Seven principles for personalized, flexible teaching

personalized, flexible teaching

In this article, Dr. Ken Beatty outlines seven key principles for effective teaching, taken from timeless historical examples of royal education. 

Ken is the series consultant for Startup, and these ideas have influenced the development of this series. Not only does Startup personalize learning, it gives teachers the flexibility to teach traditionally or use a flipped classroom approach. It offers a range of innovative, interactive activities and  focuses on building 21st Century skills, and creative and critical thinking abilities. 

A royal thought experiment for teachers

“What shall we teach the king and queen’s child?” 

The question comes from a thought experiment I created for my graduate students. 

In this exercise I review how a few of the children of the richest and most powerful people around the world have been taught over the past 2,500 years. It leads to the more important and practical question: 

If the best teachers and the best learning materials were easily accessible to everyone, how would we design a perfect language curriculum?

Surprisingly, teachers in the 21st century are able to answer the question and put the same principles into practice for teaching children, teens, and adults. So let’s take a look. Here are seven principles for personalized, flexible teaching.

Principle 1: Get the best teachers 

King Phillip of Macedonia employed the greatest scientist of the age, Aristotle, to teach his son, Alexander the Great (356–323 BC). 

The greatest thinkers, in all fields, are available to share their ideas with your students through countless free videos now posted online. 

For lower level students, curate selected videos or parts of videos that will be comprehensible. For more advanced students, ask them to explore topics that interest them then share the ideas with the rest of the class. This type of personal and flexible task shifts responsibility for learning to the students. 

Principle 2: Make learning engaging

English Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was the most educated woman of her generation. Her Cambridge University tutors and governesses taught her Cornish, English, French, Greek, Italian, and Latin. She also studied arithmetic, geometry, history, literature, logic, music, philosophy, rhetoric, and theology, as well as archery, dancing, embroidery, hunting, riding and sewing. 

Elizabeth’s most influential teacher was Roger Ascham. Ascham had an unusual idea for the time: that learning should be engaging. Make your lessons more engaging by introducing a topic then encouraging students to think of questions they might have about it. For example, “Why and when do I use the past perfect tense?” Also, always find out what students already know about a topic; if they can teach part of the class, let them!

Principle 3: Encourage lifelong learning

Peter the Great (1672–1725) was taught by Russia’s best scholars but went beyond their lessons to study practical subjects such as boat building, dentistry, and masonry. Peter’s curiosity continued his whole life.  

Lifelong learners become self-directed when they are encouraged to be curious about personal interests and are offered opportunities to explore new ideas on their own. Support self-directed learning by encouraging students to imagine themselves using English in the future. 

Start by asking them to think of who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. For example, “In ten years, where would I like to be working and how would I use English there?”

Principle 4: Look for other perspectives

China’s Emperor Qianlong’s (1711–1799) private tutors taught him the Chinese classics and the art of poetry, and he was initiated into affairs of state at an early age. He extended his learning through travel and surrounded himself with talented individuals from other cultures.

It’s often said that language is culture, and one of the joys of learning English is to see how perspectives differ from other languages. 

Have students explore idioms and customs in their first languages and in English. What’s similar? What’s different? Why? 

Principle 5: Encourage reflection

As a child, Queen Victoria (1819–1901) wrote about the 150 books she studied between the ages of seven and 16. Many were challenging far beyond her age. 

It’s often the case that teachers and textbooks introduce new topics week after week and students sometimes forget what they’ve learned. Encourage students to be more reflective by keeping a journal of what they have learned. For today’s students, the best place to do so might be on their mobile phones, keeping a file of notes that they can read and review anytime and anywhere. 

Principle 6: Test ideas against local realities

Before ascending the throne of Siam, King Mongkut (1804–1868) lived as a monk for 27 years, traveling around Thailand and experiencing the lives of his subjects first hand. He also became a fluent English speaker. King Mongkut used his knowledge of English to find innovative ways to modernize his country.

What teachers can do – that textbooks sometimes cannot – is to localize learning. Ask students to relate what they learn in the English language classroom to their own contexts, helping them to consider situations in which they could use English. 

Principle 7: Use your imagination! 

Merlin, knowing the boy’s destiny, teaches Arthur what it means to be a good king by turning him into various kinds of animals: fish, hawk, ant, goose, and badger. Each of the transformations is meant to teach him a lesson, which will prepare him for his future life.” (White, 1958, n.p.)

Okay, so it’s unlikely you can turn your students into small animals. But you can promote their imaginations by suggesting hypothetical situations.

“Imagine you are lost in a city on the other side of the world with no money and need to find your way back home. How much language would you need to help you do that?” Give students time to brainstorm in pairs and encourage multiple answers. Roleplay!

Putting these principles into practice

But do I put these principles into practice myself? Yes, I try, both in my textbooks and in classes for graduate students. But I also try to use them as a parent – and once had the perfect opportunity to do so when my eldest son was in Grade 6. We were living in Abu Dhabi at the time, and an unexpected opportunity for a two-week vacation arose. “Where should we go?” my wife asked. 

To me, there was only one answer: “Nathan is studying Greek and Roman history,” I reminded her. “Let’s go to Greece and Italy and let him live it!” 

It was the sort of thing a King and Queen would do.


  • Hoffman, M. (1999) Raised to Rule: Educating Royalty at the Court of the Spanish Habsburgs, 1601-1634. London: Woburn Press 
  • White, T. H. (1958) The Once and Future King. London: Collins

Developing student skills with StartUp

StartUp is an innovative eight-level, multi-skills general English ​course built ​around the Global Scale of English (GSE). It is a complete language program that motivates 21st century learners with relevant and media-rich content, and provides teachers with robust support to make teaching personalizable and easy. 

Download a sample now. 

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