The author, standing to the right of the king, does not remember her kindergarten as child-centered or personalized. She does remember dancing around the maypole while wearing a shiny, scratchy cape.

Personalization: A Child-Centered Approach To Learning

We need only say one thing to young children: Come as you are! Come with your age-level characteristics. Come with those qualities that make you a unique and special person. School can have the flexibility, imagination, and sensitivity to be ready for the children who come.

Does, come as you are sound like a vision for personalized learning? That credo, articulated by James Hymes, Jr., a 20th-century authority on early childhood education, has inspired early childhood educators for more than 50 years. It also beautifully expresses the purpose of personalization, a 21st-century educational initiative.

A simple Google search for personalized learning produces 306,000,000 results for definitions and opinions about personalized learning. iNOCA’s concise and clear definition emphasizes knowing each student well and giving them voice and choice in learning. On his blog Getting Smart Tom Vander Ark builds on that definition by describing 15 dimensions of personalized learning. Before there was international interest and substantial financial support for reinventing education early childhood educators, in preschool and kindergarten classrooms around the world, practiced personalization by creating child-centered and student-driven learning experiences.

In June 2013 when I joined AltSchool’s founding team to help build a platform for personalized learning I knew that our first classroom would be modeled on excellent early childhood education, inspired by Montessori, Reggio, and Hymes. Teaching that first year and serving as Director of Education for the next four years confirmed that authentic personalization embodies principles and implements practices evident in excellent early childhood and kindergarten classrooms. Understanding those principles and empowering educators to implement those practices is essential to creating schools that have the flexibility, imagination, and sensitivity to be ready for the children who come.

Principles of Child-Centered Learning

A child-centered program prioritizes understanding the whole child. Each child’s culture, strengths, challenges, interests, dreams, and fears inform program design, curriculum, instructional methods, and individual goals. Child-centered educators honor the learner’s curiosity and capacity to drive their learning. With that broad definition in mind, I identified four principles to guide practice AltSchools’ first classroom.

  1. Because at any given time each child has a unique stage and rate of development educators will design learning experiences that challenge children in their zone of proximal development. Each child will have the time they need to master skills and opportunities to review, teach others and stretch.
  2. Because humans are motivated to learn when they have autonomy and purpose educators will ensure learners have meaningful choices about what to learn and how to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.
  3. Because children are curious about the world all students will have many opportunities for meaningful learning beyond the walls of the classroom.
  4. A deep understanding of the whole child is only possible when teachers use compassion and curiosity to build strong, respectful relationships with parents and guardians.

Child-Centered Practices

Math and Literacy: Choice Coupled With Data-Driven Instruction

A review of baseline assessments for our first students revealed that most had spikey academic records. Although every student was reading at the third-grade level or above there was a wide range of achievement levels in math. Mastery-based materials in math and reading allowed my colleagues and I to match skill instruction and practice to the individual needs of each child. Inquiry-based learning experiences and a year-long interdisciplinary project gave children opportunities to research, test, create, collaborate and share their work with peers, teachers, parents and mentors from the AltSchool corporate office.

An online math curriculum supported individualized skill development. Each week I reviewed the skills-progress report generated by the program and grouped students based on their levels of progress. Students who demonstrated mastery moved on, and those who needed practice had additional time and received individual coaching or skill instruction in small groups. Because mathematical thinking develops when students question, have time to observe, struggle, discuss and play our classroom shelves were stocked with blocks, beads, scales, puzzles, and games. Each week the students collaborated with a partner or in small groups to answer a complex math question. Many questions evolved from student observations or wonderings, and all were related to shared class experiences such as field trips, the class read aloud, or meal preparation. Using their iPads students interviewed one another about problem-solving techniques and explained their math thinking. Reviewing their self-analysis gave me rich insights that informed lesson design and one to one coaching sessions. Once a week one or two teams presented their solution and explained their process to the class. Grappling with problems and discourse about thinking enhance metacognition and thus are priorities in a child-centered classroom.

One of the favorite areas of our classroom was an inviting book nook, the hub of literacy learning. Curled up on a pillow or the couch children could read, alone or with a friend. The entire class gathered in the nook every afternoon for Read Aloud. A table for literacy conference was nearby.

Ready access to books is an essential feature of child-centered or personalized learning. Every day every child needs time to read silently, to read to adults or peers and to have adults read to them. Most importantly they need a choice about what to read. The more choice learners have, the more likely they’ll enjoy reading and get better at it. Our classroom library was well stocked with fiction because reading fiction, rich with detail, emotion, and moral complexity, improves students’ ability to understand other people, empathize and view the world from diverse perspectives. We also had many information texts and supplemented them with trips to the public library where students could check out books related to topics they had selected to research. Read aloud time was sacrosanct because reading aloud to child develops their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.

Often students selected their reading assignment from a set of choices curated by me and aligned with our project topic. As they read about the Ohlone people, Asian immigration through Angel Island and the Gold Rush the children learned how the San Francisco Bay Area changed over time and how diverse cultures changed because of their interactions with one another and with the physical environment. At other times the children were free to choose their reading material. Their selections often surprised me and enriched my reading life. One young girl, the only student reading below grade level at the beginning of the year, always brought books about the Philippines. Reading folktales and history from her homeland inspired her to practice decoding and comprehension techniques which improved her test scores. Another girl, a voracious and advanced reader, whizzed through her collection of Blue Balliet books, mysteries involving art or architectural masterpieces. Her spirited reviews of these novels enticed another student, a talented artist, to read Balliett’s The Calder Game. The young artist’s enthusiasm for Calder launched a study of sculpture and mobiles. The entire class enjoyed field trips to view sculpture and mobiles in museums, libraries, and parks across the Bay Area.

Reading for pleasure was intertwined with reading to learn and time was set aside for targeted instruction. Students met with me twice a week for individual reading conferences. As the year progressed I used data from NWEA’s MAP and informal reading assessments to identify children with weaker word-recognition and fluency skills. Those learners received additional code-focused instruction.

Learning Beyond The Classroom Walls

I am always a bit sad when I see students on field trips late in the school year. I spent time as a school reform consultant in public schools, so I know that trips in May and June are often the first trips the class has taken. They are rewards for the completion of standardized tests. Students deserve frequent opportunities to learn in the community. Field trips and expert visits to the classroom expose learners to new ideas and experiences. Community-based learning is a valuable opportunity for children to dig deeper into complex concepts and develop skills related to their interests and academic goals. Well planned interactions with the community enhance students’ appreciation for the natural world and create a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens. Personalized learning must capitalize on each student’s curiosity about the world, support the student’s understanding of the world and their place it in.

AltSchool’s beta classroom took field trips at least once each week. Experts in art, music, Spanish and simple coding worked with the students twice weekly.

We began the year with a visit to El Polin Spring to launch our study of the ecology and people’s of the Bay Area. We imagined life as an Ohlone or Miwok as we hiked to what is now Crissy Field but 500 years ago was Petlenuc, an Ohlone village. Class members shared an iPad which we used to take pictures of places we wanted to remember or study in depth. When we returned to the classroom the students created a mural of the present, as we saw it, and the past as they imagined it. Next, the class researched Ohlone life by visiting an exhibit of Ohlone artifacts and reading books. Following research they created a fact-based mural and compared it to the one they created from their imagination.

As part of our year-long study of the ecology and human cultures of the Bay Area, we studied the many diverse cultures who have contributed to shaping our vibrant life here. As the students because immersed in history and grappled with tough issues such as slavery, colonization, war, natural disaster, power, and inequality they discovered connections to their personal lives and other subjects. A visit to Mission Dolores prompted a discussion about the interactions between the Spanish and the Ohlone and led to a study of colonialism. Two students who had chosen to read non-fiction books about British colonial life on the east coast expanded their reading to include information about the indigenous peoples of the eastern seaboard. They created an illustrated timeline to compare colonization in the east and west. During the Lunar New Year celebration, we toured San Francisco’s Chinatown. One student asked what the word “lunar” had to do with the New Year. The entire class was fascinated by the explanation of the cycles of the moon and asked if we could study the solar system. A trip to the library and planetarium followed. During our tour of Chinatown, we learned that an eight-year-old Chinese girl, Mamie Tape, was denied admission to a San Francisco public school, prompting her family to sue the city in a case that went to the California Supreme Court. One boy, deeply moved by Mamie’s story, asked if he could share what he knew about school segregation and the Civil Rights movement. He was a very reluctant reader and writer, but the trip to Chinatown ignited a deep desire to learn more and teach others about justice. He still struggled with decoding and organizing his thoughts on paper but discovering a subject he cared about increased his motivation and focus.

I curated our frequent field trips to align with to the year-long project-based study I had planned, but I was surprised how often the trips sparked enthusiasm for learning beyond the scope of our project. Venturing in the world is an opportunity to know students in new ways and to build an authentic emergent, personalized curriculum.

Honoring The Family and The Whole Child

When AltSchool began, we had six weeks to recruit enough students to greenlight opening a classroom. Spending time with individual families and prospective students was the most important work we did. Our objective was to learn each family’s expectations of school and understand their past experiences. When available we collected school records and results of formal and informal assessments. We spent time with each child, reading, playing simple games and, most importantly, listening to them discuss friends, teachers, interests, dreams, and fears. The information we gleaned was essential for our child-centered adventure.

I learned that more than half the students bound for our beta classroom strongly disliked school and several families struggled to get out of the house on time. The information was extremely helpful in planning the daily schedule. We offered flexible arrival time, and when students entered the room, they could choose a non-academic activity such as building with Kapla blocks, collaborating on Minecraft, tinkering with Scratch or using art materials. Sometimes they were free to create whatever they wished, and other times they were asked to respond to a prompt such as, build something useful or create a prototype for an ordering system to use in our classroom restaurant. An hour after the school doors opened we held a morning meeting where students could share their morning work and ask for feedback or help.

A technology platform can superpower personalization. It can support educators in delivering lessons aligned with each learners’ appropriate level of challenge. It can increase the choices we offer students and document learning and reflection across subject areas and outside of the classroom. Technology can streamline our communication with parents and simplify the creation of portfolios and learner portraits. But teacher mindsets and practices are at the heart of personalization. Without a child-centered approach to teaching, learning cannot be student-driven and personalization will be hollow.

Educator, entrepreneur, boundary crosser, community builder, advocate for learners of all ages.