One Size Doesn't Fit All - Personalising Education

By Dr Philip SA Cummins

Perhaps the challenge with compliance and conformity in education comes with thinking about it from the wrong perspective. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves if we are authentic servants of the needs of those in our care.

The individual at the core

We are part of an education system that is undergoing a transformation in the way it approaches the identity of the students and the expectations that flow from this. It is no longer enough for students to be educated just like everyone else. More and more, it seems, we are encouraging, even demanding, our educators to provide individualised approaches for students.

Our curriculum is undergoing a similar set of changes. We no longer simply expect all students to emerge from their compulsory schooling with a set of data that they have assimilated and can replicate. We now teach for understanding and meaning, with a focus on higher-order skills of evaluation, synthesis and decision-making.

We expect our students to solve the problems of the future and with this comes an assumption that they will think differently and therefore be different to everyone else. We have moved beyond the era of conformity and have embraced a culture where it is individual capacity, moderated by team functionality and performance, that dominates our agendas.

So do we want compliant children? Do we want conforming adults?

The expectation of negotiation

The temptation is to draw on the iconography of rugged individualism and dismiss these notions out of hand. The romantic allure of the pioneering spirit is too attractive, reinforced as it is by so much of both our high and popular culture.

Yet it's not that simple. While we want our citizens to be strikingly competent problem-solvers, we also know that if they cannot work together, their efforts will be dissipated. We know that humans are, by nature, inherently collective in their habits. Yet at the same time, collaboration does not come easily.

The problem is that people resist easy definition and categorisation. At different times and in different ways, we need tools that enable us to be ourselves, be part of the group, more or less and in varying degrees and shades of meaning.

We know that we need children to grow into their adulthood with the capacity to balance both the need to be themselves with the need to fit in. At the same time, we cannot help but feel that for our child or our student, things are different.

As a parent and an educator, I ask these questions about my children and my students all the time:

  • Do I want them to be the same as everyone else?
  • Do I want them to have the same opportunities?
  • Do I want them to fit in?
  • How different are they?
  • Do I want them to feel special?
  • How might the education process harness their unique talents and gifts?
  • Are they actually unique or is that just my wishful thinking?

The servant heart of a personalised approach

The answers, I think, lie in thinking about the process from the inside out and by encouraging people to grow in their wisdom by asking questions like these:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I fit in?
  • How can I best serve others?

In other words, if we personalise what we do in education, if we strive to place the individual at the core of all that we do, moderated by an expectation of negotiation of identity, place and role within group parameters, we start to see the shape of the problem differently.

We want students who are poised, who make good choices and wise decisions. Some of these will involve expressing their own sense of self bravely, while at other times they will fit into their team roles happily and naturally.

We need educational structures and programs that can achieve this goal. Instead of asking students to do what everyone else does and to justify why their "treatment" should differ, we need to ask of ourselves whether or not what we do is actually meeting their needs adequately. If not, how might we adjust the experience to meet their needs? This is the servant heart of a personalised approach to education.

We then need to ask ourselves if we are prepared to use this same servanthood and do these things for the adults in our educational systems as well.