Not another brick in the wall…

hatIt’s definitely September, feeling Autumnal and the new school year is under way. Across the country children and teachers are saying goodbye to summer and nervously beginning the term ahead.

Ten years ago this week, I was preparing for my first day with TeachFirst, entering a secondary school as a teacher for the first time. I was terrified. I only lasted two years as a teacher, and they remain the hardest two years of my career so far. One of the things that was apparent to me in that short period of time was that the best teachers never appeared to teach the same lesson twice. They were able to make each lesson personalised to the class and often the individual student by adapting what they did to reflect the existing skills, knowledge and learning style of each class, or each learner.

At a high level, personalisation of learning requires (i) detailed information about the learner – what do they already know and understand, how do they best learn; (ii) knowledge of the best methods for linking new educational content to a learner’s existing understanding; and (iii) sufficient time spent with the learner to apply (i) and (ii). Achieving this is extremely hard, especially for time poor, overstretched teachers in the UK state sector.

I regret that in my brief teaching career I never managed to deliver that level of personalisation; it remained a mysterious art practiced only by passionate educationalists with 10, 20, 30 years experience. The lack of personalisation in the school classroom is now driving a boom in private tutoring for the children of families who can afford it, growing further the gap in educational attainment between the wealthiest and poorest children in the UK.

This autumn term, rather than teaching I find myself looking at investment opportunities in educational technology.  It appears to me that technology may be beginning to offer personalisation of learning in an accessible, affordable and inherently scalable way. So called “adaptive learning” technologies appear to codify and automate that mysterious art of personalisation I observed ten years ago. Ventures like Knewton, Smart Sparrow, Sherston and the Open Learning Initiative have adaptive technologies that enable learners to receive content that is selected according to their learning needs, and educational content publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill are rapidly deploying their learning content through adaptive platforms. Whilst currently more prevalent in the US and in higher education, it can’t be long before these technologies hit the classrooms of the UK.

But really effective personalisation relies on having detailed information about the learner, and I’m not sure any of the tools out there yet have built rich enough data sets to do that, sitting as they appear to, as isolated systems. In other domains, from financial services, relationships, shopping, and increasingly health, organisations are working out how to capture and integrate data about users from multiple sources – who I am, my actions, behaviours and preferences  - and use that to serve up offers that appeal to me, or to influence my decisions and behaviours.

I think adaptive learning technology could play a major part in bringing personalised learning to all school students, but I’d like to see more attention paid to making sure teachers and technologists have really great data on what learners know and how they best learn.


By Joe Ludlow - Director, Nesta Impact Investments