A Model of Progression

From Daisy Christodoulou and Dylan Wiliam:

The coach has to design a series of activities that will move athletes from their current state to the goal state. Often coaches will take a complex activity, such as the double play in baseball, and break it down into a series of components, each of which needs to be practised until fluency is reached, and then the components are assembled together. Not only does the coach have a clear notion of quality (the well-executed double play), he also understands the anatomy of quality; he is able to see the high-quality performance as being composed of a series of elements that can be broken down into a developmental sequence for the athlete. (Embedded Formative Assessment, p.122)

Wiliam calls this series of activities ‘a model of progression’. When you break a complex activity down into a series of components, what you end up with often doesn’t look like the final activity. When you break down the skill of writing an essay into its constituent parts, what you end up with doesn’t look like an essay.

The key sentence for me is: “When you break a complex activity down into a series of components, what you end up with often doesn’t look like the final activity.”

Sam Shah wrote recently about what I think could be described as a model of progression for learning the unit circle. He breaks his progression down into three phases:

  1. Get confident with angles
  2. Start visualizing side lengths
  3. Putting it all together

Within these phases, Sam goes into more detail to look at the specific questions and tasks that will lead students through each phase of the progression. And the progression is only one element of a larger progression of trigonometric thinking.

It’s important that Sam’s progression for the unit circle takes time to reach complex tasks. The progression doesn’t ask students to figure out too much too soon, and unashamedly focuses on small building blocks in order to build toward larger goals.

I love this type of thinking, and while I’ve done it informally, I want to improve at making progressions a deliberate part of my planning. A template for backwards planning might look like:

  • Select broader curricular topics for a course or portion of a course
  • Develop models of progression for those topics
  • Select day-by-day learning goals that lead through those models of progression
  • Outline success criteria to see whether students have met learning goals

I want to try and put this into practice with several units during the latter part of this year and, if it feels useful, make thinking about models of progression a regular part of my planning.

3 thoughts on “A Model of Progression

  1. Aaron Bieniek

    I wonder if the success criteria, instead of measuring success at the end, can be used to both develop the progression and drive the day-by-day learning goals. In this way, success criteria are “sign-posts” along the way that help students know they are on the right track and help them plan for their individual learning needs. I’m thinking about the work of Shirley Clarke in her book Active Learning Through Formative Assessment.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Interesting. I’m not familiar with that book — I’ve always tried to get myself to work from the end goals backwards (and had trouble doing that consistently). But they definitely have a role developing the progression as well.

  2. Pingback: A Model of Progression: Geometric Series | Five Twelve Thirteen

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