Personalising learning: A wicked challenge!

“Personalised learning” rolls off the tongue so easily. It doesn’t seem to be a particularly difficult idea or concept to grasp. In fact, I don’t imagine there would be one person involved in education as teacher, student, parent, bureaucrat or politician who wouldn’t agree that personalising learning is the perfect approach to education. How could anyone possibly argue with a move away from one-size-fits-all, to an education that is built around the needs, interests and desires of each learner when those needs take into account the kind of future they will face and the needs of society as a whole. Personalised learning is about the child as a unique individual in relation to/with the world. At least that is what I think.

In fact, recently, I heard our Prime Minister speaking about the need to provide an education that meets the needs of every student: “EVERY SINGLE STUDENT”, he said with emphasis. I totally agree. He could have been quoting me! But the question remains, if the person in New Zealand’s highest office sees the value of the personalised learning approach, why is it still done so little in New Zealand and across the whole world? The potential of technology to assist this kind of approach has long been touted. Well, we are there now - the capability and availability of technology has certainly been sufficiently realised - but schools are still not deeply personalising learning. While 21st century learning approaches, such as personalised learning, are being implemented in a limited way, in pockets, across New Zealand; in reality the concepts are little understood, and still to be fully implemented. Old, industrial age practices are proving hard to shift across the globe (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012; Leadbeater, 2006; Paludin, 2006) and the take-up of the new practices is slow. In July 2015, the Grattan Institute released a report which suggested that in order for students to reach their full potential, teaching must be “targeted to each student’s needs” (Goss & Hunter, p.1). In this report the writers suggested that despite the heroic efforts of many teachers, “our most advanced [students] are not adequately stretched, while our least advanced are not properly supported” (p.1). Pollard and James, as far back as 2004, suggested that, “…given the pressures, constraints, and expectations of the last decade, it will need considerable resolve to prevent discussion of Personalised Learning losing its focus on learners and learning and slipping back into over-simplified consideration of teaching provision and associated systems” (p. 5).

Opened in 2012 to be an innovative learning environment, we, at Amesbury School, have taken seriously our mandate to meet the needs of every student. We have developed systems, structures, processes and practices, including our own software, to “implement” personalised learning programmes and we have developed the openness, flexibility and responsiveness that is essential to continual school improvement. Yet, time and again, we find ourselves looking around to see where our journey has taken us, but, strangely, though we have definitely been travelling, it sometimes seems like we are still at the station. It is like Ground Hog Day, Fifty First Dates, or the novel The Magus by John Fowles. It often feels like we have ended up right back where we started.  I think we DO know how to personalise learning. But actually doing it seems to be a never-ending struggle. As a school, we are committed to equity and meeting the needs of every student. In fact, we write “EVERY” to continually remind ourselves of our moral obligation to “EVERY SINGLE STUDENT”. But in spite of all our hard work (and we have worked hard), our strong moral compass, and having many advantages as a new school, we are still struggling to consistently personalise learning across the whole school. I agree with Pollard and James (2004). Deep personalisation of learning is going to take considerable resolve. On my dark days, I look back to the simplicity of the industrial model of education – whole class teaching, the bell curve. But those practices were never acceptable, never humanising (see my article). There is no going back. We can only keep trying to move forward.

So, you can imagine my profound relief to discover that personalising learning has been identified as a wicked challenge. A big thanks to Guy Levi, Director of Innovation, Centre for Educational Technology (CET), in Tel Aviv for sending me a copy of his article “Students as Creators: Theory and Practice of Creativity Development”. In this article, he drew attention to the fact that the NMC/CoSN Horizon Report 2016 K-12 Edition identified the Achievement Gap and Personalised Learning as wicked challenges – “those that are complex to even define, much less address”. In fact, realisation of the size of the challenge has been developing over several years. In 2014, Personalised Learning was identified by the large panel of experts as a “solvable challenge” – “Those we understand and know how to solve”. In 2015, it was categorised as a “difficult challenge” – “Those that we understand but for which solutions are elusive” and in 2016, it was upscaled again to “wicked challenge” status. Wicked challenges are highly complex in nature, span multiple domains such as social, economic, political, legal and moral, often involve a range of entrenched interests, and when solutions are reached, these solutions often cause other problems (Bolstad et al., 2012). They are made more complex by the number of people and opinions involved and they cannot be solved using straightforward puzzle-solving or mathematical solutions. Back in 2012, Bolstad et al. wrote about the importance of 21st century learning (including personalised learning) in assisting students to develop the capacities to solve the world’s wicked problems. Now, those very educational approaches are being seen as wicked problems themselves.

No wonder we keep hitting brick walls. The barriers to personalising learning are endless walls that reach right back in history to views about children, and to now obsolete but still present approaches to education; and out across communities of people, who all have an opinion on educational approaches and express them freely; to interest groups who are looking to capitalise financially and in other ways from education, and often seem more interested in their own gains than engaging deeply with the needs of the education sector; to a government that is hedging its bets and implementing conflicting, competing and confusing education policy; to a sector that is unprepared for the changes it is facing and is receiving little support, let alone leadership, to assist in making those changes; to the binary thinking that is so entrenched in the education sector, rather than the post formal thinking that is essential to the kind of change that is needed (see my article); and to a workforce that is changing its expectations of work and life (see my article).

Perhaps the biggest barrier to personalised learning, that leaves the sector vulnerable and places a great deal of power in the hands of a range of vested interests, is that the field has not yet reached consensus on a definition. There is no shared understanding about exactly what deep personalisation of learning is. I was reading a white paperyesterday by educators with whom I imagine I have a great deal in common. Yet they said, “Current calls for “21st Century Skills” or “personalized,” [my italics] “flipped,” “blended” learning are not grounded deeply enough in what we believe is the most important shift of all: creating cultures in schools where both adults and children are seen as learners who have deep agency and ownership over the learning that they do” (Ricardson and Dixon, 2017). I agree with them about the most important shift of all. However, that shift is central to my definition of personalised learning – personalisation by the learner. With no shared understanding or language, we are talking across each other and disagreeing with each other even though we may actually be meaning the same thing, and, as a result, we are all doing our own thing. This is neither efficient nor likely to be effective, and it certainly leaves a great deal of space for entrenched interests to hold sway. Moving forward will require us to have a very robust national conversation to define personalised learning (or whatever we call the future-focused education that we want for our children) - one that involves all stakeholders who are willing to acknowledge and put aside their vested interests, including school and education leaders, unions, teachers, parents, students, the business sector and politicians. It will need to be an intelligent, knowledgeable, deliberative and informed conversation. Once that is done, we will be one step closer to developing the conditions that will enable us to scale change across the education sector.

This is a time when leadership IS needed in and to the sector – it cannot simply be left with each self-managing school to sort out. Individual schools, even Communities of Learning, simply do not have the capacity to battle the forces alone that make this challenge a wicked one. The Ministry has signalled a direction in the building of modern, open learning environments and a curriculum which has a progressive approach to education in its front end. However, leadership is needed to enable the sector to move to the next step of actually doing it, deeply. The question is – where will that leadership come from?

In the meantime, at Amesbury School, we will, like mime artists, keep feeling for the ends of the walls. We will keep exploring and developing our understanding of deep personalisation of learning and find ways to work around the many vested interests that have our education system in thrall. But it would all be so much better if we could just hang up our vests at the door, sit at the table and talk about a sustainable future for the education of our kids.


Bolstad, R., & Gilbert, J., with McDowall, S., Bull, A., Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future oriented learning and teaching - a New Zealand perspective.Wellington: Ministry of Education. Available at:

Goss, P., & Hunter, J. (2015). Targeted teaching: How better use of data can improve student learning.

Leadbeater, C. (2006). The future of public services. In: Personalising education.Paris, France: OECD/CERI Publications. Available at:

Murrihy, L. (2017). A sustainable Future in Education. Available at:

Murrihy, L. (2017). Transforming our schools: an argument for evolving our ability to think. Part 3: A sustainable Future for Education. Available at:

Murrihy, L. (2017). The paradox of being fully human in a technological world. Part 4: A sustainable future for education. Available at:

Paludan, J. (2006). Personalised learning 2025. In: Personalising education.  Paris, France: OECD/CERI Publications. Available at:

Pollard, A., & James, M. (Eds.). (2004). Personalised learning. United Kingdom: TLRP Policy Publications. Available at:

Richardson, W., & Dixon, B. (2017). 10 principles for schools of modern learning. A white paper.