Vertical Learning

Vertical Learning
Vertical Learning

Last week I had the opportunity to visit a Downers Grove middle school for #samricamp. I’d like to give an appreciation shout-out to the DG58 staff and administration for putting on another excellent PD event. I’m always impressed with their ability to organize events and invite all interested educators and administrators to their school.

All of the sessions that I attended were insightful and I have many ideas to think about for the new school year.  I found the last session with Matt and James to be especially useful. See their presentation here. They facilitated a session on the idea of vertical learning. The session started off with questions related to why schools group students by age.  We then delved into what matters as educators engage students in learning. Both questions spurred conversations about differentiating instruction so all students can grow. The consensus was that all of our students come into our classrooms at different levels.  Regardless of their age, students have a “starting point” as they begin and progress through a school year. Sure, educators may group students at similar levels but in reality all students are at different levels of understanding. If all students are expected to show growth, how do educators show and document that growth? I organized my thoughts and came away with something to consider for the upcoming school year.

There’s a need to reorganize our resources

Typically I find most elementary resources labeled by a grade level, not a learning target. For example, a fourth grade class will use a fourth grade district-adopted math and reading text. The English and Science texts are matched to fourth grade based on a publisher’s recommendation. More often than not, teachers are trained to use these types of resources with a certain grade level. Most of the workbooks, worksheets, and journals are all associated with that grade level.

I feel like issues arise when students aren’t ready or have already learned concepts for a particular grade level. What do teachers do then? Instead of “covering” the curriculum teachers should be inclined to emphasize learning targets. What learning targets have students met? Some teachers use pre-assessments and pull groups or use a form of a workshop model. Teachers then scaffold the skills that match learning targets. Formative checkpoints along the way help align instruction, but without resources a workshop model has limits.


Teachers need to have access to resources that match their students’ needs. This can look different depending on your school. Some elementary schools have a resource room with K-5 content spread throughout an array of cabinets. In those cases, teachers can visit the resource room to grab a needed text for a group of students. This can be a valuable resource for teachers although having a resource room isn’t always an option. Also, what happens when students are showing mastery of skills above fifth grade?  What then?  Other schools have staff development educators, resource teachers, or instructional coaches that can point classroom teachers towards resources that might be helpful. Again, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes teachers create or find resources outside of their school to meet the diverse needs of their students. Many educators on Twitter locate and share resources that help with student differentiation. Other educators visit different schools to observe instructional practices that can be incorporated in a different setting.


Regardless of how resources are organized/obtained, I believe there needs to be a plan to communicate the organization to staff. Grade level texts are one resource that can be utilized to help students master concepts and grow. Supplementary resources exist and online/print material should match the curriculum being implemented. I believe the onus shouldn’t necessarily be placed directly on a school district’s shoulders, but they play a pivotal role in what resources are used in the classroom.

Students are expected to show grow regardless of their starting point. Having conversations about how to achieve that vertical learning and how to access resources is important.  I believe having these discussions with staff will benefit students long-term.

Author: Matt Coaty

I've taught elementary students for the past 14 years. I enjoy reading educational research and learning from my PLN. Words on this blog are my own.

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