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Aurora Institute

Do Learning Progressions Have to Be Linear?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Caroline Messenger

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

learning progressionsSometimes in teaching we deal in “revelations:” big ideas that students are supposed to get at the end of a unit or learning progression. They are supposed attain these foundational concepts and understandings after progressing through a sequence that is designed to end at a particular point – a point we as educators decide upon when we create a unit of study or a curriculum.

According to Wiggins and McTeague, we are supposed to plan for the big ideas before we even start teaching. We are supposed to plan for where we end up before we even begin. And there’s a lot of good reasoning why. If we know where we’re going, then we can ultimately plan for how to best get there. But there’s a troublesome piece to that. Sometimes our “best” way to get there doesn’t suit some of the students in the room. And sometimes our endpoint is too fixed. Sometimes we create a round hole while students craft a square peg.

Are we right? Are they wrong?

A straightforward definition of a learning progression is to examine it as a “sequenced set of building blocks that students must master en route to mastering a more distant curricular aim.” (Popham, 2007)

Currently, the Common Core has replaced the teacher and the school as the determinant of when students should master concepts and skills. It is our learning progression and it has already determined our “distant curricular aims.” I know students should be reading at particular levels at particular times. I know students should have mastered persuasive writing by the time they come to ninth grade, so that my objective is to continue the work associated with argumentative writing. And educators involved with mathematics have their own timing issues as the Common Core has redirected particular math skills to brand-new points in time.

To say the path to knowledge and skills has changed would be a tremendous understatement.

Thinking about learning progressions hasn’t changed too dramatically through all of this. They still rely on sequencing and obtaining certain skills at certain points so that students can, at some distant moment, attain knowledge or a skill. But in a standards-based learning environment, this thinking about learning progressions can be dangerous. Wiggins warned about “microstandards,” (Wiggins, 2013) citing a metaphor about twigs: twigs come from trees, but they cannot be used to make one. They can, however, be used to burn a tree down. Learning progressions can easily espouse “microstandards” if educators are not cautious in how they plan student learning.  Common Core standards should stand as the goal, and rather than break them apart, educators need to be open to a variety of ways students can get there.

That is the difference. Rather than create one staircase to a standard, teachers need to allow their students to forge multiple paths. The metaphor of a staircase is outdated, as well. Are we really moving up or moving forward? A staircase implies that certain steps need to be mastered before students can continue their trajectory. But in exploring how students learn, a staircase model means that students can get stuck on certain steps, and be left behind. The reality is that students can write a paper that has great reasoning but a lousy thesis statement. They can craft an argument, but not really address any counterarguments. Do they really need to accomplish mini-benchmarks before they can move on, or do they need to be writing and using feedback from peers and educators to help them reshape, revise and rewrite? If we shift our thinking away from a linear model of a learning progression, we allow students to forge new paths – ones we as teachers may not have ever thought about.

The Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts contain an entire section devoted to speaking and listening skills. Here, students are supposed to master collaboration, oral and written communication, presentation skills, problem-solving skills, and time management – to name a few. As a reflective teacher, I incorporate these skills into other standards – like characterization, theme-building and narrative structural analysis. Currently, my students are engaged in literature circles, and I am quite comfortable saying how disastrous it was – at first. After three days of guiding them through the process, walking them through the role sheets, and facilitating discussions, I wanted to run far, far away from the situation. They struggled with self-control and self-discipline. Honestly, they didn’t have much of either.

But my frustration and my impatience should not be the foundations for educational decisions. What students need and when they need it are far more important than my anxiety about how long it will take them to get through a chapter or whether or not I can start another unit “on time.” Those concepts are gone. How can I start another unit if they haven’t demonstrated growth and progress with this one? I could hijack the class. I could wrest control back, end the literature circles, and engage them in lecture about my ideas while they take notes.

Or I could take a deep breath and walk them through the process again – for the seventh time – and engage them in practicing skills like self-control and self-discipline. In our class, we discuss workloads and deadlines. By the end of this week, students and I agreed that they should be through chapter five – reading, annotating, discussing and completing activities. After each reading, I include a small research endeavor – it is a valuable skill and one students don’t get to do on a regular basis. In this particular reading, the main character references The Brady Bunch, a show that was a main staple in my after-school TV watching, but one most students don’t know. The question was raised during one group’s literature circle talk.

“What’s The Brady Bunch?” one boy said.

“I think it was a TV show in the 90s,” replied another member of his group.

“Nope!” shouted Troy, who was in a different group across the room. “It ran from 1964 to 1972 and it was about some crazy big family. I researched it at home. I think it’s the only research I ever did at home.”

Then he turned around and got back to work with his group.

Well, what do you know? I thought to myself. I had encouraged students to conduct their research in class on smart phones or by using my computer. Troy had changed that. Troy had actually raised the bar – the next day, more students had looked up allusions and references before coming to class, and it enhanced their discussions and their ability to connect characterization to theme. They began asking why the author made these references, and searching for meaning. They had forged a new path.

My lesson and my instruction don’t look like a staircase. They don’t look like a straight line pointing to the sky. Instead it looks like a very short road that branches and arcs out into many, many different directions, all seeking to reach the same destination.

Eventually, we’ll all get there. In the mean time, I have students helping one another, conducting research, writing, annotating and asking questions they may have never asked if I just stood at the front of the room, chalk in hand, scribbling notes only about my experience with the novel.

Giving up linearity means surrendering control. It means teachers don’t just drive one educational car. Instead, they show their students how to drive and gradually release control of the learning to them. It means planning enrichment activities and opportunities so that everyone is learning, from the kids who conquer concepts quickly to the students who need to meander a little.

Learning progressions certainly help me plan. But they should never be definitive nor should they advocate a single, linear approach to learning. Rather than limit a progression to a sequential or time-based step on a staircase, progressions can move students forward. Mastering how to write a thesis statement should not mean a student doesn’t move forward. It should not mean a student gets held back or left behind. Perhaps he’s really mastered the art of the counterargument. Perhaps he has finally mastered how to organize his ideas. As long as his teachers keep him writing, he will come to know what a good thesis statement looks like through practice, models, revision and feedback.

While he didn’t do it with me looking over his shoulder, Troy has gained competency in research skills. He summarized what he read, and he applied that new knowledge with his group, trying to discover the author’s intent in referencing The Brady Bunch and how it enriches the various meanings they could develop.

Making sense of the Common Core and its role as a learning progression doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be linear. Progress isn’t linear, and creation is messy and confusing. Allowing students opportunities to practice, experiment, conference and redo can be defined as progress. Moving forward, advancing skills and knowledge, is progress.

Failing to attain competency on a step of the staircase doesn’t require students be held back or left behind. It just means their learning plans should reflect their needs as well as their strengths. It means school leaders and districts need to put the students at the center of their decision-making. Rather than deny students opportunities to spend more time with a teacher or task, they should struggle with how they can make those opportunities happen. The goal needs to be progress, in all its forms and glories.


Popham, W. (2007). All About Accountability / The Lowdown on Learning Progressions. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 83-84.

Wiggins, G. (2013). Getting Students to Mastery. Educational Leadership, 71(4).

Caroline Gordon Messenger has taught English for grades 6 through 12 for the past 14 years. Before earning her teacher certification, she was a professional journalist. Messenger holds a Master of Arts in Oral Traditions and a research Master of Philosophy in the Sociology of Education from Lancaster University in Lancaster, U.K. She currently teaches English and Journalism at Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck, CT. Reach her on Twitter: @cjmessenger