“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:
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:
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.