Over the past couple of years I’ve heard the word personalization more and more. It has come up in educator forums, books, conversations, and now, personalization is even in Vermont state law. I could understand the basics--that is, I could understand that if education was more specific to a given student’s interests and abilities, the student would be better served. But it wasn’t until I took my 20 month old son to a pirate themed party at a local library that I really felt an urgency for and understood the profound potential in personalizing public education.
Over spring break this past year, a local Vermont library offered a pirate themed morning for toddlers. Perfect! We’re there! Dressed in welcoming pirate clothing, the wonderful and friendly library faculty greeted us at the door with a hearty, “Welcome aboard”. The library was set up with some pirate coloring sheets, a few bags of goldfish, and a treasure map game through the library. A handful of toddlers stumbled in, and a few minutes later the librarian asked for all the “pirates” to gather around for a “pirate tale”. I did do diligence and herded my son over to reading area. The implied expectation was sitting quietly, listening to the story, interacting when called upon to do so. My son lasted about 45 seconds. He quickly stood up and was eager to wander around. Most of the toddlers were tuned out, so the librarian read faster. Then she began explaining that good pirates always listened to their captain. I thought, “Wait, is my son a bad pirate?” It was my first taste of the standard education model as a parent.
As I listened to the story through his ears, I heard what he heard--which was pretty much nothing he had ever heard before. For one, our house is a 50/50 French and English home. Secondly, we have no pirate books at home, so when the librarian was saying “Arrr” and “Let’s hear your pirate voice” he had absolutely no prior knowledge to build from. Now if the book had been about a French pirate playing basketball (his favorite activity), he would have been all ears, sitting up front, hanging on every word! If she had started the circle time with “Bonjour” his head would have snapped around. His lack of prior knowledge on the topic, and in his case, a language barrier, turned him into a “student” who “lacked focus” and “couldn’t stay on task”.
Thankfully, because he was only 20 months old, we were only at a themed toddler hour, and he was with his Dad...we were able to get up and explore. He certainly was capable and interested in learning that day, so off we went. We found a few pictures of people playing donkey-basketball. This was worth a close inspection! Why was there a horse by a basketball hoop? We had lots of books on basketballs and horses at home, but never in combination. He quizzed me, thought about it, then repeated what he had learned. He went for a drink of water, then back to the pictures. He wanted to make sure he had learned everything there was to learn about donkey-basketball. Although he was not ready to sit and listen to a story about pirates, he was very willing to engage in learning.
When we loaded into the car, I was feeling bad about what school might be like for him. I had seen genuine irritation from the librarian as she worked to keep order in the reading. I sensed a feeling of judgement against the parents (that’s me) for not demanding more compliance from our toddlers. I didn’t fault her. She seemed sweet and hopeful to connect with the little ones. It wasn’t her fault that my son knew more French than English and had never heard of pirates. I thought about what it might have been like if I hadn’t been there. Would he have been considered naughty? Or maybe he would have been considered slow and behind his peers? How would they know everything he already knew about without some kind of exploration into who he was and what he was interested in, capable of, and skilled with? I thought about how lucky it was that I was there with him, that I knew him well, and could help him have a learning experience that he could be fully engaged with. The light-bulb went off. I thought, “This is what personalization is all about.” I learned firsthand that day how much potential there is in providing students a personalized learning experience which is connected not only to their interests, but to their prior knowledge. I thought about how important it is that they are engaged in learning opportunities that are unique to their own zones of proximal development. I began putting my mind to the challenging task of personalization, and I look forward to working through this puzzle in public education together.