I was waiting in line for the restroom at Denver International Airport a number of years ago watching a woman with two children washing hands. She stood like a flamingo with one leg triangled up on the other creating a seat for her young child. The child perched there on their mother’s leg leaning desperately over the edge of the sink trying to reach their chubby fingers to the stream of water. They could barely get the tips of their fingers wet, so the mother, balancing, brought her hands over to rub soap and cup water over her child’s hands to help him rinse. While they were doing this balancing act, the other child was exploring: touching underneath the sink, pushing the hand dryer button again and again, and peeking into an overflowing trash can (before the mom caught sight of this and redirected her).
As I watched them, it made me think about something I’ve thought often, especially since having a child of my own and working as an early childhood educator: the world around kids is often (or always) designed for them to be a bit bigger, taller, older, more mature than they actually are. In education, we see this in the way that schedules and learning spaces are designed, and in the academic expectations we hold for learners. We talk often about being career and college ready and “preparing” students for the unknown future. But what if we just met them where they are now?
Because children — though smaller in stature in many cases — are in fact people and citizens now. Today. In education we aren’t preparing them for the tomorrow that “we can’t even imagine” we are meeting them in the space they are in and offering them support in developing themselves, academically, socially, emotionally.
As an educator this takes looking at education in a totally different light. Rather than making sure all of your first graders meet the yearly expectations — spending hours in small groups and interventions to catch the low groups up, and extend the learning for the advanced groups so they don't become bored — you throw out the yearly expectations altogether and you become an expert at the progressions that inform those expectations. Then, beautifully, you welcome all of those children into the room on that first day of school and you look at them to see who they are and what experiences they’ve had right then — rather than measuring them against a yardstick.
And from there you DESIGN and co-design the learning that will support each one of those citizens.
It sounds so simple, but it takes courage to throw the yearly expectations away and trust that you as an educator know your craft and have the support of those around you to be able to design the right learning for each one of those children. It requires taking on the role yourself as an educator-researcher-practitioner and it necessitates regular collaboration with other educator-researcher-practitioners in order to ensure that you are able to do such a thing. And it also takes working with the child, their family, and community to ensure that their progress is co-designed and co-owned by those who make up the child’s circle of support. Because we all know that we don’t want to leave children behind. Just like in the airport, we don’t want kids struggling at sinks that don’t fit. Instead, what if our adult bathrooms, installed a stool to the bottom of all sinks, and in doing so recognize that we are not waiting for children to be able to reach one day, but we are giving them access today. In doing that we all win. With the stool the mother no longer needs to contort herself to accomplish a simple task, and in education the student and their family no longer need to feel ashamed that their child can’t keep up or bothered that their child is being held back by the expectations.
Personalized learning is nothing new for us educators. It’s just hard to do without having the support and structures we need to be able to do it. But when you make changes to the educational model, it’s also giving educators stools to stand on so that they too can reach each child authentically and respectfully.