Personalising Through Self Managed Learning

(Published in ‘Emotional Literacy Update’ – 2004. The article is dated now but it shows some of our work at that time.)

Ian Cunningham is a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Educational Innovation at the University of Sussex. He is also a Visiting Professor in the International Centre for Learner Managed Learning (based at Middlesex University) and he chairs both the not-for-profit Centre for Self Managed Learning (www.selfmanagedlearning.org) and the consultancy Strategic Developments International Ltd (www.stratdevint.com).

Personalising through Self Managed Learning

The Government has started to get keen on the idea of personalisation. Our interpretation of that concept includes the notion that you treat young people as persons and that they are given freedom to plan and carry out their own learning. (My colleague Michael Fielding wrote about the person-centred approach in the May 2004 edition of Emotional Literacy Update and this piece is about an example of a practical application of these ideals).

In the Centre for Self Managed Learning we have developed the Self Managed Learning approach to personalisation. This approach has been used for over 25 years with adults but only recently with school age students. In essence we have created processes which allow young people to create their own learning programmes. We start with the view that for people to develop as autonomous human beings, who can lead a good life in the world that they live in, they need to be given the chance to create their own educational practice with the support, but not control, of adults.

This means that Self Managed Learning programmes have no imposed subject-based curricula or learning goals. We work with young people to help them to realise their own life and career goals.

To give an example of the range of our work, in the summer term of 2004 we had four programmes running. One was for year 7’s in one school; one for year 10’s in another school; one for 10-12 year olds in Lewes (where all, except one person, do not go to school – the ‘one’ is on flexi-schooling) and one programme for 14-16 year olds in Brighton (with only one student on the roll of a school, though he never attends the school).

The Self Managed Learning approach is based on the notion that we need to provide an appropriate structure to give real freedom to students. Just to say to young people; ‘take charge of your own learning and do your own thing’ does not provide the support that young people need to work out what they want to do and how they will achieve their goals in life. We therefore ask students to attend a learning group consisting of up to six students with an adult as ‘learning group adviser’. For the school based programmes students attended for just under two hours every three weeks – that is they came out of lessons for this time. For the programmes not based in schools the learning groups met for a whole morning every two weeks.

In the learning group each student has time to talk about what they want. They are able to ask for help with their learning, report on work done, get support with future plans and so on. The agenda is led by the students around what is important to them. Sometimes the group is involved in planning joint activity. An example is where groups have gone on visits that they have wanted to have arranged for them. For instance the Lewes group visited a local vet as most were interested in animals and one student was thinking about becoming a vet. The Brighton group had interests in the history of World Wars and in machinery so visited the Imperial War Museum.

In addition to the learning group, students develop a learning agreement which provides a written document that indicates what the student wants to learn and how they intend to learn it. For younger students these learning agreements tend to be more short term whereas older students develop longer term goals around the kind of life they want to have and the career that might go with that.

Note that the goal setting is not at all like the kind of target setting known in many schools. Firstly the students have total freedom to negotiate what they want to do and how they want to do it. Secondly the goals are not usually about exam passing but about life and career issues that relate to the wishes of each individual student. Thirdly the learning agreements are negotiated with the learning group and agreed in the group – they are not driven by the needs of adults. The learning group adviser is there to assist the group to function not to dictate to it.

In helping students to work out what they want to learn we have to start with values and emotions. Choices that students make are based on what is important to them (what they value) and how they feel about their experiences of learning so far. With students who are out of school many of them approach the idea of organised learning with some trepidation. In the older group in Brighton we have had two students who were statemented in school and who were labelled as poor learners. This label is grossly unhelpful and undermined their self esteem.

Two cases

John came to us unable to write anything more than his name and finding talking in the group difficult. (Because of his writing difficulties he had to dictate his learning agreement to me while I typed it up on the computer.) He stayed with us for five terms and has now gone to a further education college. He left with a range of real abilities that he will be able to use in his future life. He now talks well with adults and with his peers and is much more self confidant than when he joined us. He is amazingly talented with anything mechanical – as a fifteen year old he was able to take apart car engines, repair them and put them back together; he helped to build a jeep and he now works in the pits at banger car races.

John was deeply unhappy at school but went under sufferance even though he was learning very little – except that he was a person of little value in the educational system. Now he can work effectively with others (he works on a local fair at times both on the hoopla stall and in dismantling the fair ground equipment). He, and all his colleagues in the group, have not been in a classroom since they started the programme. They learn through a whole range of approaches that suit their needs. John has been improving his English and can now read reasonably well and write enough to get by. One of the things we do is to work with parents so that they can provide the support needed outside the group. For instance, in John’s case his mother has helped him with a literacy programme.

Michael has been in the same group as John and he is also going to college now. However he is quite a different personality. He was bullied at school and found the whole experience very emotionally difficult. He is a talented artist and musician and he also (unlike his learning group colleagues) took four GCSE’s in the summer. Although he is going to art college he could not take art GCSE as he could not get coursework assessed. However he used the National Extension College distance learning material to take maths, English, biology and psychology GCSE’s. When he joined us in 2002 he was deeply phobic about most of the traditional educational subjects taught in school, especially maths. Yet by the summer of 2004 he breezed through his exams in an amazingly relaxed way (including the maths).

During his two years with us he went through some particularly traumatic events in his personal life, including the death of a friend. As he said at the end of the programme, ‘I’m not sure if I would have survived without the group - having a place where you can talk about and get help with just about anything was essential for me’. Certainly in the early days of the group we had to pay particular attention to his severely depressed state and to support him through that. It was also important that we did not pressure him to pay attention to his academic learning. We had faith that he would come to that in his own good time – and he did.

When he went for interview at the college, they were so impressed with his portfolio of work and his self confidence that they immediately offered him a place (despite his lack of an art GCSE). His interviewer commented that Michael’s experience on a Self Managed Learning programme would undoubtedly help him to make a smooth transition to college life as he had already learned to be self disciplined and self motivated.

The programmes in schools

The programmes in schools operate with the same person-centred ideals but the arrangements in schools have required some differences in the way we have had to work. Both schools asked us to help with students identified as gifted and talented. We ran two learning groups of year 7’s and three with year 10’s from the end of February to the end of June 2004.

The programmes in each school were started with an explanation to potential participants of how Self Managed Learning works, followed by a short demonstration. Parents were then invited in and joined in discussions about what was being offered. In both schools most of the potential students did decide to join the programme, though it was clearly optional.

At the end of both programmes the students presented what they had done and what they had learned to an invited audience that included teachers, other students and parents. The following is a handout produced by a year 7 group.


  1. Before the first meeting, thought about questions on what we are good at, less good at; like, don’t like; things that make us happy and what is important to us.
  2. Got to know one another by telling of our past learning experiences and the answers we gave to the questions above.
  3. Agreed the ground rules for how we would work as a learning group.
  4. Identified goals (things we wanted to work on) both for the future and between February and the end of June.
  5. Talked in group about how we would go about those goals.
  6. Worked on the goals between group meetings (or failed to work on them).
  7. At each learning group meeting we talked through how we were progressing or where we were stuck.
  8. Sometimes, through discussions in the group, we changed our goals, or added new ones.
  9. At our last meeting we checked where we had got with our goals.”

Some comments made by year ten groups on the value of the programme included the following:

“The programme has helped us to:

  • Think about our future – makes you think more seriously about your goals
  • Explore options for further education
  • Explore career paths
  • Learn from each other and help each other
  • Develop our independence
  • Take more actions towards our future – hearing others achievements motivates you into realising your own goals
  • Have a regular meeting with students and learning group advisers to get resources and contacts to help with present problems
  • Think about our priorities/assets/strengths/weaknesses
  • Take time out to reflect on what is happening
  • Have fun”

One group came up with a group motto – namely:

“Using each other to realise our goals”


The Self Managed Learning approach provides a framework for personalisation of learning. It does so by making decisions about what to learn and how to learn it a matter of choice for each learner. However it also locates these choices in the context of a social setting that helps people work together productively and which avoids a purely solipsistic individualism. Along with whatever they take as the focus of their interest students are also developing the ability to be active learners - which is as personal as it gets.

Ian Cunningham, 2004