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Aurora Institute

Progressions? Trajectories? Continuum? Oh My!

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Does anyone else get mixed up by the use of the phrases learning progressions, personalized pathways, learning objectives, trajectories, and learning continuum? I do.

They are all terms that try to convey in one way or another that learning is a continuous process that builds on prior knowledge, skills, and experiences. And they are used in all different ways throughout our field. As best I can tell, there are three concepts at play:

  1. The expectations for learning. (What do we want students to learn, and how are these organized over levels?)
  2. The research on how students move from one concept to another that can inform instruction.
  3. The actual way any one student learns and progresses, which is of course very important when trying to meet students where they are.

I think the place where I just about fell under the table and almost gave up hope of ever making sense of all the different usages was at a meeting convened by Achieve on the topic of learning progressions (research that maps the ways students learn key concepts). The room was filled with top researchers from every domain, they themselves using different language, with some calling their research progressions and the others trajectories. It was clear they were never going to agree on any common language for themselves. (I think it is one of the reasons their research isn’t as well known as it should be.

However, Achieve took the big step of branding the field with the term learning progressions…and since then I’ve followed their lead and only use the term learning progression to describe research on how students learn and to inform assessing how students are learning (not just that they did or didn’t) and instruction.

Here’s how I’ve been making sense of this concept and language challenge (and a big shout out to David Ruff at Great Schools Partnership who brought a lot of clarity to these ideas).

A Common Learning Framework: A Common Learning Framework (often referred to as a learning continuum or a learning progression) defines the set of learning expectations used by districts and schools to define what every student should know and be able to do. Think state standards or the transparent set of learning objectives that schools create in competency-based systems. The common expectations should indicate the performance level that is expected to demonstrate proficiency or mastery. This descriptive language needs to be moderated by educators looking at student work to build a shared understanding of what it means to meet those expectations. Districts and schools across the country use a variety of different language and formats to communicate the common learning expectations. Internationally, these are referred to as curriculum frameworks. The important thing to remember: Just because standards are written in a linear way doesn’t mean they have to be taught or learned that way.

Instructional Learning Progressions (ILP or Instructional LP): It’s not going to work to just use the language of learning progressions to refer to the research. The term is used too frequently in other ways. So let’s call them instructional learning progressions. They are based on research within academic domains that have mapped the ways students learn concepts and skills. These progressions inform formative feedback and provide a framework for instructional decision-making. For more details, please see this brief by Achieve on The Role of Learning Progressions in Competency-Based Pathways.

Learner Progression: In every classroom, different students are at different stages of their learning. A student’s learner progression (different than the learning progression) indicates where an individual student is in his or her learning, including the range of concepts and skills that are potentially understandable based on the academic domain, level of support, and the student’s social-emotional skills (see Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development). The learner progression is used to communicate progress, monitor pace, and identify future learning targets so that it is transparent to students, teachers, and parents where students are in their growth.

Learner progressions are roadmaps of the actual ways that students are progressing. While the Common Learning Framework and the Instructional Learning Progression frame learning and support for each student, a student’s unique learning continuum and accompanying tempo may actually differ from these uniformed sequences based on individual learning needs, interests, opportunities, and aptitudes. With a common learning continuum, students can see all the learning expectations and begin to organize and package them in ways that are meaningful to them.

What do you think, does this help? I’m still a bit troubled by the Common Learning Framework – it’s not a term used and could just cause confusion. Would Common Learning Expectations be better? Is there another way of clarifying these ideas that can help the field of CBE, students, and parents understand that there are three ideas at play: expectations, research about how to best provide instruction, and then the path students actually take?

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