Learning progressions – descriptions of hypothesized, and in some cases empirically tested, ordered sets of instructional experiences, and the ordered steps or configurations of understanding and skill in important school subjects that would be the expected outcomes of those experiences, if and when instruction is successful in helping students to progress from their initial naïve understandings of the subjects to the expert or sophisticated levels expected when they finish their schooling.

All learning involves progress in some sense, but in modern usage, especially in the United States, the concept of “learning progressions” has a particular association with research and policy discussions about how schools might enable substantially all of their students to meet the more ambitious goals for knowledge and skill that the standards-based reform movement and accountability requirements were asking of them. In principle, any specification or description of the ordered steps that students’ understanding and skill in important school subjects might go through from their starting point in kindergarten, or even earlier, to their meeting or exceeding expectations in 12th grade might be called a learning progression. And the term is widely used in this way to describe steps of varying size, over varying time periods, and with varying degrees of empirical justification.

However, a more rigorous definition was offered by the National Research Council in 2007 when it was introduced in application to science education (NRC, 2007) (a parallel term, “Hypothetical Learning Trajectories,” was introduced in the mathematics education reform community somewhat earlier and has similar connotations (Simon, 1995, 2014)). It used the term to label a process of developing and testing hypotheses about the kinds of instructional approaches and experiences that might enable students over the school years to move from their initial naïve levels of understanding and skill to reach the hoped-for expert or sophisticated levels by the end of their schooling. The NRC committee suggested if, and as, those developments were successful, and if it were possible to identify and distinguish typical and important steps or configurations of students’ understanding and skill, along with characteristic difficulties many or all of them face at points along the way, the term “learning progressions” could be used to label two aspects of this process, both: (1) the distinguishable and ordered set of instructional experiences that enable students eventually to reach the desired goals; and (2) the ordered, identifiable configurations of understanding and skill that are the outcomes at each significant stage of the instructional phases identified in (1).

Clearly if such ordered instructional experiences and their outcomes can be developed and validated they could play an extremely useful role in informing the design of: school curricula; the pre- and in-service education of teachers to provide the grounding for the professional knowledge they would need to use such curricula; the design of assessments referenced to the expected ordered outcomes that could help provide more informative guidance than is afforded by current large-scale assessments, both for day-to-day instruction, when embodied in the curricular activities themselves, and for the evaluation and refinement of instructional policy at larger scales over time.

Whether such benefits will actually be realized is uncertain. The number of well-designed and empirically warranted progressions for important school subjects that have since been developed is quite limited. Much of what now bears the label learning progressions really just represents ordered lists of desired outcomes that are somewhat more refined – at a finer “grain size” and sometimes with more theoretical or empirical grounding – than many existing grade-level standards, but without the connection to requisite instructional experiences entailed in the full definition of progressions. Even the most promising examples of more careful and complete design work fall short of warranting that they deal with the full range and diversity of student experience and backgrounds. Still, there is enough of a start to justify hope for greater payoff over time, if there is clarity about, and political and professional acceptance and support for, what is required for developing, warranting, and using progressions – and caution and modesty about any particular claims.