Grant Wiggins

Curriculum is the least understood of the reform efforts, even though parents have more day to day contact with curriculum than choice or accountability. This is in large part because curriculum advocates don’t agree to the degree that accountability and choice reformers do, but also because teachers have far more control over curriculum than most understand. As Larry Cuban explains, curriculum has multiple layers: intended, tested, taught, and learned. Curriculum battles usually involve the intended curriculum, the one designed by the state, which usually creates the tested curriculum as a manageable subset. (Much of the Common Core controversy is caused by the overwhelming difficulty of the tested curriculum, but leave that for another time.)

But intended and tested curriculum are irrelevant once the doors close, and in this essay, I refer to the taught curriculum, the one that we teachers sculpt, whether we use “the book” (actually just pieces of the district approved book), use another book we like better, or build our own.

To the extent most non-educators know anything about curriculum advocacy, it begins and ends with E. D. Hirsch, otherwise known as “the guy who says what my nth grader should know”, author of a book series he eventually transformed into a curriculum for k-6, Core Knowledge. Hirsch offers one Big Idea: improving student background knowledge will improve their reading comprehension, because only with background knowledge can students learn from text. But, the Idea continues, schools ignore content knowledge in favor of teaching students “skills”. To improve reading comprehension and ongoing student academic outcomes, schools must shift from a skills approach to one dedicated to improving knowledge.

Then there’s Grant Wiggins, whose death last week occasioned this essay as an attempt to explain that we’ve lost a giant.

The media proper didn’t give Wiggins’ passing much notice. Valerie Strauss gave his last blog sequence a good sendoff and Edutopia brought back all their interviews with him. Education World and Education Week gave him obits. It doesn’t look as if Real Clear Education noted his passing, which is a bit shocking but perhaps I missed the mention.

Inside education schools, that world reformers hold in considerable contempt, Wiggins’ work is incredibly influential and his death sent off shockwaves. Since 1998, Understanding by Design has been an essential component in preparing teachers for the professional challenge of deciding what to teach and how to deliver the instruction.

Prospective teachers don’t always understand this preparation will have relevance to their lives until their first year in the classroom. Progressive ed schools would never say anything so directly as “You will be faced with 30 kids with an 8 year range in ability and the textbooks won’t work.” Their ideology demands they wrap this message up in hooha on how insensitive textbooks are to the diverse needs of the classroom. Then, their ideology influences the examples and tasks they choose for instruction. Teacher candidates with an instructivist bent thus often tune out curriculum development classes in ed school, rolling their eyes at the absurd examples and thinking keerist, just use the textbook. (Yeah. This was me.)

Usually, they figure out the relevance of curriculum instruction when they get into the classroom, when they realize how laughably inadequate the textbook is for the wide range of abilities and interests of their students. When they realize the book assumes kids will sit patiently and listen, then obediently practice. When they realize that most of the kids won’t bring their books, and that all the well-intended advice about giving consequences for unprepared students will alone result in failing half the class, never mind the problems with their ability. When they realize that many kids have checked out, either actively misbehaving or passively sitting. Worst of all the teachers experience the kids who are eager to learn, try hard, don’t get it, and don’t remember anyway. Then, even after they make a bunch of adjustments, these teachers realize that kids who do seem to be learning don’t remember much—that is, in Cuban’s paradigm, the learned curriculum is wildly different than the one taught (or in the Wiggins universe, “transferred”).

The teachers who don’t quit or move to charters or comprehensives with a higher SES may remember vaguely hey, there was something about this in ed school (hell, maybe that’s just me). So they go dig up their readers and textbooks and suddenly, all the twaddle about diversity and cultural imperialism fades away and the real message becomes legible, like developing invisible ink. How do you create a learning unit? What are your objectives? How will you assess student learning? And at that point, many roads lead to Wiggins.

Grant Wiggins was impossible to pigeonhole in a reform typology. In 1988, he made 10 proposals for high school reform that leaned progressive but that everyone could find some agreement with. He didn’t think much of lecturing, but he wrote a really terrific analysis of lectures that should be required reading for all teachers. (While I also liked Harry Webb’s rejoinder, I reread them in preparation for this essay and Grant’s is far superior.) He approved of Common Core’s ELA standards, but found the math ones weak. In the space of two weeks in 2013, he took on both Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch, and this is after Ravitch flipped on Hirsch and other traditionalists.

Grant Wiggins was more than ready to mix it up. Both his essays on Hirsch and Ravitch might fairly be called broadsides, although backed with research and logic that made both compelling, (perhaps that’s because I largely agreed with them). His last two posts dissected Hirsch supporter Dan Willingham’s op-ed on reading strategies. While he listened and watched teachers intently, he would readily disagree with them and was rarely gentle in pointing it out. I found his insights on curriculum and instruction absolutely fascinating, but rolled my eyes hard at his more excessive plaints on behalf of students, like the nonsense on apartheid bathrooms and the shadowing experience that supposedly revealed the terrible lives of high school students—and if teachers were all denied the right to sarcasm, as he would have it, I’d quit. He didn’t hesitate to say I didn’t understand the lives that students lead, and I told him right back that he was wrong. More troubling to me was his conviction that most teachers were derelict in their duty and his belief that teachers are responsible for low test scores. But what made him so compelling, I think, is that he offered value to all teachers on a wide range of topics near to our needs, whether or not we shared all his opinions.

I knew him slightly. He once linked to my essay on math philosophies as an example of a “learned” teacher, and read my extended response (do I have any other kind?) and took the time to answer. Then, a few months later, I responded to his post on “teacher job descriptions” with a comment he found worthy of pulling out for a post on planning. He then privately emailed to let me know he’d used my comment and asked me to give feedback on his survey. That was a very big day. Like, I told my folks about it.

In the last week of his life, Grant had asked Robert Pondiscio to read his Willingham critique. Pondiscio, a passionate advocate of all things content knowledge, dismissed this overture and declared his posts on both Willingham and Hirsch “intemperate”. Benjamin Riley of Deans for Impact broke in, complimenting Grant and encouraging the idea of debate. The next day, Daniel Willingham responded to Grant on his site (I would be unsurprised to learn that Riley had something to do with that, and kudos to him if so). Grant was clearly pleased to be hashing the issues out directly and they exchanged a series of comments.

I had been retweeting the conversation and adding comments. Grant agreed with my observation that Core Knowledge advocates are (wrongly) treated as neutral experts.

On the last day of his life, Grant favorited a few of these tweets, I think because he realized I understood both his frustration at the silence and his delight at finally engaging Dan in debate.

And then Grant Wiggins died suddenly, shockingly. He’ll will never finish that conversation with Dan Willingham. Death, clearly, has no respect for the demands of social media discourse.

Dan Willingham tweeted his respect. Robert Pondiscio wrote an appreciation, expressing regret for his abruptness. If the general media ignored Grant’s passing, Twitter did not.

I didn’t know Grant well enough to provide personal insights. But I’m an educator, and so I will try to educate people, make them aware of who was lost, and what he had to offer.

Novices can find plenty of vidoes on his “backwards design” with a simple google. But his discussions on learning and assessment are probably more interesting to the general audience and teachers alike—and my favorites as well.

Reformers like Michael Petrilli are experiencing a significant backlash to their causes. Petrilli isn’t wrong about the need for parent buy-in, but as Rick Hess recently wrote, the talkers in education policy are simply uninterested in what the “doers” have to offer the conversation.

Amen to that. The best education policy advocates—Wiggins, Larry Cuban, Tom Loveless–have all spent significant time as teachers. Grant Wiggins set an example reformers could follow as someone who could criticize teachers, rightly or wrongly, and be heard because he listened. If he disagreed, he’d either cite evidence or argue values. So while he genuinely believed that most teachers were inadequate, teachers who engaged with him instantly knew this guy understood their world, and were more likely to listen.

And for the teachers that Grant found inadequate—well, I will always think him in error about the responsibility teachers own for academic outcomes. But teachers should stretch and challenge themselves. I encourage all teachers to look for ways to increase engagement, rigor, and learning, and I can think of no better starting point than Grant Wiggins’ blog.

I will honor his memory by reading his work regularly and looking for new insights to bring to both my teaching and writing.

If there’s an afterlife, I’m sure Grant is currently explaining to God how the world would have turned out better if he’d had started with the assessment and worked backwards. It would have taken longer than seven days, though.

My sincere condolences to his wife, four children, two grandsons, his long-time colleague Jay McTighe, his band the Hazbins, and the many people who were privileged to know him well. But even out here on the outskirts of Grant’s galaxy of influence, he’ll be sorely missed.

About educationrealist


35 responses to “Grant Wiggins

  • Grant Wiggins | Reaction Times

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  • Jim

    I think many people (including myself) are rather confused by the statement that Common Core deals with standards and not with curriculum.
    If solving quadaratic eauations is in the standards then doesn’t it have to be in the curriculum?

  • Jim

    I wasn’t talking about anything you said but about frequent assertions I’ve heard in other venues that CC “is not curriculum”.

  • spare armadillo

    ER: “Then there’s Grant Wiggins, whose death last week occasioned this essay as an attempt to explain that we’ve lost a giant.”

    Based on quick looks at some of the links, I have the impression that both Wiggins and Willingham downplayed the importance of IQ differences, to the extent that they both didn’t think the smart kids should be taught differently from the dumb kids.

    Maybe I’m wrong about that, but if that’s what Wiggins thought, then he could only have been a giant in comparison to pygmies.

    http://www.math.lsa.umich.edu/~jrs/plans.html

    The Pithiest Book Review of all Time

    When pygmies cast such long shadows, it must be very late in the day.
    –Gian-Carlo Rota, reviewing a book on contemporary philosophers

    • Jacob

      No, this is wrong. If your question is, “what determines who does best on the end of year math exam?” Then IQ is pretty much your answer. If the question is, “how do I make sure my class isn’t a total waste of my students’ time?” Then go read Understanding by Design.
      The whole point of this blog, as I see it, is that we don’t have to stop caring about the second question just because we stop deceiving ourselves about the first.

      • spare armadillo

        JACOB: If the question is, “how do I make sure my class isn’t a total waste of my students’ time?” Then go read Understanding by Design.

        If the smart students and the dumb students are taught the same way, then the class will be mostly a waste of time for some students, and quite possibly for all students. You’re not doing the students with IQs in the 80’s any favors by teaching them with methods appropriate for students with IQ’s above 130. And of course the students with IQ’s above 130 will be bored to tears if the teaching is appropriate for students with IQ’s in the 80’s.

        Did Wiggins really think that dumb students can productively be held to the same standards as the smartest students? I got the impression that he did think that. If I’m wrong about that, please correct me.

  • educationrealist

    The whole point of this blog, as I see it, is that we don’t have to stop caring about the second question just because we stop deceiving ourselves about the first.

    I don’t know what the whole point of my blog is, but +1 to this.

    Diverse high schools with high IQ kids don’t have many kids with 80 IQs in normal classrooms. I wrote about it here. So you’re really talking about the low end being 95.

    And while Wiggins didn’t care about cognitive ability, he didn’t dismiss people with lower IQs as worthless or “dumb”.

    • spare armadillo

      ER: And while Wiggins didn’t care about cognitive ability, he didn’t dismiss people with lower IQs as worthless or “dumb”.

      I don’t think people with low IQs are worthless. I really like the idea of a country where anyone who’s willing to work and not be too irresponsible has a good shot at a fulfilling life, whether or not they’re able to solve math puzzles or make sense of Shakespeare.

      ER: So you’re really talking about the low end being 95.

      I was talking about Wiggins and his views on education. Did Wiggins not concern himself with people below IQ 95? Or did he really think that people in the bottom IQ quartile should be taught in the same way as people in the top quartile? If that’s what he thought, then he was a loon.

      • educationrealist

        For many progressives, cognitive ability is a complicated issue. And to explain what he thought is more effort than I want to get into for an IQ fundamentalist.

        Wiggins didn’t want low IQ kids getting bad education.

  • EB

    Wiggins and Willingham (and Cuban) all have really worthwhile things to say about curriculum. Where they differ, it often seems to be because they’re talking about different age groups and/or different subjects. Or different dimensions of the instructional process. When we’re talking about pre-school through Grade 1, I’d add Bereiter and Engelmann, whose Direct Instruction curriculum you’d never want to subject kids to for 6 hours a day, but it’s proven to be very effective in preparing disadvantaged kids for the elementary grades and forward, and to be equally as effective for middle class kids.

    • educationrealist

      Yeah, my beef with Engelmann is that his DI has only really been tested with reading, but I see him apply it to math. I agree that his DI method is a good way to teach reading.

      • EB

        I take your point about reading having been better tested than math. But in the Pre-K though 3 levels, a big part of math is making sure the children understand the words that are being used to communicate the arithmetic relationships and processes, and making sure that the instruction contains no ambiguity, and for that DI is very effective.

      • educationrealist

        He makes claims about algebra. There’s that old video that he thinks shows that kids are learning algebra. Black kids, no less! (is the subliminal message). Meanwhile, the kids are counting on their fingers.

  • Anubis

    Here is one “reformer” that meet karma. He reduced the crime committed at his school by 60% by ordering school cops to ignore felonies. He got sacrificed to the PC gods for supporting a cop at the Pool Hoax whose narrative has already been disproved.
    http://theconservativetreehouse.com/2015/06/10/north-miami-high-school-principal-fired-for-supporting-mckinney-police-officer-same-school-district-that-told-police-to-hide-thug-behavior/

  • Paul McG.

    I only encountered Understanding by Design fairly recently — a few years ago in an education master’s program. On that particular topic what I found most odd was that so many folks in academic education seemed to think that the objective ➔ assessments ➔ content sequence was such a novelty. Vocational education designers have been doing it that way (at least in theory) for about 5 decades. I learned this as “the Mager approach” (referring to Robert Mager) when learning instructional systems design the USAF in the early 1980s. When I took my teacher credentialing courses in the early 1990s in California I was mystified as to how this sequence of curriculum development was never mentioned, but since curriculum development was rarely mentioned any way it would never occur to me to look for an “academic” source to complement Mager’s “vocational” focus.

    The rest of your post sounds interesting and I will follow those links eagerly. I became a fan of Hirsch while my wife and I taught phonics to our children who were, at that time, being victimized by the whole language movement in California. I was told by a teacher that whole language was based on Hirsch’s ideas so I started reading him expecting to find the ravings of a lunatic. Needless to say, I quickly realized that whole language had nothing to do with Hirsch.

    As for Willingham, because I develop training for and teach an adult audience exclusively and was so happy to find academic validation for my conviction that “learning styles” are bunk, it’s been hard for me to imagine him being wrong about anything — so I look forward to reading that exchange.

    Thanks for pointing out that Mr. Wiggins has more to say that’s worth reading about.

    • educationrealist

      See, I don’t understand why people are so obsessed with “proving” that “learning styles are bunk”. It’s like the people who are obsessed with showing every person in the world that creationism is wrong. In both cases, who cares what people believe? There’s no evidence that learning styles hurts. So if you have a good teacher who engages the kids, what difference does it make?

      Moreover, most state standards rely on things like “multiple modalities” and “multiple learning styles”. So if Willingham wants to change things, why not start with the states? Instead, he constantly attacks teachers. I’ve concluded he’s much more interested in attacking teachers than in changing things. Very much not a Willingham fan. He’s either wrong, or right about irrelevancies.

      I like Hirsch, think content is important, but these days have found much to believe in Wiggins’ criticism.

      But as always, I think the important thing is to read and take away from many sources. Glad you liked the essay.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Moreover, most state standards rely on things like “multiple modalities” and “multiple learning styles”. So if Willingham wants to change things, why not start with the states? Instead, he constantly attacks teachers.

        Maybe he thinks that’s an indirect way of changing the states. Maybe he thinks there’s less incentive for the states to change if teachers (and ed school professors) believe “learning styles are real.”

        I was surprised to read, “I’ve concluded he’s much more interested in attacking teachers'” since he had a long-time column in one of the teachers union’s magazines.

      • educationrealist

        I’ve wondered the same thing. I’m swamped this week and need to get back to writing. Will give you my thoughts–or nag me. By the way, thank you very much for the emails you’ve been sending.

  • Mark Roulo

    Paul: “As for Willingham, because I develop training for and teach an adult audience exclusively and was so happy to find academic validation for my conviction that ‘learning styles’ are bunk…”

    Ed: “See, I don’t understand why people are so obsessed with ‘proving’ that ‘learning styles are bunk’. It’s like the people who are obsessed with showing every person in the world that creationism is wrong. In both cases, who cares what people believe? There’s no evidence that learning styles hurts. So if you have a good teacher who engages the kids, what difference does it make?”

    Note that Paul teaches adults. I once was in charge of developing and then teaching a 1 week long intense “Introduction to Java Programming” class for my employer. If I took seriously Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences” and believed that I needed to address seven different types of learners mapping to seven different types of intelligence (visual/spatial, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, bodily/kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal) I’d have given up. As it was, I just ignored the whole thing and taught the class.

    I’m fine doing that. And didn’t feel a need to justify leaving out musical/rhythmic learners.

    Other people, I suspect, feel a need for more vindication that (a) they aren’t alone, and (b) that just getting on with the teaching is “okay.”

    • Paul McG.

      Yes, you nailed it Mark.

      The multiple intelligences nonsense is a great analogy. How does it hurt? I’d say that it “hurts” in the same way that insisting that lesson plans integrate the “Vulcan mind-meld” method of tactile knowledge transfer. Not only does it waste the time of the lesson planner, it has the great potential for not only wasting the time of learners, but boring them (if they’re smart enough figure out that they’ve already “got it” and are safe to ignore the additional examples being offered for so-called kinesthetic learners, for example), or driving out effective instructional methods, like drill.

      I see visual, kinesthetic, and auditory learners. Why I don’t see is any acknowledgement of the “get the information you need to take a stab at it, get feedback on practice until you’ve got it right, and then practice some more until you’ve got it down cold” style of learning.

      • educationrealist

        Why I don’t see is any acknowledgement of the “get the information you need to take a stab at it, get feedback on practice until you’ve got it right, and then practice some more until you’ve got it down cold” style of learning.

        I think Mark is right about the adult/child divide. Because outside the top 10% or so, very few kids want to do this.

      • bcphysics

        I’m very late to the party here…
        Re: Multiple intelligences. The idea put forward by Gardner wasn’t that a musical learner can learn math better by making math into songs. Rather, it’s that some people have higher intelligence in music. Other people then twisted this idea into “learning styles.” Gardner even had an article in the Washington post or NYT this year (maybe last year?) clarifying his work. He didn’t explicitly say that learning styles dont exist, but he did make it clear that it wasn’t his idea and that he has never seen evidence that learning styles exist.

      • educationrealist

        I don’t even know what a “learning style” is. I do think it’s obvious that we remember things differently–the fact that we have both iconic and echoic memory means that we have different paths for visual vs. auditory memory. It’s certainly reasonable to think that people have different preferences for acquiring information. Less clear that this would result in different teaching methods, or that it would have a difference in academic outcomes.

        It’s also likely, however, that self-taught people in earlier centuries weren’t using auditory or kinesthetic senses that much.

      • bcphysics

        Yes, that’s my point too (mostly). To begin with, and as you point out, no one knows what a learning style is.

        Here is the Gardner article/blog post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/16/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-are-not-learning-styles

        Gardner points out that he hasn’t seen persuasive evidence that applying different styles to different MI is beneficial, for reasons he states in Problem #2 in the blog.

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  • Tort

    This is my 21st year in a public education school district, and prior to these last two decades I taught for thirteen years in private school. Since working in the public school system, every few years something new comes our way. I can’t tell you all of their names, probably because I stayed the course with traditional methods. Just like the traditional clothes I like to wear, traditional teaching is more rock solid, never goes out of style, and seems to bear the hallmark of truth.

    Our students don’t want to work at learning, so we must adjust. They don’t want to do homework. Some of them, in fact many, failed math in grade three and four; some of them had teachers in those grades who could not do math either, and I know this for a fact.

    In taking a mid career hiatus from teaching math back in ’99 through ’06, the social studies teachers taught me right away: start with the test and work backwards. Made sense. I do this in math, but it doesn’t solve the problems with the kids who failed grades three and four, but who move on.

    ED, I admire you for your honesty and for your keen analytical abilities in all you do and in writing here about Mr. Wiggins. I think he lost me when he felt that the teacher could magically, or skillfully, make up for all the deficiencies produced by the system–deficiencies that, in fact, produced the inexcusable laxity in students who lacked the desire that, say, a poor Indian student would have in trying to escape his poverty.

    And I don’t work in a school with low SES students, yet the system has failed the kids. Why wouldn’t Mr. Wiggins, or any education expert talk about this? I know the answer, which is why the reformers have so much traction.

    I don’t think he liked it when I disagreed with him about coaching, and I don’t think he would know anything about me except what he might have discerned based on my comments to him in that same post. I should have asked him how many D or F grades he would consider acceptable if he walked in my shoes as a 9th grade teacher trying to teach subjects that required certain basic pre-requisite knowledge, but the knowledge was missing.

    Without insulting Mr. Wiggins further for his fine work and commitment to education, I think the problems in teaching and learning have more to do with what many of your readers say regarding cognition–not limited to just the students–and the fact that teachers will not all be geniuses. But, for the life of me, we are competent communicators and more than competent in knowing our subjects. This should be adequate, and in the world of private education this is enough. The fallacy that dissenters will cite is “better students.” Not true, I know. What is better is the structure of the system and the shared accountability. This is sadly antithetical to democracy, my critics say. And they’ve driven up the cost of education and have created a veritable marketplace for experts and paid policy wonks, and a cash cow for all others who don’t work in the classroom.

    Too simple. I know, ED, I know. Charter and Choice is the natural result of a system that is not open to hearing simple truths about what it takes to produce education.

    You have written another fine essay. Thank you!

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