It’s interesting – we have this enormous set of academic standards (Common Core, Next Generation Science, and other state standards), but it’s not 100 percent clear if they were designed by backing out of what a group of experts think students need to be “college and career ready,” or to what degree they were established by how students really learn, moving from one concept to the next. If we were really committed to student learning, then we would want to make sure that the way standards are organized is based on the very best of what we know about how students learn and how instruction can help students learn.
There has been substantial research into how students actually learn and the best strategies to help them advance to the next concept. This set of research has produced learning progressions (also called maps or trajectories, but I’ll just use the phrase learning progressions). It’s helpful to think about learning progressions as the stepping stones across a river – there are many ways across, but some are definitely better than others.
Achieve held a meeting in May, gathering the researchers and state leaders to talk about the learning progressions and the potential value to our efforts to establish competency-based pathways. It was a fascinating meeting because of the incredible potential of these powerful instructional approaches and because of the number of remaining issues that need to be resolved.
What are Learning Progressions and How are They Valuable?
One of the big issues (although it should not stop us from moving forward) is that there is no one agreed upon definition of learning progressions among the researchers who have developed them. In fact, their field would be much more influential if they did a bit of field-building among themselves. Examples of the definitions highlighted at the Achieve meeting include:
- Increasingly sophisticated ways of thinking about or understanding a topic
- A framework for formative classroom practice that reflects how students learn within a domain
- Building blocks to mastery of knowledge and skills addressed in college- and career-ready standards
Learning progressions have been developed by researchers that have studied how students approach new concepts and skills, the different techniques they use, and some of the misconceptions or reliance on other skills that may prevent them from fully mastering the concept. If you think about this for a minute, it is easy to see how learning progressions are going to be highly related to students being able to apply skills in new contexts and create new knowledge. If they don’t deeply understand the concepts or have gaps, they are going to stumble later on when they try to apply them in new ways or combine them with other concepts.
First and foremost, learning progressions help teachers develop their capacity regarding formative classroom practice. No longer is it simply “did a student get it or not get it,” but creating ways for teachers to identify how students are approaching a concept so they can provide more meaningful feedback. This is why it is so important to competency education: We believe every student can learn with the right mix of instructional support and learning opportunities, therefore we need to make sure that the formative feedback to students is actually helpful for students to progress. This is one of the deciding factors that will make the difference about the effectiveness of a competency-based school (or any school, for that matter).
Achieve highlighted that learning progressions are also helpful in identifying common misconceptions students have so instruction can be strengthened, identifying where students are so clear strategies can be designed for their next step in instruction, inform grouping/regrouping, and building teachers’ content knowledge. We cannot underestimate the value in helping teachers build knowledge on their discipline within competency education. This is one of the big shifts – instead of teaching a math curriculum, educators are focused on helping students to learn (and perhaps love) math. Teaching and learning is a process of inquiry.
How Developed is the Field of Learning Progressions?
Learning progressions are developed in different ways by different researchers. Furthermore, there is a range in how much they have become operationally accessible through professional development or tools. This does make it a tad difficult to understand what they are, how they are developed, and how much confidence you can have in them. Examples of different types of learning progressions include:
- Teachers College Reading and Writing Project
- The Ongoing Assessment Project of the Vermont Mathematics Partnership
- ETS’ Cognitively Based Assessment of, for and as Learning Initiative in both ELA and Math
At the Achieve meeting, Gerrita Postlewait provided a quick overview of the previous work of CCSSO’s Innovative Lab Network in the development of learning progressions. Sixteen elementary or middle school sites in six states had intensive professional development and then began to use learning progressions with their students. RSU 75 in Maine, five NYC schools, and Milwaukee, WI all focused on ELA while Nashua, NH, Morgantown, WV and Madison County, KY all focused on math. The Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) based at Teachers College at Columbia University provided the “hub” role.
A Few Thoughts about Learning Progressions and Accountability Policy
Creating learner-centered progressions may begin to challenge accountability policies and how they are implemented. Right now we are organizing the state accountability assessments around expectations for grade-level knowledge based on Common Core. However, schools drawing on learning progressions may find that a different sequences of learning might be more powerful.
Competency education already challenges the policy that all students should take the same exams at the same time for the sake of accountability purposes – we argue that it is a waste of resources and undermines children’s sense of efficacy when they are forced to take exams for which we know they are not proficient. Organizing the learning infrastructure around progressions that are based on student learning may require us to also challenge the one-size-fits-allness of assessments based on one way of organizing state standards. We need to think ahead – how might we be able to use learning progressions and also make sure that students reach all standards even if it isn’t in the linear sequence of the standards themselves. Certainly we would want any systems of assessments to be fluid enough so schools can draw on research as is it developed to organize the stepping stones of learning rather than teaching standards in a sequence because that is how policy demands it.
Definitely Proceed ….With an Open Mind and a Sprinkle of Caution
It just makes sense to organize instruction around the ways that students learn. And I assume that we are only beginning to learn about how students learn. So we are going to need to create ongoing capacity within schools to draw on the best research available.
There are a couple of weaknesses in this field of learning progressions that suggest to me that we need to proceed with some caution.
1) Not Yet Validated: Although the learning progressions are developed based on research, they have not actually been formally validated as being effective and more cost-effective than other instructional strategies. Furthermore, it’s very important to make sure they have been developed and are effective for our traditionally under-served students.
2) Accessing the Research-Based Practices: There is no overall map to determine for which parts of state standards learning progressions are available and the priority areas for further development. There is no quick way for a district or school or teacher to know if there is something out there that could be helpful in improving instruction for their grade or discipline.
3) Right Sizing Units of Learning: Granularity of the stepping stones within a learning progression can vary. This is an issue that is just going to come up over and over and over again until someone tackles it by organizing a multi-perspective convening that allows us to create language about granularity rather than simply “small or large,” as well as an understanding of implications for different sizes of granularity in terms of learning, assessment, creating meaning for students, and operational ease for teachers.
4) Beyond the Silos: The learning progressions have all been developed (at least that I know about) within specific disciplines. However, what we don’t know is whether or not students might learn in even more powerful ways in interdisciplinary contexts. Especially as we think about the interplay between mathematics and science, could we enhance learning by developing interdisciplinary progressions?
Background Reading on Learning Progressions