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.
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.
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.