What Personalized Learning Can Look Like in the Early Years

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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personalized learning early yearsRecently we at Learning Personalized sent out an email to our most dedicated readers asking what content they would like to see more of on the site. Unquestionably, the most popular topic was personalized learning in pre-primary education: three-, four-, and five-year-old children. One reader asked about measuring personalized learning among pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students while another wanted to know how to help young children who don’t yet work well independently.

What is important to remember in all of these circumstances is that personalized learning is a mindset as much as it is a process. What personalization looks like with high school students will vary drastically from what it looks like with kindergarten students, both from the student and the teacher perspective.

At the same time, it still requires structure and parameters. So, when you’re thinking about a typical pre-kindergarten or kindergarten classroom, you can think about learning chunked into regular routines.

To illustrate my point, I have listed four of these routines that teachers can put into practice to inject personalized learning into pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms.

Routine 1: Wonderwall

Imagine the routine of a wonderwall, an opportunity where — with teacher assistance — students can have a space for their why questions. Why is the sky blue? Why doesn’t the moon fall out of the sky? Those kinds of questions are fascinating for a young child and deserve to have an opportunity to have those questions be acknowledged and anchored.

Beyond that, though, is an opportunity to have them create an illustration or an image that prompted that inquiry. Your student may want to know if a jellyfish has bones. Have him or her then draw an illustration of what sparked the question. Additionally, students have an opportunity to seek out a response to that inquiry through the guidance of a teacher helping them network with an expert around their questions.

Routine 2: Design Squad

PBS Kids Design Squad - pre-primary personalized learningA second routine would be an engineering design idea. If you check out PBSkids.org/designsquads/projects, you see how the imagination and creativity of kids can be translated into an idea to potentially benefit others. The intention is that three-, four-, and five-year-old students can start thinking about problems and challenges through their own lens.

In addition to that, they open themselves up to seeing what ideas or imaginings they have and how they can put that into practice through drawing and as an early form of prototyping. This can become extended into actually building a 3D model in a makerspace or even having students with teacher assistance start to create a 3D model using a 3D printer.

Routine 3: Pizza Box Pondering

I saw a fabulous video where a kindergarten classroom had a stack of pizza boxes, one for each student. Students decorated their own pizza box and used it to store their completed work. Then every Friday, students sorted that work to determine which they were most proud of that were worthy of holding onto.

They also reflected on what they saw in that work. That kind of reflection can be documented through a 1-on-1 conference or through recording on an iPad or some type of tablet. Through that practice, students start to see their own growth and attention to detail. It gives them the opportunity to celebrate accomplishments and potentially (with teacher assistance) identify goals or new questions or new ideas.

Routine 4: Silent Reading

This last routine supports reading. The challenge is thinking hard about the kind of voracious readers they want to see in their classroom, inspiring them to read while also inspiring them to develop their skill sets. I recommend a continued practice of silent, independent reading where students have the opportunity to get lost in a book, but the key is to have them start thinking about what they’re learning from the book in real time.

They can do some type of reflection that is built into the reading session so they start to think about why a topic is resonating with them, why a certain word was funny, how the pictures in this story effected the text. They can note their thoughts and ideas along the way using post-it notes, reader’s notebook or other ways to capture their thinking. There are lots of different things that teachers can do, not just in this space of silent reading, but also in this space of reading aloud. It’s all about students connecting the text with the actual story.

Teachers understand that kids are uniquely different in terms of talents, interests, and capacities. It’s why they think hard about how they can balance it all in a world where there are certain areas of skill they need to teach. That, my friends, is the art of what being a fabulous pre-K or kindergarten teacher is all about: having a student still struggling with the letters sitting right next to a student who is starting to read chapter books sitting next to another student who is fluent in reading pictures and deciphering the words that go with the picture.

Making all of that work is a matter of embracing the differences and adopting a mindset that carries a personalized learning approach.


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