publishers can make a difference. 

I believe the future for this industry is to facilitate the delivery of personalized learning.  And technology provides us with the opportunity to do that.


1. By using experience and expertise to define ‘pathways’ for learning.  If we have depth and breadth of content, written by experienced teachers – we can design pathways for teachers to help students navigate their own path through a subject.

2. By reporting on outcomes in real time.  Digital publishing allows for the collection of data to provide feedback to the teacher on class performance and also individual performance – so that teachers can take immediate corrective action.

3. By diagnosing when and where help is needed – data can be used to diagnose areas that need attention and automatically generate additional practice or revision.

4. By making education available anywhere and anytime.  Learning is no longer constrained by the 4 walls of a classroom or the 9 – 3.30 schedule.  Let students follow their curiosity whenever the urge takes them.

5. By providing multiple entry points, engaging interactivity and diversity of learning objects.

To deliver personalized learning teachers are going to need resources that engage with 4 basic tenets – 4 values that educational publishers can embed in resources we create:

DIVERSITY above conformity
CURIOSITY above obedience
DIAGNOSIS above grading
PASSION above delivery.

There is some great publishing in this vein happening already.  There are some great teachers who have always striven to make education personal.  But businesses in our economy need more creative, free-thinking, employees and entrepreneurs.

Educational publishers have the opportunity to be part of the solution by providing teachers and schools with modern solutions – solutions that haven’t been thought of yet. 

As we consider the use of technology to deliver more innovative products and services, let’s remember that we are only just beginning.

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