The start of the new school year offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the life and work of Grant Wiggins, an extraordinary educator who died unexpectedly at the end of the school year (on May 26, 2015). While Grant is no longer with us, his spirit and ideas live on. Indeed, we can honor and celebrate his life’s work by acting on the sage advice that he offered to teachers over the years. As we prepare to meet our new students, let us consider three of Grant’s sensible and salient lessons for teachers.
Grant always reminded teachers of the value of designing curriculum, assessment, and learning experiences “backwards,” with the end in mind. While the idea of using “backward design” to plan curriculum units and courses is certainly not new, the Understanding by Design® framework underscores the value of this process for yielding more clearly defined goals, more appropriate assessments, more tightly aligned lessons, and more purposeful teaching.
Grant pointed out that “backward design” of curriculum means more than simply looking at all of the content and standards you plan to “cover” and mapping out your day-to-day lessons. The idea is to plan backward from worthy goals—the transferable concepts, principles, processes, and questions that enable students to apply their learning in meaningful and authentic ways. Grant knew that in order to transfer their learning, students need to understand “big ideas.” Rote learning of discrete facts and skills will simply not equip students to apply their learning to novel situations. Thus, he advised teachers to plan backward from desired transfer performances and “uncover” the necessary content needed for those performances.
Grant noted that teaching for understanding and transfer will develop the very capabilities identified in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, which are necessary to prepare learners for success in college and careers.
For years, Grant reminded teachers that providing learners with feedback was a key to effective learning and improvement. His insights have been confirmed by research (from educators like Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, and Robert Marzano) that demonstrates conclusively that classroom feedback is one of the highest-yielding strategies to enhance achievement.
Here’s a straightforward test for classroom feedback: Can learners tell specifically from the given feedback what they have done well and what they could do next time to improve? If not, then the feedback is not yet specific enough or understandable for the learner.
Grant also reminded us that classroom feedback should work reciprocally—that is, teachers should not only provide feedback for learners but also seek and use feedback to improve their own practice. Here are four ways that teachers can obtain helpful feedback:
In our writings on Understanding by Design, Grant and I described six facets of understanding: a person shows evidence of understanding when they can explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess. These facets serve as indicators of understanding and guide the development of assessments and learning experiences.
Grand pointed out that the facets have value beyond their use as a frame for curriculum and assessment design. They can be applied to teachers and teaching as well. As one example, he described the phenomenon that he labeled the Expert Blind Spot: “Expressed in the language of the six facets, experts frequently find it difficult to have empathy for the novice, even they they try. That’s why teaching is hard, especially for the expert in the field who is a novice teacher. Expressed positively, we must strive unendingly to be empathetic to the learner’s conceptual struggles if we are to succeed.”
Grant reminded us of the value of being sensitive to learners who do not have our expertise (and sometimes not even an interest) in the subject matter that we know so well. He pointed out that “what is obvious to us is rarely obvious to a novice–and was once not obvious to us either, but we have forgotten our former views and struggles.” He cautioned us against confusing teaching for understanding with simply telling. He encouraged teachers to remember that understandings are constructed in the mind of the learner, that understanding must be “earned” by the learner, and that the teacher’s job is to facilitate “meaning making”, not simply present information.
Grant encourage teachers to develop empathy for students by “shadowing” a student for a day and reflecting on the experience. Recently, a high school teacher took his suggestion and described what it was like to walk in the shoes of a student. Her account, summarized in a blog post with over a million hits, should be required reading for all teachers, especially at the start of a new year. Maybe your will be inspired to engage in this action research in your school.
These are but a few of the many lessons that Grant offered us. Although he is no longer with us, his brilliance lives on in his thought-provoking blog posts, articles, and books. His advice elevates our profession, and our students deserve the benefits of his wisdom.
Editors Note: This post was originally published on ASCD’s Inservice Blog, August 21, 2015. You can view here.
Jay McTighe is an experienced educator and noted author, providing consulting services to schools, districts, regional service agencies and state departments of education through McTighe & Associates. He also serves as a strategic partner for Eduplanet21, which has created the best Understanding By Design (UbD) planning software available today. Schedule a demo.