The value of personalised learning - Education Matters Magazine
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The value of personalised learning

With the recently released Gonski report calling for more individualised learning, Kathy Walker, founder of Walker Learning, and Shona Bass ask if the general education sector is finally beginning to see the light.

What a breath of fresh air to see that the Gonski 2.0 reports calls for a personalised and individualised approach to learning. There continues to be a gross misinterpretation by predictable conservatives who, as soon as they hear words like creativity or lateral thinking, assume that you must have to compromise the teaching and instruction of basic skills and knowledge.

It is a relief for international evidence-based approaches, such as Walker Learning, to finally see the tide turning away from narrow, simplistic one-size-fits-all approaches to learning.

The reality is you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Believe it or not, you can teach skills, be explicit about them but also integrate and personalise learning so children can think rather than learn by rote and mindlessly repeat what they are told.

Children can grow up with hugely improved and much more respectful communication skills than most adults do currently and a greater sense of social responsibility at the same time.

Why is it that all other major professions, such as medicine, physics and engineering, have all managed to retain the fundamentals but also implement changes and update themselves as new evidence and research about their disciplines occurs? However, education constantly goes back to the ‘past’, as if the past had produced amazingly great results.

There is a fundamental reality in life and learning, that not all children are ready to learn the same thing at the same time.

It is a fact however, that universities have not taught and are not teaching future teachers using evidence. They have fallen into the trap of teaching to current curriculum frameworks and fallen away from instructing in how to teach literacy and numeracy.

One of our greatest challenges is to remember the humanity and profundity of what we are all here for and what it is we need to provide for our young children.

Despite current trends in measurement, benchmarking, standardised testing and rankings, we must not lose track of the profound individuality of all children. This remains a fundamental reality in all that we do.

We have challenging times in relation to society in general which impact upon all aspects of our children, including:

  • The intrusion of ‘electronic entertainment’ in everyday life
  • Early sexualisation of children, particularly girls
  • Exposure of children to experiences and life opportunities earlier and earlier
  • Overscheduled children
  • Preoccupation by many with having ‘bright children’
  • Cyber bullying
  • Parenting and educating using extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation
  • Focus on outcomes rather than effort, process and application

These challenges play out in how children feel about themselves (self-concept). There is an increased incidence of anxiety occurring in younger and younger children, children are not willing to take risks for fear of failure, they lack resilience and have not developed intrinsically to make decisions simply because they are the right decisions.

Thomas Moore stated, “Education is not the piling on of learning, information, facts, skills or abilities that are training or instruction. Education is making visible what is hidden.”

This type of education is hard to measure and ultimately has no standard or end point. It is embedded in a wisdom, something profound, that is difficult if not impossible to articulate.

The contemporary philosopher AC Grayling discusses education in the following way: “The aim of liberal education is to produce people who go on learning after their formal education has ceased who think, question, and know how to find answers when they need them. Members of a community cannot afford to be unreflective and ill-informed if civil society is to be sustainable. The contemporary view of education distorts the purpose of schooling, by aiming not at the development of individual as ends in themselves, but as instruments in the economic process.

Of course, children require instruction in literacy, numeracy and STEM subjects, but according to many philosophers and commentators, it is the education of the heart, the soul, the development of identity, culture, appreciation of reflection and belonging that is being lost. We are mindful of how language, such a powerful tool for conveying meaning, has changed so much in relation to education.

As soon as we attempt to measure the success and quality of a teacher or a learner through the narrow lens of some data on a page, we turn the profound humanity of a child into a narrow number on a table that is meaningless and misleading. We turn the deep complexity of a life and learning and experience into the simplicity and narrowness of data points; benchmarks, outcomes, standards, data, testing, ranking.

Instead of using the phrase or expression child-centred learning, we use outcome-driven. Instead of having goals and objectives for children, we now have benchmarks and standards.

We are faced with a paradox – we now know more about the individual nature of how children learn, their unique personalities, cultural influences, life opportunities (or lack of), and we speak more about meeting individual needs, early intervention and personalising learning. In contradiction, we are all being besieged by a data-driven, economic focus to education.

Sustained motivation for learning comes from within. What is essential to foster this intrinsic motivation is not ranking one child against another but the constant reflection of where the child was, where they are now and where they are heading.

We need to ask what defines quality and successful education in the 21st Century.

Educators have studied in depth what it means to educate, the complexities of the individual, and the influences of culture, brain development, learning styles, differences in personality and group culture. Yet this professional rigor and integrity are compromised when educators limit themselves or are held to account by the narrowness or biases of the latest trend or government persuasion in how or what to teach and how success is assessed.

Succumbing to these influences results in a loss of the depth of skill and intellect required to teach with deep reflection, using science and evidence-based facts, and providing consistency for students as they move through their education.

All evidence shows comprehensively that are two major foci in successful education in the 21st Century:

  • Skills for Life
  • Skills for Curriculum

Skills for Life

Skills for Life refers to the education for the ‘whole child’. In addition to (not in exclusion to) numeracy, literacy and STEM successful learners require a myriad of other skills including:

  • Creative, lateral and divergent thinking
  • Advanced executive functioning skills
  • Problem solving
  • Persistence and resilience
  • Successful self-initiators and who can navigate the challenges of the world with a strong sense of self, resilience and intrinsic motivation
  • Are emotionally intelligent, reflective of themselves and others
  • Social responsibility
  • Are strong and articulate communicators
  • Risk taking in healthy ways and
  • To be motivated to make the right choices and decisions in the absence of punishment and reward.

It is predicted that the generation now being taught will have on average six different careers and 20 different jobs. Robots will be performing the majority of automated manual tasks and that the job market will be characterized by the qualities of what makes us human, the skills of life.

The irony is that there is so much dialogue and discussion about the importance of holistic education, personalizing learning and developing the skills for life but the reality is that these opportunities are often very tokenistic and “ticked off” through a program or a session on the timetable. To authentically develop skills for life requires leaders and educators themselves to have well-developed life skills and for this education to be viewed as a philosophy and pedagogy that is embedded and integrated in the heartbeat of all aspects of the school – the leadership, classroom, playground, parent communication, assessment and reporting.

Skills for Curriculum

Skills for Life work alongside Skills for Curriculum (literacy, numeracy, the arts, STEM and other curriculum areas) that are placed within the individual interests, collective culture and communities of the children and their families.

Fundamental aspects of this context include:

  • Knowledge of how children develop neurologically, developmentally and through the influences of culture and family
  • The skill and ability to set up the learning environment – indoor and outdoor learning and places and spaces that reflect a calm yet stimulating range of investigations and places to explore, experiment and learn.

Walker Learning – Personalised and Holistic Learning

Walker Learning is a holistic teaching and learning approach that is developmentally and culturally appropriate for children in their early childhood and primary years of education (babies through year 7). Walker Learning is a pedagogy not a program nor a tool.

In the early childhood and primary years (of education) Walker Learning is designed to provide a balance of explicit teaching of literacy, numeracy, STEM (and other curriculum areas) with time also for children to actively investigate a range of skills and experiences for life either through planned play or projects depending upon their age and stage of maturity.

Walker Learning values, respects and authentically honours the individual child and views the child holistically and places emotional and social development of equal importance as the academic. The starting point and emphasis is relationships with a child (and family) and personalising their experiences to set each child up for success.

Neuroscience and developmental psychology are major disciplines that guide Walker Learning pedagogical practice. Brain research states that children require a mix of explicit instruction and active exploration of their environment in learning experiences that reflect their own culture, environment and community so that learning is truly relevant and meaningful.

Walker Learning recognises that sustained motivation for learning comes from within, that meaningful assessment is the constant reflection of where one was, where they have grown, what have they attained and where they are heading.

Walker Learning values highly the freedom to express and explore one’s own ideas alongside the need to consider the views and perspectives, experiences and knowledge of others both past and present. Walker Learning believes that technology is a powerful and useful tool to assist but never to lead. Technology can be used to create but never to replace the creative imaginations of young minds.

The basis of Walker Learning’s educational philosophy is based on the sciences of developmental psychology and neuroscience and the impact of social and cultural influences on children. Theories of play- and project- based learning are used and draw upon Vygotskian and constructivist principles that are used in practice. The pedagogy draws heavily on elements of recent neuroscience research that highlights that the child’s brain is programmed for relationships, attachments and concrete hands on open-ended experiences.

Walker Learning uses the Emotional Intelligence Model as the platform to deepen our own self-awareness as educators in order to deepen our relationships with children and grow in awareness of the needs of the children we teach. We model and scaffold intrinsic motivation using Rudolf Dreikurs’ theory of intrinsic motivation and logical consequences.

Walker Learning supports the development of a child’s concept of self by drawing on the work of Robert Leonetti and through the use of reflective listening, encouragement and separating a child’s intellectual achievement from the value of who they are as people.

Walker Learning embraces the importance of contextual learning – real, relevant and meaningful – to embed and strengthen recall of learning and facilitate the development of transferable skills. The pedagogy is holistic and acknowledges that education is the development of skills for life alongside and integrated with literacy, numeracy, STEM and other curriculum areas.

Professional support on Walker Learning can found at


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