The Why, What, and How of Learning Scales

Why Learning Scales?

In their remarkable book, Made to Stick, the Heath brothers describe a compelling and instructive experiment. Participants are divided into two groups, the tappers and the listeners. The tappers study a list of well-known American tunes (Happy Birthday to You, The Star Spangled Banner, etc.) and practice tapping out the melodies. Each listener then pairs up with a tapper, who taps out the melody of a song and then waits for the listener to name that tune.

The tappers predict that the listeners will correctly guess 50% of the songs. But the listeners only correctly guess 2.5% of the songs. Why?

It’s pretty simple. The tappers (teachers) forget they have the entire tune playing in their heads as they tap, and the listeners (students) do not. The listeners, according to the Heath brothers, hear a kind of “bizarre Morse Code”, while the tappers hear the whole score.

Ironically, teachers’ expertise--the very trait that enables them to become teachers--can blind them to the reality of the beginner’s mind. The more expertise we possess, the more susceptible we become to what the Heath brothers memorably call The Curse of Knowledge & The Expert Blindspot. And each year this gap can widen, tempting teachers to stare at their learners with the same condescending astonishment of a tapper whose listener just can’t seem to recognize Three Blind Mice.

Drafting and revising learning scales over time provides an antidote to The Curse of Knowledge & The Expert Blindspot. The process requires educators to slow down and imagine in detail what it is that learners can do to make progress toward an important learning outcome. Over time educators become more clear themselves, not just on paper but in practice, and this clarity helps learners, who use learning scales as a formative tool (diagnosing progress and needs during learning) and as a summative tool (communicating levels of performance after learning). Learning scales, at their best, help educators better anticipate and prepare for what their learners will need, while enabling learners to play a more active role managing their learning.

And, over time, teachers learn a potent lesson: tap less; listen more.

What’s the Difference between a Rubric and a Learning Scale?

To understand the main difference, take five minutes to compare the rubric and learning scale below. Which one would be more helpful to learners? Make a list of the specific design features that make one more helpful to learners than the other.
Everyone agrees that the learning scale would be more helpful to learners. Not so surprising, since learning scales are designed to provide formative information to learners so they can determine the kind of practice they need to improve. Rubrics, on the other hand, tend to provide summative information to teachers and students so they can calculate grades.

Learning scales:
  • Are written in first person and present tense.
  • Emphasize what students can do (strength-based rather than deficit-based), so descriptors begin “I can….”
  • Describe a specific progression of development to help learners (and teachers) determine what to do next to improve learning.
  • Calibrate grain size of the target with the duration of the assessment window.
  • Bold the learning target.
  • Target skills that are moving toward transfer (rather than the characteristics of a specific product).
  • Include headings (Getting Started, Making Progress, etc.) or a simple arrow that points to progress, rather than the grade (1-4 / F - A).
  • Can include links to resources that will help the learner identify and take their very next steps.
There’s no need to pit learning scales against rubrics, though. They’re both seeking to make clear what matters most, a necessarily ongoing cause for educators. (Plus, how teachers and students use these tools trumps their differences.) But rubrics do carry the baggage of being born and raised in 100 point / summative-minded school systems; even as teachers tweak them to make them more formative, rubrics retain features that can keep students (and teachers) counting points rather than tracking learning.

Learning scales have baggage, too. Born and raised in school systems transitioning to proficiency-based learning and reporting, they strive to make clear to multiple audiences what learning matters most, what it looks like as it progresses through predictable stages, and where students and teachers should focus to accelerate progress. That’s a big ask for educators, who struggle to identify right-sized standards, let alone describe the stages students go through as they make progress toward and beyond those standards.

All of this would be so much more simple, of course, if educators were in the habit of showing students what we expect, rather than describing it. Imagine where we’d be in just a few years if all educators began curating (with their students!) examples of student work / learning that show what our rubrics and learning scales are trying to describe? Imagine how much easier it would be to write learning scales if we were staring at actual samples of student work that show what learning looks like as it progresses towards and beyond a standard?

How to Begin (and Get Better at) Writing & Using Learning Scales?

Getting clear about what matters most, and getting better at communicating that clarity, is one of education’s (and life’s) most enduring and meaningful challenges. One never reaches the mountain top. Below are tips and resources for accelerating your progress on this career-long hike.
  1. Here is a simple set of directions for getting started. 
  2. Use this learning scale to guide your journey. You’ll find all sorts of resources, some for novices and others for the experienced. (Two of my favorites: Introducing & Acclimating Students to Learning Scales & Tips for Refining Learning Scales Over Time.)
  3. Read this excellent description (thank you, Cult of Pedagogy!) of the types of rubrics out there, and cross reference these ideas / examples with this single-page description of the purpose and design features of learning scales. (Tip: the single-point rubric described by Jennifer Gonzales can be a great way to begin transitioning to learning scales.)
  4. Since the road to clarity is long and steep, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves why we need to keep at the climb, so check out the Heath Brother’s description of the Tappers & Listeners experiment, on page seven of Teaching that Sticks, an inspired executive summary of the Heath Brothers’ magnificent Made to Stick. This humorous and compelling read reminds us why it’s so difficult (and vital!) for educators to be clear and understandable to those we instruct.
  5. Resist expending your precious clarity-seeking energy pursuing low-level, topic-bound learning outcomes. The best way for students to meet those lower-level outcomes is to inspire them to aspire to higher-level outcomes. Here’s a single page doc and a helpful guide for determining the complexity of your outcomes. While it might take time to figure out how to teach to these more sophisticated levels, it’s the key to making the learning compelling, meaningful, and enduring.
  6. Develop the habit of (and a system for) collecting samples of student work that show what learning looks like as it progresses toward and beyond specific standards. Curate as you go, and when summer comes, consider how to use these samples next year as instruction and assessment tools to clarify what you’re after. Over time, invite your learners to help you locate more samples of their work to widen your collection of models. 
  7. Make the climb with clarity-seeking colleagues. Without the sounding board of others, we reside in an echo chamber of our own minds, thinking we’re getting clear, when we’re deluding ourselves (and eluding our learners). Share your ideas / products and study theirs. Revise again. Repeat.
Bill Rich
Red House Learning, LLC


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