Making PDP the central learning process by shifting to negotiated credits

Making Personal Development Planning (PDP) an integral part of the learning and teaching process seems to be a bit of a challenge. Put bluntly, students don’t see the point unless it is assessed and counts towards the degree/diploma.

While I can’t pretend to be particularly knowledgeable in the area, I keep hearing stories of all kinds of artificial constructs that make what should be a reflective dialogue with experts more like a course. The reason is simple: institutions are geared to deliver lectures, tutorials and mark assignments and exams. Any learning process or activity that doesn’t follow that pattern fits badly.

As my colleague Oleg asked, when are students supposed to actually do PDP- in the middle of a lecture?

Thinking back of my secondary school days, I realised that that was exactly what I did, almost every day. In my school, though we didn’t call it that, PDP was the central organising principle, not the subject course or lesson.

To be sure, my school was a rather unusual place, inspired by the pedagogical ideas of the early 20th Century Dutch educator, pacifist and Quaker Kees Boeke. At the school, there were no marks, just pass or no pass, with specific comments. There were very few ‘stand up and teach’ sessions either, most hours were essentially unstructured consulting sessions where pupils of all grades and ages could collaborate with each other, work on their own or interact with the teacher. Everyone was expected to work at their own pace.

Most of all, though, the curriculum for any given subject was only partially defined. Roughly a third of the work had fixed content and assessment, another third defined the topic -but not much else-, and the final third was entirely open, bounded only by the subject area. That meant that most of the learning was negotiated between the individual learner and the subject teacher.

While this may sound like some anti-authoritarian, hippy paradise, the kids were just as ruthlessly assessment driven as they are anywhere else. What made the system work was that it harnessed that drive, by organising the learning process around credits. For a majority of these credits, you had to negotiate what learning they accredited first. And that meant reflecting on what competencies you already had, and which ones you needed, personal interests, cross-overs with other subjects and more. Just jumping through the pre-set hoops wasn’t an option, you had to do PDP.

The school, alas, has long shut down. I wonder, though, whether anyone today would have the guts to forgo the safety of packaged curriculum delivery and testing in order to compel students to negotiate each credit.

4 thoughts on “Making PDP the central learning process by shifting to negotiated credits

  1. Sounds like a really interesting school Wilbert. I used to enjoy reading about an English school called Summerhill which also took an unconventional approach to learning.
    Good points made as well, I’ve always found the school system here a bit too rigid and formal in its teaching methods. I’d love to teach English again sometime, but not restricted by the bounds of the curriculum, more by doing what you say and finding out the student’s exisitng interests and knowledge and then introducing them to more creative things.

  2. This is fascinating Wilbert. Do you have any thoughts on how your schooling influenced your subsequent educational development? Were you able to continue negotiating your learning and reflecting on your competencies in more formal educational instituions? Also, you say your school is long gone, do you know if there are any similar establishments still running?

  3. I’d like to think more people will have the guts to take such an approach; it seems to be necessary to equip people to be able to cope with the complexities of life and work in the 21st century. This will be hard work in state-funded schools, with politicians being wary of risk and ignorant headlines in the press but maybe projects like IDIBL ( can make waves in higher education.

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