Open Thinkering


Schools and the Procrustean Bed: are we really ‘personalising’ learning?

‘There is something about the Procrustean bed about schools; some children are left disabled by being hacked about to fit the curriculum; some are stretched to take up the available space, others less malleable are labeled as having special educational needs.’ (C. Bowring-Carr and J. Burnham West)

Procrustean BedI mentioned the above quotation in a blog post way back in 2006. I was concerned then about the various ‘agendas’ in education, and that’s even more the case today. The ‘personalising learning’ agenda is supposed to be about tailoring educational experiences to each and every child yet, in 2009, we still have classes of 30 or more children with one teacher standing in front of them. The focus seems to have moved onto technology as some type of ‘saviour’. In that respect, it’s sad to see Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), compulsory in English schools since the beginning of this academic year, being used simply as file repositories.

Whilst some schools may talk about ‘appropriate’ or ‘accelerated’ entry, it’s difficult to see how this is in the best interests of students. In most cases it’s a strategy for schools to squeeze as many exam passes from their students as possible: whilst those studying the highest level of exams have extra lessons in those subjects, those at the other end of the spectrum are re-taking basic examinations until they pass them. It’s hard to see how this completely examination-focused approach is ‘personalisation’ in any important, meaningful sense.

What is needed is a complete rethink – of the curriculum (based on competencies?), of learning spaces (like any of these Futurelab suggestions?), of the structure of the school day, of staff/students ratios and relationships, of the nature of ‘schooling’ and education in the 21st century.

What do YOU think? Is ‘personalisation’ working in YOUR school?

(image taken from this university course page – assumed fair use)

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5 thoughts on “Schools and the Procrustean Bed: are we really ‘personalising’ learning?

  1. It seems to me that, while you haven’t stated it in as many words, you share my concern that personalising learning seems to be more about tailoring each individual child to fit the curriculum, rather than vice versa. Your opening quote pretty much says that, at any rate.

    Having been one of those kids who was ill-suited to the traditional education model, I was labelled an under-achiever. I won’t hijack your space by describing some of the methods that were used to try to reshape me to fit the round hole, but they failed spectacularly and left me feeling scarred and inadequate into the bargain.

    I was identified as being a candidate for a school that was sometimes said to be for ‘gifted’ kids, but was just as often called a for misfits. The whole model was different and was designed to address each child’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. I wish I could tell you more about it, but even with the grant on offer, we couldn’t manage the fees associated with private education.

    Do you think that tutor-supported project based learning could be a way to go here?

  2. The time and effort that is required to set up and review a personalised learning strategy for each and every pupil in your class is simply unmanageable with class sizes of 30+.
    As each school year comes and goes, I keep getting the impression that instead of trying to improve the education system the government throws out work arounds and quick fixes at the same time as expecting better results.
    I work in Spain in a school that closely follows the National Curriculum and we have explored personalised learning as best we can. We have trialled it in classes rather than enforcing the measure throughout the school. I have been trialling it but even with a class of only 24 I still find it requires extra time outside of school to ensure it is working.

  3. I thought these thoughts might add something.
    I agree with you totally, there is something fatally flawed in the education system we have in England, the students have been forgotten as it has tried to become ‘corporate’.
    I remeber a few years back wen ‘multiple Intelligences’ were all the rage, and we had to look at cater for the ‘Intrapersonal learner’ as well as the ‘Spacial learner’ all this seems to have been swept aside to achieve the greatest nmber of exam passes, except when SMT want to find a stick to beat the classroom facilitators

  4. Came here because of your running interests, but this is fascinating.

    My friend is working on an innovative reimagining of American schooling. I think the trick to computerized learning is to accept what it’s good for and where it falls down.

    Computers might do a good job of cheaply delivering great education for different skill levels in many subjects – math, science, etc. They will never lead a classroom discussion about King Lear or help a kid figure out his future. Design workarounds for the gaps in computerized learning and current schools and you’ve got a winner.

    Great site – will pass on to my friend.

    1. Thanks Mike! Looking forward to Roadbud – have signed up to hear when it
      launches. :-)

      You’re absolutely right about the role of technology. The trouble is that it
      *does* change the role of the teacher. Some (most?) haven’t realised that

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