Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Thank You, Grant Wiggins

The first real education book I actually read was Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. It was 1998 or 99, shortly after it was first published, and our principal bought the book for the entire faculty to read over the summer. I had read parts of education texts in the past, of course, but all seemed so theoretical or irrelevant or merely a means to credit in my teacher prep classes. But UbD was different. It made so much sense. It was so intuitive. It was so practical. As a new teacher, backward design was just what I needed to help me make sense of a profession that seemed so confusing and arbitrary.

Over the next decade and a half, I devoured education books, continuously searching for better ways to improve learning. I read about multiple intelligences, differentiation, personalization, standards-based grading, mindset, grit, habits of mind, performance assessments, and every book I could find about the brain and learning. At the beginning of this school year a colleague said to me about our school’s move towards standards-based learning, “I’m just going to buckle down and wait this initiative out like all the others. Believe me, it will go away.” She then cited many of the above as evidence. I didn’t say anything, but here’s what I should have said. For good educators, nothing we learn about improving learning goes away. As new research about the brain and teaching emerges, we have a professional responsibility to incorporate the new into the old, to take the parts that work, tweak the parts that should work but don’t, and think critically about what we are doing and why. The connections between and among “initiatives” are clear when we look for them—when differentiation became big, it didn’t replace earlier knowledge we had about learning, it built upon it. And everything I have learned about education has built upon the idea of backward design.

Here’s the point. Understanding by Design was foundational. All of my professional learning seems to stem in some way from the ideas in that book, ideas that are just as relevant and effective as when they were first written down. In fact, I would argue that they are even more powerful today when combined each successive “initiative” and what we know about the brain and learning.

A few years ago, some colleagues and I were lucky enough to see Grant Wiggins present. We were at the edge of a transition in our school, and we had been asked to grapple with some big ideas about vision. After our first day listening, we became more confused than ever. Grant recognized this (Adam Bunting doesn’t have much of a poker-face) and approached us. He listened attentively, asked a few really pointed questions, and then sent us out into the hallway for the rest of the conference to work out our ideas. With the help of his colleague Allison Zmuda, we crafted what became known as our “napkin vision,” lots of notes actually written on a napkin. There were hundreds of teachers at that presentation, but at the end of the day, Grant asked us what we had come up with. He asked if he could take it back to his hotel to look at it more closely. He didn’t need to do that. And he certainly didn’t need to give us the incredible feedback he gave us the next morning. The questions he asked and the suggestions he made are a large part of why we are where we are today as a school.

In the past few years, I have followed @grantwiggins on Twitter and have read every blog post on his incredible blog “Granted, and…” at His January posts about differentiated instruction were some of the most powerful and important to our current work, and came at a time when we needed some intellectual weight to support the hard work our teachers were doing. And his recent posts, including his last, on reading strategies, will be powerful for years to come. There are so many times in the last few years when I have envied Grant his direct approach to critics and his candid opinions about the moral necessity of good teaching.

Today, we lost one of the most influential thinkers of our time.  I did not know Grant Wiggins personally, but I can only imagine that he was as good a man as he was an educator. His work has and will continue to inspire teachers, and I am grateful that I was able to be one of them. Thank you, Grant, for such important work. You will be missed.