What are Learning Progressions?

Scholarship on learning progressions (LP) in science has emerged over the past five years, with the first comprehensive descriptions of learning progressions, on the nature of matter and evolution, published as commissioned reports (Catley, Lehrer & Reiser, 2005; Smith, Wiser, Anderson & Krajcik, 2006). Currently there are multiple research reports on learning progressions in multiple domains such as: ecology and biodiversity (Songer, Kelcey, & Gotwals, 2009), modeling (Schwarz et al., 2009), genetics (Duncan, Rogat, & Yarden, 2009), force and motion (Alonzo, & Steedle, 2008), and environmental systems (Mohan, Chen, & Anderson, 2009). Learning progressions (LPs) are depictions of students’ increasingly sophisticated ideas and practices in a domain over time (Duschl, Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007; Smith et al., 2006). Both the Taking Science to School (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007) and The Learning Progressions in Science: An Evidence-based Approach to Reform (Corcoran, Mosher & Rogat, 2009) reports argue for the development of learning progressions as a means to build coherent curriculum and assessment systems. To some extent LPs are a response to the “mile wide and inch deep” curriculum in the U.S., which covers too many topics in a perfunctory manner (Schmidt, Want & McNight, 2005). Thus the LP approach advocates for a focus on fewer, yet powerful, ideas, a process of deepening students’ understandings of these ideas over time, and the development of assessment that can measure such progress.

In many ways LPs are not a new idea and share similarities with other constructs that focus on the development and deepening of children’s knowledge over time such as Bruner’s (1960) spiral curriculum, developmental corridors (Brown & Campione, 1994), and learning trajectories in mathematics education (Carpenter & Lehrer, 1999; Clements & Sarama, 2009; Fennema, Carpenter, Frank, Levi, Jacobs & Empsonet, 1996). It is important to note that LPs by their very nature are hypothetical; they are conjectural models of learning over time that need to be empirically validated.

There are four key features that characterize LPs in science (Corcoran et al., 2009):

  1. LPs are centered on a few foundational and generative disciplinary ideas and inquiry practices. Several researchers have argued that it is the combined focus on content and practice that is unique to the current definition of science LPs (Smith et al., 2006, Songer, Kelcey & Gotwals, 2009; Schwarz et al., 2009).
  2. Second, LPs are bounded by a lower anchor and an upper anchor. The lower anchor describes assumptions about the prior knowledge and skills of learners as they enter the progression. The upper anchor describes the expected outcomes by the end of the progression and is predominantly determined by societal expectations and analyses of the domain.
  3. LPs describe the development of students’ understandings as intermediate steps or levels between the two anchors. These levels are derived from analyses of research on student learning in the domain. LPs also include descriptions of expected learning performances at each level that can be used to track student progress.
  4. LPs are mediated by targeted instruction and curriculum. That is, they describe learning as facilitated by carefully designed learning environments.

LPs differ from descriptions of scope and sequence in that they are grounded in research on how students actually come to understand core ideas in the domain, rather than analyses of normative knowledge in the domain. This is a critical point because the intermediate steps in a progression may include understandings that vary significantly from the canonical knowledge of the domain. In addition, LPs provide a tighter coupling of scientific content and scientific inquiry practices.