Personalized Learning for All Youth: A Denisha Jones Invention

As the guardians of child development lament the state of play in early education—the loss of a human kind of learning—technology companies are sprouting like weeds, choking the garden. They’ve constructed a narrative of competency-based education, one they claim meets students’ individual needs.


Denisha Jones, an assistant professor of early childhood education at Howard University, and advisor to Defending the Early Years, a nonprofit advocacy group,  is not persuaded by their arguments.  This former kindergarten and preschool teacher, who is fiercely committed to social justice, equity, and the best interests of the child,  is determined to take back the narrative.

In a recent session, “T-E-S-T, Not P-L-A-Y, is a Four-Letter Word: Putting the Child and the Teacher at the Center of Education Reform,” at the Network for Public Education’s annual conference, Jones laid out an ingenious strategy for change.  Below is an essay, adapted from her remarks.


By Denisha Jones

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act has ushered in a new era of education reform. Although the power has shifted to the states, the corporate reformers have jumped at the opportunity to share their plans for implementing the new legislation. And it doesn’t hurt that ESSA explicitly allows for competency-based education, a.k.a blended and personalized learning.

DreamBox Learning, the self-described “effective elementary and middle school math software solution,” defines personalized learning as “instruction that offers pedagogy, curriculum, and learning environments to meet the individual students’ needs”—an experience tailored to particular learning styles and interests.  However clever the branding, what this really means is children sitting in front of screens all day in the name of competency-based education.

I get it. I spend two thirds or more of my day on a computer screen. It is easy to believe that children can do better in front of a screen than with a teacher.

But what if I told you that personalized learning already exists and it doesn’t cost a thing? If you believe in free-market capitalism, then you do not want to hear this. If you think that nothing in life is free, you might have a hard time accepting this.

Although in the past I swore anyone claiming to have the answer was not to be trusted, I assure you, this time, I do have the answer. It is possible. It’s called P.L.A.Y., or Personalized Learning for All Youth. Play is the experience tailored to meet the needs of all children; it is driven by sheer intrinsic motivation and sustained engagement. Children learn the curriculum of life and the pedagogy of living through play.

Play is how children learn, develop, and grow. Yes, they need safety, security, love and belonging to thrive. But play is the natural means by which children learn what it means to be a human born into a society. They do not need scripted programs with dazzling graphics that stimulate their visual senses while destroying their need for human interaction. Play is personalized learning at its best. We must demand equitable access and the right to play for every child, youth, and adult.

But as many of us know, play has gotten a bad rap since we moved from child-centered, progressive education to accountability through test-and-punish strategies.  I believe my generation was the last to experience endless hours of outdoor free play as children.

Today, driven by fear that our children will be stolen from the streets and end up poor and uneducated if we don’t devote all of our resources to raising meaningless test scores, we have allowed the reform movement to steal the one thing that all children can achieve at proficient levels.  Kindergarten classrooms that were filled with dramatic play, blocks, art, and manipulatives are now places of guided reading and literacy work stations.  You know what guides reading best: play.

In the name of closing an achievement gap that is based on intentional lack of opportunity—not intelligence—we have reduced recess to the point that teachers must be taught how to incorporate activity breaks into the curriculum. If we allow children the freedom to play, they will get all the activity they need.  Some schools have decided to increase recess from one 15-minute break to four 15-minute breaks and the teachers are amazed at the results.

Children are fighting less and learning more as their natural instincts emerge in play multiple, if brief, times during the day.  Those of us who understand the power of play are not surprised by the results; we are mystified that educators are surprised to learn that play can boost achievement.  What was once common knowledge to all who studied child development has become a revelation for those who to dare to break away from the test-and-punish system.

How we can put education reform into the hands of children and parents?  My answer is simple: we must become advocates, defenders, and organizers of play. However, if we are to stay one step ahead of the corporate reformers, we must play their game and create new buzz words that capture the attention and mask the reality. We must change the narrative.

We must push for the development of play-based curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy in all schools and communities.  We must create our own play-based experts who work with school districts and local education agencies (LEAs) across the country to ensure that play becomes the center of all school experiences.  We must defend play from the critics who will bemoan the loss of instruction time. We must remind them that play is the only form of personalized learning our children need to succeed.



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