What Can Personalized Learning Learn from Early-Childhood Education Models?

We had a discussion at the Foundation last week about personalized learning and what it really is or means these days. Does it have to involve technology? Can personalized learning scale without technology? One set of folks argued it must. Others said, well, maybe not. Here is what Vicki Phillips had to say about it in Wired this month. An EdSurge article also prompted me to reflect on personalized learning a little more this week. They did a feature on Montessori For All (MFA), an Austin, Texas-based organization aiming to establish more Montessori charter schools across the country.

That’s when it hit me: yes, Maria Montessori did have the original personalized learning model for young children (albeit without technology) and somehow it seemed to scale. All three of my children attended a Montessori school, where children learn self-direction and independence as they work with specific materials that build academic knowledge and skills. The classrooms are more structured than you would believe and the activities were tailored to their needs, at their pace. What might personalized learning models learn from these preschool models?

Reggio Emilia is another early-childhood education approach receiving increased attention. Like Montessori, Reggio also originated in Italy and children are viewed as active participants in their learning. Along with teachers and parents, the learning environment is considered the third teacher, and children’s work is continually made visible through photos, journals and recordings. Children see their progress over time. Engagement (and student interest) is also key and a similar attribute of personalized learning.

Both Montessori and Reggio share a “hands-on” and inquiry-based approach to learning. Research has shown that children educated in public Montessori schools outperform those from traditional classrooms in some academic areas, display better social-emotional skills and are more creative. Research on the Reggio Emilia approach is focusing on learning in groups and how to “create and sustain powerful cultures of learning in and across classrooms and schools.”  “Creativity” and “Learning in Groups” are two of the “21st century skills” that PISA and other international tests are trying to assess these days.

I wonder what it would look like to have the best of both worlds: the Montessori and Reggio models, plus technology in a middle and high school? Maybe something for MFA to aspire to? It’s clear that for any school to be successful at this, it would need to attend to two critical factors that often get forgotten in school redesign but are very apparent in any Montessori or Reggio classroom: the learning environment itself and the teachers. Without rethinking what schools should look like and how to get teachers to be involved in the redesign, any new school is not likely to be successful. Technology or no technology.

The concept of personalized learning is still evolving. We published a report about some early findings. I’m hoping as the concept evolves, teachers remain at the center of that evolution (or revolution) and they keep pushing the boundaries on how schools are organized and what they should look like for optimal student success the way Reggio and Montessori teachers have.