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UC researchers dispel myths around personalised learning to inspire our educators

Kelly White

22 November 2022: Dr Maya Gunawardena, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Canberra, wants to dispel the myths around personalised learning and highlight the benefits for teachers and students — a system that encourages a love for learning and overcomes the challenges of teaching to a classroom of varying abilities.

Personalised learning means tailoring learning for each student's strengths, needs, and interests, and provides students with choice, voice and flexibility in reaching desirable learning outcomes. It’s an approach that’s already been adopted in parts of the United States and is currently being explored in the United Kingdom, Finland and New Zealand.

School systems across Australia are increasingly recognising that education must utilise the strengths and interests of each child.

While the Australian Curriculum allows the flexibility for teachers to adopt a personalised system of instruction, there remains much hesitancy, as well as misunderstanding of the model and what it entails.

In an article published in The Conversation this week, Dr Gunawardena discusses the early results of research into the barriers for Australian educators in adopting this new method of learning.

“Our research project, funded by the ACT Education Directorate, is exploring these questions in ACT schools. Initial findings shed light on the challenges teachers face in the early stages of applying a personalised learning approach,” Dr Gunawardena said.

“We have found that a lack of conceptual understanding and strategies for personalised learning; optimism or pessimism; a lack of trust that it works; risk aversion; and the fear of failure are reasons why personalised learning is a difficult construct for ACT school leaders and teachers.”

Personalised learning encompasses a range of approaches, providing educators with the ability to creatively deliver on the curriculum as experts in pedagogy (while still retaining a few key pillars).

For one, personalised learning follows the student across their educational journey.

Personalised learning portfolios are used to gather data about students’ strengths, needs, passions, interests, and identities. This enables the design of desirable and flexible learning targets using approaches such as inquiry learning, problem-based learning, and student-led community-based learning projects.

A little over a year ago, Dr Gunawardena reached out to University of Maine College of Education and Human Development Dean Penny Bishop, co-author of Personalized Learning in the Middle Grades, to initiate an international collaboration.

Dr Gunawardena then travelled to the U.S. as a visiting scholar at the University of Vermont and of Maine, where she worked with Professor Bishop and the schools mentioned in the book.

Here, she saw successful personalised learning in practice and spoke to students about their education.

“I talked to a group of students about what they think of this way of learning. They told me ‘This is awesome!’” she said.

“The focus is on skills such as critical thinking, collaborative learning, communication, cultural understanding, and social action. For example, in one high school I visited, children worked with local farmers to help them resolve food waste issues, with teachers providing necessary guidance.”

“They appreciate the pace of the learning. They know what they need to do, because they take ownership of the work.”

Dr Gunawardena appreciates the complexity of the system, and how daunting it can be for educators to take on, but having witnessed the engagement and love of learning that it inspires, she’s eager to define the bounds of the practice to make it more manageable for educators.

“Personalised learning is not a magic wand, but it is one of the best ways to prepare our young people to face the demands of the unimagined future, as it focuses on the individual, collaborative learning and self-regulation,” Dr Gunawardena said.

“There’s growing interest in student-centered, student-driven learning among educators. There is no one way to approach personalised learning. Through our research, we’re looking to provide more structure around the concept.”

Dr Gunawardena and her team are looking for more ACT schools to join their research. For more information contact