Learning Progressions: Student Need and Student Choice

corwin_connect_featured_button1This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.

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“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.

Yes, Differentiation is Hard. So, Let’s Get It Right. 

For other posts on differentiation, read these posts:

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

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Today’s guest post is written by 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.

I must admit, I love a good challenge. I love the learning that comes from trial and error. I love hitting roadblocks and finding detours. This probably explains why I also I love differentiating instruction. I equate differentiation to a giant jigsaw puzzle with student needs being the pieces. Once I fit the first pieces together, the next few pieces fall into place. There are moments of frustration as mistakes I inevitably make mistakes and completing the puzzle may take a while, but the result is always worth the effort.

Like puzzles, differentiating instruction can be a complicated endeavor. In fact, a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute found that 83% of teachers nationwide believe that differentiation is “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement. Subsequent differentiation statistics support the 2008 finding; educators continue to consider differentiating instruction as strenuous. These results are not surprising. As one of differentiation’s foremost experts, Carol Ann Tomlinson explains,”I absolutely understand that differentiating instruction well is not easy. But then, I’ve never felt that teaching should be easy.”

Teaching is not easy. Teaching is a career that requires a physical, emotional, and mental commitment. Teachers are used to things being “hard”. So, why should differentiating instruction be the exception? This leads me to wonder: “Is watching students struggle because their needs are not being met easier than differentiating?”

In January of 2015, educational expert Rick Wormeli tweeted, “far from being a detriment to student learning [differentiated instruction] is the only way we can teach all students, not just the easy ones.”

Wormeli’s tweet is a call to action. Differentiation is our puzzle and as dedicated educators, we certainly can solve it…one piece at a time. We just need the right pieces. Ironically, I have found this is precisely the issue with many educators’ perception of differentiation. They have the wrong pieces of information. Teachers operating under a set a fallacies will often disregard differentiation entirely or ineffectively implement with no clear benefit to students.

To avoid exerting coveted time, energy, and resources for naught, I would like to clarify some common misinterpretations of differentiation.

#1: “Differentiation means I have to plan something different for every student.”

Clarification: Differentiation means that your students are engaged in learning that is appropriate for their readiness level, and they can learn at their pace. Differentiation also considers student interest and preferred learning style. These criteria can be addressed without planning for each student individually.

Now, what?  Pre-assess students. Look for patterns of performance to initially group students. Then, formatively assess students and regroup them as their needs change. To incorporate student interest, look at The Common Core Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and the C3 framework as a gift. The majority of these standards are concept or skills-based rather than rooted in specific content. Use standards as a springboard for planning relevant, skills-based learning experiences. Allow students to have an influence on the content by asking them targeted questions to determine their interests relative to standards being assessed.

#2: “I differentiate by grouping students by reading ability and giving them leveled readings.”

Clarification: This may seem like differentiation, but in actuality this is tracking within the classroom setting. Leveled texts don’t necessarily address the specific needs of students which are often unrelated to reading ability. All students deserve access to challenging and interesting material. Differentiation comes into play with how students interact with the text.

Now, what? Differentiate the process (task) and product (how learning is demonstrated) for students. Consider the level at which students will engage with the text and how they can best show their understanding. The same text can be used by most students by compacting the curriculum for high-achievers and scaffolding for students who need more support. Refer to Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and Bloom’s Taxonomy in conjunction with student conferencing to co-evaluate student progress and co-design their learning process. Not only is conferencing a type of formative assessment, but it is an opportunity to model effective questioning, gain insight into students’ thought processes, and offer students ownership of their learning.

#3: “I can differentiate effectively using one data point.”

Clarification: Impossible. First of all, there is quantitative data (think numbers) and qualitative data (think observations). To differentiate most effectively a combination of data types should be used. Additionally, multiple formative assessment results need to be examined to allow for flexible pacing and grouping which are the hallmarks of differentiation.

Now, what? Think about the data you are currently using. Is this data giving you information about the whole child on a day-day basis? What does this information tell you? What other information do you need? Work to eliminate meaningless data points, offer a multitude of formative assessment types, and use academic data as well as affective data to get a clear picture of each student.

#4: “Differentiation is easy, just give the high students more and the low students less.”

Clarification: Differentiation is not more or less. Differentiation is challenging a student just enough so that it neither impedes learning if too hard or causes apathy if too easy or redundant. (Cash, Richard).

Now, what?  Think quality over quantity. It is quite possible that one high-level question is more challenging than twenty low-level questions. Plus, being asked to show mastery of a concept or skill twenty times builds frustration for high-achieving students because they don’t need the practice and similarly produces frustration for struggling students because they are practicing the skill incorrectly 20 times.

#5: “I don’t need to change anything about my instructional practices to effectively differentiate.”

Clarification: Frankly, the factory model of teaching is not appropriate for today’s learners. If at any point while reading this blog post you thought, “Well, I can’t do that because what would the rest of the students be doing…?” this misinterpretation may be subconsciously preventing you from truly differentiating for your students.

Now, what? Don’t beat yourself up; you are not alone. The first step in change is recognizing the issue. Take small steps and allow yourself time to learn and practice. If your district employs instructional coaches, partner a coach in an authentic coaching cycle.  If your school district does not have instructional coaches, partner with a colleague. Engage in a book study and try something together. Lastly, I encourage everyone to build a global PLN (professional learning network) by connecting with other educators on social media.

As you begin the school year, try to reconcile these misconceptions by attempting to implement one of the clarifications. Be patient and if a piece isn’t fitting, reflect and try another piece. Differentiation may never be easy, but it will always be worth the effort.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter @lisa_westman.

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