Personalised learning has become almost synonymous with modern schooling, and is often hailed as an innovative and effective approach to improving not only student engagement, but academic outcomes.
However, according to 30 eminent scientists, it might be time to rethink this learning method altogether.
Professors Steven Pinker from Harvard University, Dorothy Bishop from Oxford University and Uta Frith from the University College of London, among 27 others – recently wrote a letter to The Guardian warning that this approach is not only ineffective, but harmful to learners.
To coincide with International Brain Awareness Week, which began on Monday, the letter –organised by Professor Bruce Hood, chair of developmental psychology in society at the University of Bristol – set out to challenge common misconceptions about learning.
According to Hood, a recent poll of more than 100 head teachers of independent schools in the UK found over 85% believed in individualised learning styles, and 66% used them in their schools – with many sending teachers on courses and 6% paying for external consultants in order to implement it at their schools.
“Teachers need to be armed with up-to-date evidence of what has been shown to be effective so that schools are not wasting time or money on unsubstantiated practices that do not help students,” the letter states.
Hood said that most people believe they have a preferred learning style – either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic – and teaching using a variety of these styles can be engaging.
However, he added that the claim that students will perform better when the training is matched to their preferred learning style is simply not supported by the science and of questionable value.
Despite this view, some schools have demonstrated high achievement through personalised learning. One of them, PLC Perth, was recently featured in The Educator’s 3.1 issue for its innovative approach to teaching and learning.
The school’s principal, Dr Kate Hadwen, told The Educator that PLC Perth’s Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE) results for 2016 saw the school ranked second in the state.
“We have a culture of excellence, and our teaching staff work with every girl; each girl matters and programs are personalised for the needs of each girl, and that’s hard to do,” she said.
In line with the personalised learning element of the school’s culture, it provides senior students the opportunity to opt between studying for the WACE or the International Baccalaureate (IB), something that Hadwen said promotes student choice and flexibility.
“I guess, even more than that, the way we develop our academic programs for our Year 12 girls is personalised,” she said, adding that PLC also has combined classes with its brother school, Scotch College.
“So when we ask girls to choose subjects, we don’t get them to do it on a gridline. We just ask them what subjects they want to study, and then we create individual timetables for every student.”
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