Primary Colors: Personalized Learning in Early Childhood

by Jim McLure, Professional Development Specialist

When I think about how school could look for our youngest learners, I often reflect upon my own education. I was fortunate enough to attend school at an experience-based learning project on the campus of one of the local colleges in Milwaukee. As a young child, I spent my days moving about a classroom, working at my own pace,  and exploring topics that I wanted to learn about. We learned to speak French, had a music teacher so talented she was able to play the piano, without looking, so that she could sing while facing us. We regularly created art, had morning and afternoon recess and were always given an opportunity for open-ended play. Although I was often confused about how the French teacher got there from France everyday, the one thing that I was sure of was that I loved school.

The one feature of the classroom that I clearly recall was a series of long, flat storage boxes that were each labeled with an upper and lower case letter. Learners worked their way through the boxes by completing the contents in each box and working their way from a to z. When learners found themselves at the end of the alphabet, there was another series of boxes with the letters in a different primary color. Learners worked their way to the mastery of a certain goal by completing the many opportunities to learn and practice from what lived in each box. The teacher would work her way around the room and conference with each learner. If more than one learner was working on the contents of the box, she would also ask questions around how we were working together. This experience left such an imprint on me that when it came time to choose a career, I chose to study early childhood education and become a kindergarten teacher.

Currently, I am fortunate enough to be on a team of professionals dedicated to encouraging districts, schools and educators to consider shifting their teaching practices to personalized learning. I recently spent a few mornings in kindergarten classrooms where the educators are on an adventure with their learners. In these classrooms, I was greeted by curious and active learners. Children were not sitting on carpets or desks for long periods of time. Teachers were not standing or sitting up front displaying information or presenting lessons in hopes that the students would be able to meet the class target or learning goal. In these classrooms learners began the day choosing an activity, catching up with friends, updating the educators in the room about the happenings in their daily lives and most importantly laughing and bonding as a community.

When it came time for the class to gather, they sat on bleachers or in a circle for the daily updates and a quick story. They were then sent back to the classroom environment to work independently, in close knit groups, or in small groups orchestrated by the educator. Each learner was working on a particular goal chosen by them with varying degrees of help from the educators in the classroom. The one thing that stood out to me was the level of independence that each of these learners demonstrated. They maintained focus on their work, project or goal for an extremely long time. They used technology with ease and purpose. When they needed advice, they sought out a friend, an adult and quite often me, being the novel guest in the room. The amount of off-task behavior was notably minimal.

These experiences prompted me to recall the many conversations that I’ve had over the the last few years with various educators in regards to personalized learning in the early childhood years. I hear, quite often, that personalized learning is not suited for the early childhood grades. There are claims that learners that young couldn’t possibly work independently long enough to reach a goal. They couldn’t possibly be given voice and choice over their own learning. The assumption is that it would simply result in unproductive play.

I recently read an article, posted in the Washington Post about an early childhood expert, Nancy Carlsson-Paige. The article was based on of the speech she gave while accepting the prestigious Deborah Meier Award. One of the lines that resonated with me was, “Play is the primary engine of human growth; it’s universal – as much as walking and talking…” While reading this, I was reminded of the many kindergarten and even pre-kindergarten classrooms where play has become a minimal part of the school day. There are even some classes where play has been eliminated altogether and is not a part of the early childhood experience. Unfortunately, this is done in the name of high expectations and academic performance.

From what I gathered on my visit to the classrooms where the educators have chosen to shift to personalized learning, not only was play alive and well in these environments, so were high expectations and academic performance. There were several elements present that allowed for the students in this type of learning environment to thrive:

  1. Flexible Learning Spaces: Learners were able to choose where they completed their work, and they had access to a variety of learning materials (including technology).
  2. Learner Voice Infused: The learners had a say in when they worked on certain goals and strategies.
  3. Learner Choice Incorporated: The learners had a choice in how they were going to demonstrate their understanding and the tools that were used to do so.
  4. Flexible Time and Pace: Each learner was able to work toward their goals without feeling pressured to move on due to large group pacing.
  5. Learner Profiles: Learner interests, preferences, style and current levels of conceptual understanding were up to date and utilized for the co-design of a learning path.
  6. Learner Independence: Individuals and groups of learners worked independently towards a goal or project and had an understanding of why they were completing the task at hand.
  7. Customized Learning Paths: Learners had a clear outline of the work options they had to reach a goal. Goals and steps for achieving the goal were discussed and chosen by a learner/educator team.
  8. Rapid Cycle Feedback: Educators spent instructional time meeting with small groups that had similar goals and needs and conferencing with individual learners providing feedback on a regular basis.
  9. Proficiency-based Progress: Learners moved on to their next goal once proficiency of their current goal was met. As noted above, time was the variable and learning was the constant.
  10. Learning Aligned Technology: Learners had a choice to utilize technology to work on select steps of their customized learning path. Both the learner and the educator took part in deciding when technology was the appropriate tool to achieve a particular goal. Technology was also frequently used to house a student-friendly version of the customized learning path so that independence was fostered and tools and goals were at the hands of the learner.

As I look back at my visits and recall many of the questions that I asked of the learners and the educators, I am reminded that this truly is a journey. Even the educators who had implemented the majority of the above elements still questioned their strategies in their effort to continuously improve their practice and build learning. This gave me a sense that they most likely did not implement all of these changes together, but rather layered them on in phases. The lesson here is that simply making the decision to shift one or two current practices towards a more student-centered or personalized approach can, over time, lead to a significantly improved school and learning experience for our youngest learners. Perhaps many educators will even go on to build their own system of student centered learning, similar to what I was fortunate enough to experience as a kindergartner. If you begin your brainstorming process anywhere, I urge you to consider beginning the journey by asking yourself, “How can I build a system where learning will once again feel like play in my early childhood classroom?”

Strauss, V. (2015, November 24). How “twisted” early childhood education has become- from a child development expert. Washington Post.

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