Peer Teaching as a powerful driver of Personalisation

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For ten years I was experimenting with ways to personalise the classroom. I built differentiation into every lesson, audited the types of learning challenges on offer so that we ensured a broad balance, used assessment for learning to make sure parents and students knew exactly what was required and gave learners choices wherever possible.

Whilst this work did succeed in doubling the examination results it was still, if I’m honest, the same model of teacher led learning and didn’t really address the fundamental ingredient of truly personalised learning , namely the ability of students to make informed choices about how to set their own learning challenges and then achieve them. What I needed was a way to deliver the huge amount of content in the curriculum whist at the same time providing students with daily challenges that allowed them to progress all of the skills required for learning. I call these the SECRET skills being Self-Management, Effective Participation, Creative thinking, Reflective Learning, Enquiry and Teamwork.

My first aha moment was… the act of teaching provides the opportunity to develop all of the SECRET skills. If I could get the students to do the teaching then not only would they give access to the content for the whole class but they would have to engage with HOW to teach it as well. This should result in students delivering lessons in ways that I would never have thought of, thus not only allowing them to explore the content in a personalised way but also present learning from a range of viewpoints.

The next aha moment was… computers connected to the internet can allow infinitely more variations than any other resource. OK, so it’s a bit obvious now but back in the year 2000 when I set up one of the first one to one laptop schemes using the brand new idea of wireless connection to the internet, and then used it to give students teacher training, it was new. The computers I used were about ten times less capable than an average smart phone today and the weight of a few house bricks but my reason for choosing them was not the technology but the access to diverse resources the internet provided.

Within four years the school had risen to within the top 20 state schools in the UK in terms of value added examination achievement and we were tracking progress in both subject content and the SECRET skills. All the lessons were designed and provided by the students for their first two years in the project. Students worked in teams of three and four. Each member of the team was responsible for a learning objective in their lesson. Their task was solely to prove most of the class had achieved their objective. How they approached the task was entirely up to the team of students delivering the particular lesson.

In 2004 I took what I had learned to multiple schools and found the same pattern. If the school started by empowering the students first and then followed with technology to support this, personalisation really took hold but if they led with technology and trying to empower the teachers first then personalisation could only progress to the ceiling I had encountered back in 2000.

Remarkably, thirteen years after I set up this one to one scheme very few schools have managed to provide one device per learner and even fewer have developed learning choices as a standard part of any learning experience. This has caused me to rethink where I need to invest my energy for the next five years. Back in 2000 I honestly believed that one to one permanent access to the internet for learning would be universal by 2010. Now I believe it may be as late as 2030 because even though almost a third of students have access already via their phone and over 15 million have access to their own laptop for learning, the predominant school system moves slower than a turning oil tanker in terms of placing SECRET skills centre stage and recognising their importance.

Peer teaching and peer assessment by students definitely are powerful tools in the process of personalisation and when combined with permanent personal access to the internet for every learner the step change becomes possible. The added advantage of the peer teaching model is that it can be used as a personalisation strategy even in schools being controlled by standardised hand written examinations and huge mountains of largely irrelevant content. Content that the students already know is much easier to find on Bing.

As a scientist and educational leader, the next challenge for me is to once again repeat the process in full and achieve the same results! Every school has its unique strengths and ethos so there is no single answer or solution that universally works. I offer a challenge that comes from simple logic. If we expect the teacher to do the personalising (this is sometimes called tailoring or individualised learning) then they are a human being with their own ways of looking at the world so they are unlikely to come up with more than four unique personalisation routes for every lesson. If the learners are empowered to make choices, however, and are involved in the design of their own learning then the classroom changes from 1 teacher to 31 teachers. This is called student centred personalisation and can only occur if we concentrate on systematically building and valuing the underlying skills of learning.

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