The importance of the individual – now, more than ever

by Tim Oates, 18 March 2021
student writing sums on a white board closely observed by their teacher

One area of great rhetoric in education surrounds ‘individualised’ or ‘personalised’ learning. These terms are often used interchangeably, which may or may not be appropriate depending on the intentions of the author. Of greater importance is what it translates into from the perspective of individual students. 

When a new approach is considered, the intention should always be to yield demonstrably higher standards, better equity and better life chances for pupils.

Many different approaches to educating children have been tried, abandoned, refined and adopted around the world throughout history. When a new approach is considered, the intention should always be to yield demonstrably higher standards, better equity and better life chances for pupils. Some approaches work, some don’t – we must discriminate between them and understand why that is the case. However, the current pandemic has thrown teachers and schools into an unprecedented situation, where many approaches to learning have, understandably, had to be constructed on the hoof. The collective response of the teaching profession has been monumental and will have served a great many students as well as could have been hoped in the circumstances. However, we do need to be careful about some processes – particularly some justified on the grounds of offering  ‘individualised learning’. Not all approaches carrying this label serve pupils well. 

Many heads and principals – who have scrutinised the data from mock exams and traced the attainment of their pupils – have commented publicly over recent months that the impact of coronavirus has been highly individualised. Regional infection rates and allocation to coronavirus tiers has had an impact, of course; but the variation between individuals’ responses dominates the narrative from schools. The approaches of different schools to remote learning have been different, the home environment of pupils has varied, and the extraction from school and normal social learning has allowed individual preference to emerge strongly. So we know that the impact of COVID-19 is individualised – some young people have flourished under the conditions and learning approaches which have been put in place, others have been severely adversely affected, others have simply followed their interests. 

Simply following flightpaths can fail students

If the impact of COVID-19 on learning is genuinely very individual – and all the signs are that it is – then we need to put aside such defective approaches and really get to grips with supporting each and every young person.

Work conducted by Cambridge Assessment before COVID-19 showed that some approaches to individualised learning in secondary schools were highly dependent on tracking systems, many of which used a ‘flightpath’ concept to give early prediction of GCSE grades, based on Key Stage 2 outcomes. In some cases, these data gave rise to subtle or overt negative learning identities in young people, and led schools to limit access to challenging, higher-level materials for some pupils. In effect, these approaches all too readily ‘locked in low expectations’, and over-defined individuals by their prior attainment. Rather than seeing the Key Stage 2 data as a complex combination of ability and school performance, schools using these systems could lapse into purely defining an individual pupil’s potential in terms of these scores. Although used in the name of ‘individualised learning’, these systems and practices are anything but. If a child is wrongly allocated to lower tier mathematics, they won’t know what they are missing and won’t strive to understand more challenging mathematical problems. Some might experience a ceiling effect and show they are misclassified. Others may just downgrade their personal aspirations, succumb to ‘I am not very good at maths’ and from this, poor prior attainment turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If the impact of COVID-19 on learning is genuinely very individual – and all the signs are that it is – then we need to put aside such defective approaches and really get to grips with supporting each and every young person.

Much more so now; while we need to focus on the gaps in subject learning, we need also to attend to the decay and shifts in learning habits at an individual level.

Reports show that young people have been affected by ‘lost learning’ in respect of subject discipline content – for example, grammar in modern foreign language seems to have held up well, vocabulary development has not. But alongside this, there also has been a loss of learning habits – of patterns of study, of reading, of enquiry and questioning. This double-edged loss is very serious. Ruth Deakin-Crick’s excellent work on ‘learning dispositions’ shows that learning habits affect attainment and need attention in education in normal times to maximise attainment and equity. Much more so now; while we need to focus on the gaps in subject learning, we need also to attend to the decay and shifts in learning habits at an individual level. As pupils returned to schools and colleges in the UK in September 2020, we found lots of excellent examples of teachers who did exactly this, having individual sessions to understand the circumstances of each pupil and re-integrate them back into the school and the new patterns of working. They have used a combination of de-briefing, tutoring, additional support, group work and formal assessment to understand each pupil as an individual, to both identify and remedy significant gaps and bring each back to the intensity of learning and learning habits which are required.

Implications for selection and admission processes

We believe that for the COVID-19 affected cohorts, true individualisation also needs to extend to selection and admission processes for post-16 programmes and Higher Education. It’s my view that institutions that choose to use a broad range of information about individual students in their admissions decisions this year, alongside grades, will more likely get the right people to the right places. Turning the spotlight on myself briefly, I was terrible during my middle years at school, suffering from the early death of a parent and the absence of my siblings to university and the labour market. I excelled in some subjects and tanked in others. The same weird profile we are seeing emerge under COVID-19. The sort of grade profile that an admissions process could consign to ‘reject’. But the school had trust in me since it spent time understanding me. They had a sixth form, and in controlling admissions, they opened the door – and from day one I excelled in post-16 study. Individualisation matters. Now, more than ever. 

Part of a wider debate

21-03-18 - principles diagram - image

Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press have recently developed a set of outline principles  that we believe will help all those interested in continuing the debate around teaching, learning and assessment. You can read more about these principles and our thinking, but two are worth highlighting now (see the diagram above). Firstly, that effective learning should be built on variety, using a well-managed mix of adaptable approaches and modes. And secondly that evidence and cognitive science should inform teacher practices. I believe it is only by applying these principles and by devoting time to understanding and supporting each individual, that we can best serve all learners.

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