Science Interest Could Foster ‘Learning Progressions’

By Sean Cavanagh — October 10, 2006 7 min read
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Most children acquire an understanding of the natural world well before they receive their first science lesson, research suggests. They know that solid objects cannot move through each other, that individuals behave differently, and that plants and animals need food to live.

After enrolling in school, that knowledge is broadened and refined, experts say, as students face society’s expectations for what they need to know about science, for each grade.

Developing a cohesive, logical path between those starting and ending points is the goal of “learning progressions,” a concept that has long interested scholars and soon could draw renewed attention from school officials, particularly when it comes to teaching science.

Path for Progress

A recent National Research Council study argued that schools should focus more on building students’ understanding of “big ideas” in science rather than simply teaching them unconnected facts. The NRC document describes how a “learning progression” can be used to expand gradually students’ knowledge of the central concepts behind matter and atomic-molecular theory in grades K-8.

Big Idea:
“Objects are constituted of matter, which exists as many different material kinds. Objects have properties that can be measured, depending on the matter and the material kinds they are made of.”

(Describing measurements and explanations for properties of objects.)
Grades K-2: Objects have certain properties—weight, length, area, and volume—that can be described, compared, and measured.
Grades 3-5: Weight and volume are additive properties that can be measured; the weight of an object is a function of its volume and the material of which it is made.
Grades 6-8: Mass is a measure of the amount of matter and is constant across location. Weight is a force proportional to mass and varies with gravitational field. Solids, liquids, and gases have different properties.

SOURCE: National Research Council

Learning progressions are frameworks that spell out how student comprehension of concepts should grow over time. Those progressions, scholars say, should be guided by an understanding of how children learn and the knowledge that they already possess or have been taught.

Despite scholarly work on progressions, the concept is unfamiliar in the vast majority of K-12 school systems in the United States, where states and schools have been reorganizing lessons around academic standards and mandatory tests since the late 1980s.

But some researchers believe the approach could gain support as school leaders seek more effective ways of teaching science, with the goal of improving achievement in that subject and producing more students capable of pursuing advanced scientific studies and careers.

A report released last month by the congressionally chartered National Research Council, in Washington, pointed to learning progressions’ potential as a more orderly, less scattershot way of teaching science in grades K-8. (“Panel Points Way to Improving K-8 Science Learning,” Sept. 27, 2006.)

“We see missed opportunities—ways that the learning of science has been compartmentalized,” said Brian J. Reiser, a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., and a member of the committee that produced the NRC report. “The idea behind learning progressions is, let’s figure out a sensible path. We may not use the same path for everyone, but let’s figure out a logical path.”

Connected Steps

Studies of learning progressions, sometimes referred to as “continua,” date back at least as far as the 1980s. Researchers have explored the potential benefits of progressions within many academic subjects and skills, particularly in literacy.

Experts on learning progressions see them as distinct from academic standards or curricula. Standards, such as those set forth by individual states, are expectations for what students should know, with different demands at each grade level. Learning progressions, supporters say, instead describe growth in student understanding over time, drawing connections between the intermediate steps at each grade level.

With academic standards, “you often see no relation between grades 3 and 4. They’re separate pieces of information,” said Margaret Forster, a research director at the Australian Council for Educational Research, located near Melbourne, who has studied progressions extensively. Learning progressions, she said, are meant to “illustrate the growth, and how topic one builds on another.”

Nor are learning progressions supposed to promote certain types of pedagogy, or teaching methods. Teachers should be free to try a number of approaches in using progressions, as long as they promote “progressively more sophisticated ways of thinking about a topic,” said Carol L. Smith, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“We’re not in any way saying there is one, monolithic way to do it,” said Ms. Smith, whose research is cited in the NRC study.

Learning progressions are an alternative to students’ simply learning a “litany of facts,” she said, without understanding how they connect to one another. That was a major theme of the NRC study, which maintains that science instruction in the United States presents topics in an incoherent, disconnected way, with major concepts and less essential ideas receiving equal weight.

“Topics receive repeated, shallow coverage with little consistency,” the report asserts, “which provides a fragile foundation for further knowledge growth.”

Progress Down Under

A better alternative, the authors say, is for schools to focus more clearly on “big ideas” of science, which students can concentrate on in greater depth. Learning progressions are an especially promising method for reinforcing students’ understanding big ideas for several reasons, researchers say. They are grounded in current research on how students learn, and they encourage students to approach a scientific topic in several different ways, returning to it repeatedly and building on that knowledge.

By re-emphasizing important topics, learning progressions also help correct common misconceptions about science that students often bring to school, Ms. Smith argued.

The NRC report does not catalog the “big ideas” schools should focus on—that should be the subject of future research, its authors say—but it gives a few examples. One such concept is the theory of evolution. Another is atomic-molecular theory, or the study of atoms and molecules and their behavior.

The NRC study offers an example of a typical learning progression for that topic, showing how students in K-2 should develop a basic understanding that objects have certain properties, such as weight and volume, and, by grades 6-8, understand the definition of mass, and its relation to weight and gravitational fields, among other ideas.

For years, Ms. Forster has created “progress maps” or descriptions of learning progressions, for students in Australia, in reading, math, science, and other subjects. Several experts cite her work as having strongly influenced thinking among scholars in the United States on how progressions can work. National, state, and district governments in Australia have used Ms. Forster’s progress maps, and her organization has also advised officials in foreign countries, including Chile and the Philippines, in developing their own.

Ms. Forster’s organization produced progress maps in reading, speech, listening, and other areas based on an analysis of a 1996 nationwide literacy survey financed by the Australian government. Government officials there described the lackluster literacy results as “a national disgrace”; the progress maps were generated as a way of setting clearer descriptions of crucial skills.

The progress map in speech describes five skill levels. At the most basic level, pupils should be able to express simple ideas, even if they convey limited meaning, and present stories, even if they are “disjointed or incomplete.” At level 2, they should be able to tell a story with a plot, include key information, and offer opinions, even if they are not justified views.

At level 3, students should be able to show evidence of organization in their speech, justify their opinions, and give key ideas about characters, experiences, and events. Level 4 skills include the ability to present a strong point of view, and make a complete, well-organized presentation. And at level 5, students should be able to combine the use of appropriate language, the presentation of challenging ideas, and organization into a well-reasoned speech, according to the progress map.

How Detailed?

The challenge in producing progress maps is knowing “how much detail do you go into,” Ms. Forster said in an interview. Early versions of maps she designed “were so detailed, there was no making sense of them,” she recalled.

Ms. Forster’s organization has developed three posters showing progress maps in reading, writing, and spelling, which were distributed by the national government to primary schools across Australia. Since publishing them, she said, school administrators have told her they found the maps useful in making academic goals for various subjects clear to teachers, students, and parents.

Understanding cognition—or how students learn—is essential to creating an effective learning progression, researchers say. Many students, for instance, arrive in kindergarten with the ability to distinguish between objects and materials, and make observations about them, the NRC study notes. Those early skills—often overlooked by educators—can prove valuable for teachers in building student understanding of scientific measurement, according to the report.

By contrast, educators and others should avoid the assumption that students are not cognitively capable of understanding a concept by a certain grade or age, said Mr. Reiser of Northwestern University. Students’ struggles at one level of a learning progression may be the result of their not having been taught the material the year before, or not having been exposed to it before starting school.

“It’s not an argument that 4th graders’ brains can’t do that,” Mr. Reiser cited as an example. “It’s that the progressions haven’t prepared them for that. … It’s, ‘What would the progression be in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade to prepare them for that?’ ”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Science Interest Could Foster ‘Learning Progressions’


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