Learning Continuum. Learning progression. Learning trajectory. Aren’t they all just referring to the same thing?


Learning continua and progressions organize learning outcomes into a hypothetical model for how learning develops vertically and typically expects students to progress through the learning phases at a particular age and within a set period of time. Learning trajectories a la Michael Battista, have two unique attributes that distinguish them from these other models. Learning trajectories involve researching each student’s cognitive performance, documenting the historical thought processes used by that student, and then supporting more sophisticated levels of reasoning by providing a personal learning experience for each student. That isn’t to say that instructional activities can’t be provided to groups of students. They can. But, students are grouped according to what and how they need to learn next in a cognitive-based approach to learning.

Check out this YouTube video to hear from Dr. Battista directly:

Given that the important distinction is that the focus is on how students are thinking or reasoning, we need to engage with and assess students differently if we are going to get into their heads. This might involve very informal interactions, such as just asking students to explain their thinking. It could also involve using journals in the classroom, a la Dr. John Collins, founder of Collins Education Associates. Dr. Collins understands the value of having students put their thinking into written text and advocates using a journaling process to capture this thinking in domains such as math and science. You can learn more about the Collins Writing and Thinking Process at Another approach to assessing students thinking is through the use of cognition-based assessments. Battista’s book on this type of assessment is published by Heinemann (see

Regardless of how we understand their thinking, the important thing is that we seek to understand it. Only then can we provide the support needed to help all students progress. As noted in Battista’s books, traditional practices are leaving 80% of our students behind. We need a personal approach to learning for each student that begins with understanding the cognitive processing of each learner.

“Personalized learning” is in vogue right now, but unfortunately, educational publishing companies have commandeered this term and made it about individualizing the delivery of instruction for a student using algorithms and the flexibility of technology. And that misses the mark.

“Personal learning” has emerged as the term to distinguish learning that is truly owned by the learner from differentiated, individualized, or personalized learning. A key distinction is that in personal learning, the focus is on the learning. Historically, we have referred to differentiated instruction and individualized instruction, where the focus is on the instructional practice employed. Personalized learning, given how this term has been hijacked, is more accurately termed personalized instruction. In all three instances, the student is still the recipient of some program imposed by a teacher or computer program.

Personal learning recognizes and respects learner agency. When fully empowered, the learner decides what to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it. Indeed, it is how we learn what we choose to learn. Suppose, for instance, that you want to learn about meteorology. You may choose to explore this topic on the internet, read books, take a class, attend lectures, engage with an expert or mentor, or even do your own scientific studies. You choose what specific topics you want to explore and to what depth. You may be intensely engaged in your learning at times and there may be periods of time when you invest very little effort into your learning. This is personal learning.

All well and good you say, but we still have learning expectations for students. Yes, we do. And, those are important references for learners as they design their learning paths and plans. Content standards, though, are only one important reference for learners. Career credentials may also define external expectations. Performance standards may define expectations for others. The point is that what a learner chooses to learn and prioritize in the process is more a result of their aspirations, passions, and personal goals than a one-size-fits-all list of requirements. Do all graduates really need to know how to “express a logarithm as the solution to the exponential equations ab^ct=d where, a, c, and d are numbers and the base b is 2, 10, or e; evaluate the logarithm using technology.” (SC Pre-calculus math standard PC.FLQE.4) or even SC Geometry standard G.GSRT.1: “Understand a dilation takes a line not passing through the center of the dilation to a parallel line, and leaves a line passing through the center unchanged. Verify experimentally the properties of dilations given by a center and a scale factor. Understand the dilation of a line segment is longer or shorter in the ration given by the scale factor”?

Learning can happen anywhere, at anytime. It doesn't require sitting in a classroom.

As schools and districts seek to better support personal learning, there are some elements to consider:

*Class schedules and seat time need to be replaced with time management and demonstration of mastery. In a world where we need to ensure that the children entrusted to our care are safe, we do need to know where they are. Additionally, we want to be sure to monitor their learning progress so that we can support, encourage and coach them. There are many software solutions available today that enable this. As for mastery, I’ll tackle that in another blog.

*Learners need to develop learning plans that take into account their goals, passions, and current achievement levels, as well as learning styles, resources, and opportunities. As noted above, these plans also need to consider external requirements associated with their learning goals.

*It is the learning that must be validated. A competency-based, mastery-driven system to verify the accomplishments of each learner needs to be in place. Learning that happens within the system and outside of the system needs to be validated. A number of micro-credential and badge systems are available today to support this approach.

*Teachers will still teach, but not to a captive audience. Instead, they need to offer lectures and experiences informed by learners’ plans. Further, they need to function more as coaches, resources, and consultants, in response to each learner.

*Policies, resource allocation, structures are among the many other elements that need to change in a true personal learning environment.

Admittedly, this vision represents a significant change from the current model of school. The change management process can occur, though, through very intentional and well managed stages. Systems, like individuals, go through predictable developmental phases. We’ve attempted to capture this process in the maturity model. We believe strongly that the whole system needs to maintain alignment throughout the evolution of becoming a personal learning system. We welcome your feedback and constructive thoughts on this model.

If we are truly serious about each student achieving college or career readiness and graduate prepared for life, then school boards need to step up their game.

John Carver introduced the notion of a better way of governing called Policy Governance©. Randy Quinn and Linda Dawson, well versed in Carver’s model, improved on Carver’s work after working with boards for more than 30 years. An introduction to their approach, Coherent Governance©, can be found in their book, “Good Governance is a Choice: A Way to Re-create Your Board the Right Way”. It’s worth the read.

As Quinn and Dawson point out, “many board members simply don’t know what their jobs are” and find “themselves entrenched in a governing system so inherently inadequate that failure was unavoidable”. Having worked with boards, Quinn and Dawson are not insensitive to the dynamics many board members experience and understand why many boards “chose to succumb to the inertia that bound them to a role of mediocrity”. But, they also paint a clear and simple picture for a better way.

Quinn and Dawson make it clear that “the board, not the CEO or staff, should own the vision for where the organization is headed and assure that systems are in place to realize the long-term vision.”

To accomplish this, an overhaul of the board’s governance system is recommended which involves reducing the 5” policy manual to around 30 very clear and focused policies. These policies address Governance Culture, Board-CEO Relationships, Operational Expectations, and Results. And then the hard work begins…monitoring the implementation of those policies and holding responsible parties (including themselves) accountable for success.

Quinn and Dawson promise that if a board will do the hard work of implementing this approach with fidelity, they will realize significant results.

Having worked in a district that adopted Policy Governance, I know first-hand the value of this approach toward achieving the organization’s mission. The Coherent Governance approach proffered by Quinn and Dawson evolves Carver’s model in important ways informed by the application of the approach.

If we are to ensure the success of each of the precious children entrusted to us, the work needs to start with the board doing their part. It’s time for board meetings to stop majoring in the minors and get serious and focused on the mission of schools.

You can learn more about Quinn and Dawson's work at

© 2020 Sepati Ingera, LLC.