Personalised learning has been hailed as a way of helping all children reach similar levels of attainment. With much still to be learned about how teachers might individualise instruction, could studying family life provide some new insights?
Writing in the Nature partner journal Science of Learning, researchers Sophie von Stumm and Jasmin Wertz recently suggested that studying how parents tailor family life to their children’s personalities, abilities, and needs might yield valuable insights – with benefits for the classroom and beyond.
Within-family studies explore family dynamics by gathering data from at least one parent and two or more of their children. This type of study has been widely used in other contexts, such as investigating how the influence of mothers’ genes might affect their parenting styles, but not yet to improve our understanding of personalised learning.
“We believe that within-family studies can help us understand the factors that help and hinder personalising education, such as the availability of learning resources or the traits of the instructor.”
“We believe that within-family studies can help us understand the factors that help and hinder personalising education, such as the availability of learning resources or the traits of the instructor,” explains Sophie von Stumm, Professor of Psychology in Education at the University of York.
“Although the situation in a classroom is completely different to the one within a family, the principles underlying personalised learning are the same and apply to teachers as much as to parents.”
Personalised learning first happens at home, point out von Stumm and Wertz. Here, parents may alter their own behaviour and the home environment to better suit their child’s needs and interests. The parent of a child who loves reading may be more likely to enrol at the local library, for example.
The researchers believe that within-family studies could help reveal:
- how the interplay between a child’s characteristics and the learning environment (including teaching style and available resources) influences learning outcomes;
- how the learning environment and teachers’ characteristics (including teaching style, experience, and attitudes) affect the process of personalising learning; and
- whether personalised learning could help reduce the academic achievement gap.
Within-family studies offer a powerful way of gathering and analysing data. They may also be easier to carry out than school-based studies.
“Within-family studies offer a powerful way of gathering and analysing data.”
The authors plan to use this approach in their own research. They want to look at the extent to which two siblings differ in their resemblance to their parents with respect to a learning-related trait. They will then test whether the degree of “matching” between parent and child predicts learning outcomes.
“It is plausible, for example, that the sibling whose intelligence is more similar to that of the mother will do better in school than the sibling whose intelligence is more different to the mother’s,” says von Stumm. “We speculate that the mother might find it easier to create a learning environment that benefits the child who is more like her, but this will be a fascinating topic to explore.”
By comparing different families, the researchers could then look for an “optimal” match between a child’s abilities and those of the parents. In translating findings to the classroom, the focus will be on matching the characteristics of the learner with the instruction provided, including its pace, style, and complexity.