Learning Progressions: Student Need and Student Choice

corwin_connect_featured_button1This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.


“Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.” William Jennings Bryan

Students are not reborn every September. They are not new to education or to subject-area content. Their desire to learn is innate. While students may get a “clean-slate” each September and have the opportunity to make a new first impression, they are, in fact, the same learner they were the year before. They have the same needs, the same perception of learning and school, and the same eagerness (or perceived lack thereof) that they had on the last day of school the previous year.

Why, then, do we feel the need to re-identify what students need to learn and how they need to show their learning? Why do we hear comments like, “they should have learned this in grade  x” as if educators are then absolved of ensuring that skill or content in question was acquired?

What if, instead, curriculum and instruction were so vertically aligned that teachers were able to take evidence of student proficiency and academic behavior from years past, and use that data to immediately start filling in gaps and advancing learning right from day one? How might this approach affect student learning? How might teachers be better able to differentiate?

While this may seem unrealistic, it doesn’t have to be. By using the information we can garner from high quality assessment and tapping into the power of vertically aligned learning progressions, moving individual students along appropriately can become educators’ reality.

In Visible Learning for Teachers, author John Hattie writes:

“This [learning progressions] is to ensure that appropriately higher expectations of challenges are provided to students: teachers need to know what progress looks like in terms of the levels of challenge and difficulty for the students such that if they were to interchange teachers across grades and between school, their notions of challenge would synchronize with the other teachers’ understandings of progress. This does not mean that there is one right trajectory of progress for all students… Instead, it is more critical to analyse closely how students progress….there is also the question of how to move each student forward from wherever they start through these levels of achievement…”

Rick Wormeli, one of the foremost experts on differentiation, also sees a need for consideration of learning progressions in addition to lateral needs when differentiating for students. In Differentiation From Planning To Practice, Grades 6-12 he writes:

“Tiering generally refers to the way teachers adjust instructions and assessment according to the learner’s readiness level, interests and/or learning profile. I’m not sold on this brief definition as it seems to reflect more lateral than vertical adjustments.”

We are doing students a disservice if we are not intentional about the progression of their learning. What Hattie and Wormeli both describe is another way to differentiate via learning progressions. Learning progressions should be regarded as a fifth way to differentiate in addition to the four generally accepted categories (content, process, product, and learning environment) in which we can differentiate for students (read more about these categories here).

Student learning progressions are different than the learning progressions of the standard. Standards progressions are macro. Here, we are referring to “micro-progressions” within an unpacked standard that allow students to move up one rung of the ladder at a time to reach the standard itself. We will know what student learning looks like and be so deliberate in our planning that we truly meet students where they are and fill the gaps to stop the “they should have learned this” and “we need to move on to the next unit in one week….”

Students need to be viewed as individuals who have different needs that must be met in a particular order for them to be successful. This means teachers will be inclined to vary the type of differentiation they employ rather than just choosing to differentiate “content” or “product” for any given assignment.

This leads us to our next point. For differentiation to be effective, it must be targeted to both the student needs and learning progressions.  A popular method of differentiation by many educators is “student choice”.  Typically, teachers offer students a variety of options and students choose the one or some that they like best. While we wholeheartedly support giving students choice as this builds ownership in the learning process, all choice is not created equal.

For instance, I (Lisa) gave my children a choice for dinner last night. I was tired, rushed, and didn’t feel like cooking. So, I gave them a choice of McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s. While they may have voted me “mom of the year,” I certainly didn’t offer them the best choices for their nutritional needs. Similarly, we sometimes we offer students choices that are not appropriate for their needs and may even muddy the learning process when the learning intentions are not clear.

Take, for example, the tic-tac-toe style choice board that many teachers give students.  Students get to “choose” learning activities based off of their personal preference, not necessarily their need. For teachers, this may seem like differentiating, but, without a targeted goal, action plan, or progression, students are just working to complete different tasks, not necessarily growing.

Take a look at this example of a choice board on The US Constitution:

Constitution Tic Tac Toe — Learning Progressions

While some of the tasks on this choice board may meet the needs of certain students, the likelihood that students will choose the three in a row (assuming the boxes are aligned) they need to grow academically, is improbable.  Additionally, the idea that a student would be able to clearly understand the learning intentions and success criteria (Hattie) from this choice board is equally improbable.

So, what do we suggest?

We suggest to offer students choice (in choice boards or other formats) by using student learning progressions.  In contrast to the tic-tac-toe board above, look at the stairstep example below which accounts for one of the civics learning progressions outlined in the new social studies C3 framework:

Learning Progressions

By considering student need in addition to student choice, teachers can better ensure they are effectively differentiating to affect growth in their students.

Below is a helpful list of questions you can use in with your grade level/department colleagues to create choice boards based on learning progressions:

  • What is the learning intention for this lesson/unit?
  • What prior knowledge do students need to complete this?
  • Where do they need to go next? How do I know this?
  • How will students know where they are going and how to get there?
  • How will I provide feedback?
  • How can I incorporate choice?
  • How can students suggest options which demonstrate their learning?
  • How will the students know if the success criteria has been met?

How do you use learning progressions to differentiate for your students? We would love to hear other suggestions that help best meet the needs of our students. You can connect with us on Twitter @lisa_westman and @stephlarenas.

Teachers Make The Worst Parents


This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

(This is part one of a two part series of posts on parents).

My husband and I are both educators, and as luck would have it our oldest child is the student who educators commonly refer to as “that kid.”  From the moment he was born, our son has been strong-willed, inquisitive, and likes to push the limits (we have no idea where he gets this from).

Teachers often describe our son as “spirited” or “rambunctious,” and he frequently gets in “trouble” at school. In fact, our son got in trouble in his very first classroom setting: the hospital nursery. Yep, that’s right. Our newborn was “kicked-out” of the nursery after a brief 45-minute stay because he was bothering the other babies by crying too loudly.

As he has grown, our son has maintained this dynamic personality, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We appreciate his sense of humor, and ability to engage in lively debates. However, we also recognize that our son defies the definition of a “good” student and can be perceived as a challenge. Because of this, my husband and I become closely acquainted with our son’s teachers over the years. And, while it pains me to admit, at times my husband and I have been “those parents.”

Difficult parents are part of the job for educators. During my career, I have certainly had my fair share of “those students” and “those parents” (you can read about one of those incidents here). But, education is no different than any other profession. Just as doctors have difficult patients and businessmen have difficult clients, teachers encounter difficult customers as well. The key to successful relationships with difficult clients (parents in this case) is to determine what the parent wants and then try to deliver.

But, what do parents want?
Distinguished educators and authors, Todd Whitaker and Douglas Fiore, make a simple claim in their book, Dealing With Difficult Parents. They assert that all parents want the same thing: what is best for their child. However, problems arise because parents don’t always know what is best for their child or how to communicate this desire.

Whitaker and Doulas present profiles (single parent, economically disadvantaged, etc.) and behaviors (yelling, defending their children, unresponsiveness) of demanding parents. None of these groups or actions describe my husband and me. We fall into an entirely different category of difficult parents, perhaps, a much more undesirable bunch. We belong to the category of parents who are also educators.

Ideally, parents and educators are partners in the education of their children. So, in theory, a teacher-parent would make for a perfect partner. But, many times, the opposite occurs as teachers (myself included) feel threatened by educator parents.

Why do teachers feel threatened by educator parents?
Whitaker and Douglas address the notion of teacher defensiveness when they encounter difficult parents. The authors write:

“If we are truly caring people, then as teachers, principals, and superintendents, we should never feel defensive when we deal with parents. We might feel awkward, uncomfortable, intimidated, but we should not feel defensive. If we are making all of our decisions based on what is best for students, then this defensiveness should not be occurring. If we do feel defensive, then it is probably because we, or someone we are attempting to support, has done something wrong.”

The Best Defense is A Strong Offense
And, the best offensive play for educators is effective communication. Peter DeWitt, author of Collaborative Leadership, (yes, I am a guest writer for his blog. No, he didn’t ask me to plug his book; I am plugging his book because it’s awesome) writes: “Make sure you use positive words when talking about students, teachers, and school. It may sound silly to offer this advice, but we hear one positive for every ten negative statements.”

This statement is so true, yet we often don’t realize the words (or the tone) we use are negative. Take the two examples below which both address our son’s inability to focus/engage in learning. Notice how word choice and tone contribute to the message:

Example #1: “Your son has demonstrated an increased attitude of disengagement in classroom activities (whole group, small group, and independent work). He selectively chooses what he will and will not participate in. As I stated in his progress report, “it is a goal for him to become more invested in his learning.”

Example #2: “Good morning! I wanted to let you know that your son received a card change in library this morning for not engaging in the lesson. When he and I chatted about it after he returned to class, he said that he was having a hard time focusing today since he found the lesson to be boring since he already knew the information. I was impressed that he was able to openly talk about how he is feeling and just wanted to keep you in the loop. I will continue to help him practice effective problem solving and from what your son tells me, I know you are doing the same at home.”

Our son presented with the same issue. The teachers responded differently, and so did we.

With example #1, we responded with a battery of questions for the teacher. What interventions had been put in place? What was different about the activities he was choosing to participate in? How did she know it was a choice? Whose goal was it for our son to become more engaged, his or the teacher’s?

With example #2, we responded with gratitude. We felt like we had a genuine partnership with the teacher. In spite of the fact we detested the school’s mandated public shaming system (card changes), we were able to get past our negative feelings because we were so appreciative of the teacher’s positive and collaborative approach.

Reading this back now, I can see the difficult parent in myself in example #1. I can see why the teacher became defensive. We put her in the hot seat.  But, as Whitaker and Fiore report, we acted the way we did because we wanted what was best for our child. And, perhaps, as Whitaker and Fiore suggest, our line of questioning caused the teacher to feel defensive because she knew she had done something wrong.

In reflecting on my reactions to my children’s teachers over the years, I have developed a list of items to consider when communicating with educator parents (and all parents for that matter).

Rather than listing attributes of the child, what concrete examples of behavior, academic, and social-emotional behavior can I share?

  • How can I best communicate the steps I have taken thus far?
  • How can I best communicate my plan moving forward?
  • How can I show (not tell) the parent I want to partner with them in the learning process?
  • How can I positively report negative actions?
  • How can I ensure I am proactively communicating with parents?
  • How can I mitigate the fact that this parent may (subconsciously) feel jealous that I get to teach her child?

This list is not comprehensive and we surely need to consider each parent situation individually, but it’s a start. What works for you when working with difficult parents? I encourage you to share your experiences so we can all grow as educators and parents.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Is the Internet the New Sex Ed?



Photo credit: EdWeek Teacher

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

In 1995 I enrolled at Indiana University as a Freshman. As I struggled to determine my major (journalism, education, or business), my dad offered me some very solid advice. He said, “Lisa, whatever you major in, just be sure to take psychology courses. That will help you in any field.”

And, he was right. My first college course was Psychology 101. In that class, I learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Grasping this basic psychological concept has proven tremendously helpful in understanding people, their motivations, and their reactions. Maslow categorizes the biological needs of humans into five categories:

1) physiological-food, sleep, air

2) safety- shelter, protection from danger

3) belonging- love, affection, being part of a group

5) esteem- self-respect, respect for others, feeling accomplished

5) self-actualization- achieving individual potential

Once we have our basic (physiological) needs met, we attempt to exert control on numerous aspects of our lives as means of survival. (Wikipedia)

However, sometimes we confuse our internal locus of control (what we choose to do, how we react) with our external locus of control (what others do, outside forces).  Striving to manage external forces gives us a perceived sense of control and we superficially feel better. However, this sense of control is a facade, because, no matter how hard we cannot control external factors.

This confusion frequently occurs in our efforts to keep ourselves and our children physically and emotionally safe both at home and at school. For example, take the long-standing debate over whether or not sexual education should be taught in school. Both proponents and opponents of sex ed attempt to control the content which students should/should not be exposed.

Regardless of the side, both parties seek the same thing: to control what students learn about sex to protect them from engaging in activity that could be harmful. We exert our external locus of control to feel as if we are protecting our students. For more than half of the states in our country this “control” takes the form of abstinence-only sex education programs. (NCSL)

“We (educators) will teach you (students) sex ed, but, we will protect you by only teaching you about abstinence.”

But, the role of an educator is not to protect students by covering content. The role of an educator is to protect students by ensuring they develop rich critical thinking skills and can protect themselves.

What is frustrating to me is a parallel I see between this protective approach to teaching sex ed and a similar approach to teaching research skills in today’s classrooms. In an effort to keep children “safe” educators and parents exert external control. This week alone I have seen the following examples:

  • Students are forbidden from using Wikipedia because (the teacher) deemed the site “not credible.”

  • Students are not able to use online sources for a research paper because they are too tempted to copy and paste (plagiarize).

  • Students are not allowed to Google answers to questions because this is cheating.

“We (educators) will let you (students) research, but, we will protect you by only allowing you to use [this] source.”

While these attempts to control research conduct are grounded in the best interest of students; this effort is in vain. We can not control the ease of access to vast amounts of information that students have nor can we control the accuracy of the information available. But, we can control how we teach students to use and analyze the information.

And, this is not my opinion. This is a fact and our obligation to students. The Common Core writing and research standards which vertically align learning expectations for K-12th-grade students prescribe the following as expectations for a 5th-grade student:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.6 With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others;

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.7: Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.8: Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; summarize or paraphrase information in notes and finished work, and provide a list of sources.

So, how do we keep our students safe?

Let students use Wikipedia and other sites they are inclined to use. Credible researchers corroborate their findings with other research.  If students find conflicting information they will need to search more and compare additional sources which is what we want. Teach students how to verify information. Offer them actionable feedback throughout the research process. Engage in discussion about how to decipher if an argument is credible and how credibility is perceived by others. Teach students about confirmation bias and why understanding a counterargument is vital to fully understand any argument.

Don’t make books a punishment.  Making the internet off-limits for student research is an unrealistic expectation and will certainly create resistance and resentment amongst students. Books can add depth to an argument backed with information from the web. Help students discover this breadth.

What should you do if students copy and paste? First, determine if this was intentional or inadvertent. “Plagiarizing” can be tempting for students because someone has already said what they want to say. The original author has likely stated the content more succinctly than the student thinks they can. Plagiarizing is not necessarily done to “skirt the system.” Point out how the student has done a quality job finding evidence and then work with them to incorporate evidence without infringing the author’s work. Either way, explicitly teach and offer feedback regarding how and when to paraphrase and cite work.  If the problem persists, consider altering the assignment to help the student avoid copy and pasting.

Look at Google as a friend, not foe.  Did you Google something today? Were you “cheating” or being resourceful? Google is like a calculator; an instrument which makes accessing information more efficient. With the right content and task, Google can powerfully impact and advance learning. Embrace the power and celebrate that we no longer need take up time or cognitive space memorizing facts. Facts will naturally be committed to memory with repeated exposure and authentic application. Adapt questions and tasks to require higher level analysis and synthesis.

Most importantly, take a step back and consider what you are trying to control and why. Temptations in life will always be present. Misinformation will also always be present. A teacher will not be. The sign of a solid education is when our students have the tools they need to rely on their internal locus of control and make informed decisions when we are not there to “protect” them.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.


%d bloggers like this:
Web Statistics