Sunday, 28 August 2011

From the Tobacco Tin to Personalised Learning Environments

It is hard to believe but the first personalized learning environment that many of our older generation experienced came courtesy of a tobacco tin. Most children, back then there were no students, carried a tobacco tin filled with their sight words. These were written by the teacher for each child. They included the twenty basic sight words, the child’s name, their family, friends and favourite things. Children practiced these words, created sentences and copied them into their exercise books.

An early educator in New Zealand, Sylvia Ashton-Warner championed the rights of the child to have an education that was personalised for them as the learner. While teaching in Taranaki she recognized that Maori children failed to progress through the reading levels until she developed readers that related to their every day experiences. She believed that a child’s native imagery was the key to creating a powerful learning environment for that child. Without an understanding of the undermind of the child then education failed to meet the needs of the many, especially those who were not white, middle class, New Zealanders' of English descent.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner's story of the banana in the satchel is particularly relevant when considering personalising a students learning environment. When about to add a book to a satchel a student notices a banana lying at the bottom. The student can either remove the banana or stomp it down so that the book can be added. Too often, she lamented, education stomped on student’s prior knowledge until it was reduced to mush, then added what was considered important. Students’ experiences were considered irrelevant or a hindrance to the learning process.

The art of identifying and using students experiences can have powerful results. Dame Marie Clay’s work in the 1980’s focused on working with students strengths before adding new learning. The first task of reading recovery was to identify what a student knew. Armed with this knowledge the teacher spent the next three weeks consolidating the student’s prior knowledge and working only with what the student already knew. After this period students moved into developing new skills. With three weeks focused on what they could do as a reader the student’s approach was more likely to bring about success. Students often achieved in twelve weeks what had eluded them in twelve months, the ability to read at their chronological age.

When considering personalisation in this day and age educators must ensure that the starting point is not the capabilities of the technology but the experiences and the needs of the student.

Documentary: Sylvia Ashton-Warner