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Learning Progressions: Ladders of Understanding

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Definition: Learning Progression. A representative set of incremental and interconnected stages in an individual’s development of understanding about a specific concept or topic that, over time, evolves toward increasingly complex ways of thinking.

Proof Points…

When states first developed their curriculum standards in the 1990’s, they were typically organized into grade spans. The goal was to allow curriculum flexibility with the idea that a student was expected to understand the concept, “By the End of Grade…” The general guide for the grade placement of standards within grade bands was perceived beliefs within the content community about when and how the big ideas of a discipline unfolded. State and national standards were in turn used by educators to develop aligned curriculum frameworks and later, accountability systems.

In light of current information being derived from cognitive research, the sequential arrangement of topics and concepts that are embedded in broad standards is being rethought. These ideas are now being mapped into learning progressions, webs of interconnected ideas that illustrate how over time, student’s ideas deepen and become more sophisticated and do so in predictable ways. Research-based learning progressions enable us to reframe how we think about Standards and Learning Expectations for students and to view them from a long-range perspective. Similar progressive changes in what people are capable of doing are also being plotted.

Applying novice to expert learning progressions as a framework for organizing the K-16 curriculum is consistent with research showing that deep and lasting learning occurs best: 1. over time, 2. through repeated and scaffolded exposures to concepts, and 3. when encountered in a variety of educational contexts.

The Way It Works…

The idea of using information drawn from research-based learning progressions as a framework for supporting substantive STEM curriculum reform is rapidly gaining acceptance. A student’s knowledge base expands as they become increasingly able to make logical cognitive connections between different but related concepts. By cognitive connections we mean relationships among ideas in which knowledge of one concept contributes to understanding other larger ideas. Within a learning progression, clusters of interrelated ideas become increasingly sophisticated across grade levels and subject areas. The following table offers a research based perspective on the development of students’ ideas about sinking and floating. The metaphor of a ladder of understanding illustrates why the mastery of precursor ideas and skills introduced in earlier courses and grade levels is essential for making the type of cognitive leaps that results in a deep and flexible understanding of the central concepts within a discipline.

Ladder of Understanding


What Student Knows about Why Things Sink and Float



Knows how relative density affects floating and sinking in different liquids.


Knows how density affects floating and sinking in water.


Knows how the relationship of mass to volume affects floating and sinking.


Knows how volume affects floating and sinking when mass is held constant.


Knows that mass affects floating and sinking when volume is held constant.


Has productive misconceptions about why things sink or float.


Has basic misconceptions about why things sink or float.


Shows no understanding of why things sink or float.


The Learning Progressions in were based solely on Tennessee’s K-High School Learning Expectations. No claim is made that these organized sequences of concepts were or will be validated by research. The K-High School Learning Progressions found in were developed to help districts design science and mathematics curriculum frameworks that are generally consistent with what is known about how students learn and aligned assessment systems. Vertically coherent sets of learning experiences support heightened student readiness for learning that incorporates the key elements of STEM education…problem-solving and inquiry.


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Learning Progressions in Science: An Evidence-based Approach to Reform

Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8