A Look at Personalized Learning in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

[Pictured from left to right: AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech; AASA Past President Amy Sichel; Dochgarroch Primary School Head Teacher and Principal Sandra MacLennan; and AASA President Gail Pletnick.]

A visit to Dochgarroch Primary School in Inverness, Scotland was a true lesson in personalizing learning. Sandra MacLennan, the head teacher and principal, arranged an extraordinary visit that included a tour of the entire facility and visits to a music class, preschool and regular classroom.

During the music class, we were treated to children performing piano, violin, trumpet and chanter solos. We learned that the chanter was the “training” instrument for bagpipes. That was followed by children sharing traditional Scottish songs and dance. The students were kind enough to give their American visitors a dancing lesson. I am not certain one lesson was enough. In the regular classrooms, we saw children typing in Braille, others on a computer doing a lesson, a story time and a pre-school class having snack.

You may be asking why any of this is special or how it relates to personalized learning? Well, this school has a total of 19 children ranging in age from 4 to 12 and includes special needs students. These children are served in two classrooms by one classroom teacher, one head teacher, a few support personnel and two special area teachers who rotate between schools in the region. The interests and needs of each child are being met in this unique learning environment.

This government school not only builds on their students’ passions and strengths but are equally dedicated to ensuring the child’s academic needs are met, including filling what is referred to as the attainment gap. In fact, the government has provided 1,800 pounds per student or approximately $2,300 per student to provide support to students who need that extra help. The student’s free meal status is used to help determine the funding received. Yes, this does sound familiar to Title 1 in some ways. Where it differs is the flexibility in how the funds can be used. The head teacher and parents work together to determine how best to fill the gap.

The take away from this visit is, whether schools are large or very small, located in the highlands of Scotland, the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz. or outside Philadelphia, Pa., meeting the needs of every child must be the goal. Personalizing a child’s education ensures we tap their passions, build on their strengths and focus on their weaknesses.

Gail Pletnick is the superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Ariz., and the 2017-18 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She is participating in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.

The AASA International Seminar Takes Us to Scotland

A guest post by AASA Past President Amy Sichel

AASA Past President Amy Sichel and AASA 2017-18 President Gail Pletnick.

Traveling to Scotland has been eye opening. The scenery and castles are beautiful.

Equally impressive is the thriving, government funded, education system where 95 percent of students attend public schools. The country claims to have achievement results that surpass Finland!

In the Highland area, schools are small and offer pre-K to secondary, the equivalent of our high school. Countrywide, class size (student-teacher) ratios are about 15-to-1 in primary and drop to 12-to-1 at the secondary level, the equivalent of our high school.

Scotland has a national system controlled by its Parliament and government oversight, much like we do with standards for the 21st century, with a focus on literacy, numeration, the arts and problem solving.

Scotland’s standards for excellence sound like those we have in the U.S. The list below outlines objectives which are very similar to ours:

  • Progression in learning and evaluating achievement, ages 3-18
  • Supporting improvement
  • Literacy and numeracy including Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN)
  • Career long professional learning
  • Support for engaging parents and caretakers
  • Senior phase pathways
  • Employability and skills (DYW)
  • Using data to support improvement
  • Tackling bureaucracy
  • Supporting the new national qualifications

There is a focus on leveling the playing field which the Scots call reducing the attainment gap, similar to our achievement gap.

The sequence of education continues through ages 16 to 18, where the focus is on school to work, entitled a “pathway”. How similar is that to what many of us are working to accomplish in our high schools? They are focused on “meeting the needs of all learners” as we work to meet the needs of “each learner”.

During what the Scots term the senior phase, they focus on service to others, and health and wellness, much like our profile of the graduate. This ensures addressing the knowledge, skills and dispositions that prepare students for the 21st century world of work and life. The Scots have an online tool which benchmarks the outcomes of the students called Benchmarking for Excellence.

We look forward to our school visits in the days to come.


Amy Sichel is the superintendent of the Abington School District in Abington, Pa. She also served as the 2013-14 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.