There is a growing awareness that one-size-fits-all approaches to school knowledge and organisation are increasingly ill-adapted both to addressing individuals' needs and to the knowledge society at large.

As teachers, therefore, we strive every day (well…most days) to provide some degree of individualised approach to our teaching in the classroom—to hopefully interact with each student on an individual basis, and to provide something that meets their particular needs.

Over the past 10-15 years many governments have tried to create social systems with the citizen at their centre, challenging the ‘old’ model, and developing systems that are more responsive to individual needs: "a system that responds to individual pupils, by creating an education path that takes account of their needs, interests and aspirations." (See link to document below.)

These governments are usually in OECD economies where the need for this approach is probably better recognised, and where educations systems have (in most cases) moved on from the provision of education at a massive scale, or where the Millennium Development Goals are still a target to be reached.

In the same way that many of the current aspects of our “modern” education system grew out of the needs for trained workers for the UK's Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, the newer, more personalised, approach can be seen to be allied to the economic changes that have been at work in the last 10–15 years.

Now, in 2012 as the centre of Henry Ford's "any colour as long as its black" approach to mass production moves from Europe and the USA to those nations where total costs are lower, so the new economic model for “a modern economy” moves towards a more personalised, consumerist approach. In the education sector this
 new approach to personalised learning followed the emergence of the term (as we know it now) in the UK in 2004. The move beyond uniform, mass provision of education can therefore be seen in a wider sense as "personalisation" of consumerism (entertainment and advertising in particular) and of public services more widely.

Noted UK educationalist David Hargreaves acknowledged this in 2004 by observing that "customisation in business is where goods or services are tailor-made, in contrast to the mass production of good or services. Mass customisation means providing goods or services at the prices of mass production. Personalised learning is an educational version of this, and means meeting the needs of every learner more fully than we have in the past."

His vision was still somewhat controversial some years on.

So where we did (and do) have individualisation of education—providing (essentially) the same objects for all learners, the trend to personalisation—is predicated on providing differing objects for all learners. ‘If I can have a mass production car built to my specification, why can my child not have a mass production education built to his?’

Personalisation in the business world is about creating the illusion of individuality for the consumer while giving the producer the advantages of mass production. Personalisation in education, though, means pupils get what they need, not what they want. It is not the pupil's decision, but someone else’s.

Ninja Google Masters such as yourselves will quickly find a range of approaches to personalisation that rise out of the work of practitioners such as Benjamin Bloom (Mastery Learning) and Howard Gardner (Multiple Intelligences). Additionally, there is the ongoing debate that has been happening since the 1980s around the benefits of mixed ability teaching morphing into a range of 1990s differentiation approaches. While all of these still play their part in classrooms around New Zealand (and the world) every day, in the 2010s it is the inexorable rise of digital technologies such as that is playing a pivotal role in enabling this new degree of personalisation to occur.

Broader tools

Broader tools that fit into this category include:

  • Learning Management Systems—delivering what your student needs/wants in terms of curriculum material provides flexibility in curriculum delivery timing but is it personalised?
  • ePortfolios—"a record of the best work that I have produced over time and that I can take with me as I transition from one education organisation to another. In New Zealand this usually means Mahara (or the version supported by the Ministry of Education, MyPortfolio) and often supported by the work of people like Dr Helen Barrett
  • Personal computing devices—the BYOD-mania / 1-to-1 computing trend that is sweeping the world (or parts of it).

At the leading edge of larger online systems (past that usually seen in New Zealand), there are the types of larger “personalised”, adaptive, learning systems from vendors such as Pearson or McGraw Hill (Learn Smart). These are like LMSes-on-steroids and have the capital, and are designed to deliver at scale (i.e. to cohorts of schools and students in excess of most schools in the New Zealand system).


As noted above, the trend is to no longer have a one-size-fits-all approach—the classroom is going mobile. These trends will only increase as broadband and wireless speeds increase, and as student initiated learning and pathways become more commonplace. Education will be the great differentiator of the 21st century, and New Zealand schools will need to continue to lift their game in the face of a series of global challenges.

How this will play out in a post-global financial crisis and a more Asia-centric world will be interesting to watch unfold.

What are your views?