Like many others in the world of education, I was saddened by the loss of Grant Wiggins on May 26th. Before I begin my summer period of writing on what I’ve learned this year, it seems appropriate to share just how much Grant and his ideas helped shape my classroom into the place of learning it has become.
I was lucky to have met Grant when he came to my school in the Bronx in my fourth year teaching. My assistant principal at the time worked to bring him and was understandably excited to share the news of his approaching visit. I had not read Understanding by Design from start to finish in my education courses, but the principles described were frequently referenced. I was embarrassed to learn that I knew of Grant’s ideas but not his name. My wife pulled out her copy of UbD when I told her who was coming to visit us and pointed to Grant’s name on the cover, and I realized this wasn’t going to be just another disconnected day of PD staring at a PowerPoint presentation.
The time he spent with us began a transformative period of refining my planning process, possibly the most significant I’ve had over my twelve year career.
His beliefs around assessing content skills independently pushed me to experiment with standards based grading. His famous analogy identifying the distinction between practicing soccer skills and playing in a game revealed clearly the mismatch between the different types of assessments I was using and the mixed levels of success my students had on them. I experimented more with open ended problems to give my students the experience of playing the game of mathematics. I came to shed my fear of exposing students to problems that they hadn’t seen before, and instead embraced them as opportunities to expand student intuition around the associated skills. This shift away from the ‘skills first, application later’ philosophy became central to my teaching. It would take a bit longer for me to successfully integrate essential questions into my unit planning routine. I changed my lesson planning routine to be end goal oriented rather than being decided by sections in a textbook or pacing guide. It took longer to feel comfortable using essential questions to plan lessons, but I knew when I first learned about their power that I wanted to develop my ability to do so.
I also learned a great deal about the power of sharing ideas from reading Grant’s blog. It was clear that he saw his work helping teachers as a process leading them to discover these truths for themselves, and not as a keeper of secret knowledge to be doled out by buying the next book. He was always describing his experiences with teachers as they were developing their craft. He wrote openly about the struggles he faced along the way. When I started blogging myself, I felt obligated to service my own teaching through a similar level of honesty in writing. I was honored that he also discussed and shared my ideas on a couple occasions.
A colleague of mine once said that much of the professional development we receive as teachers is little more than stating the obvious. The ideas that Grant shared were not new, but they also were not what I was told from the beginning of my training as a teacher. They should have been. Start from the end, give students opportunities to think big, and assess authentically what you want your students to be able to do. Keeping these ideas at the front of my teaching has not always resulted in the outcomes I expected, but I love how they have shaped my priorities when sitting down to plan what comes next.
It is often the small shifts in thinking that make the big differences in what we do daily. I am thankful to Grant starting this process for me. I know his work lives on in the many classrooms that have been touched by his ideas, and students are the ultimate benefactors of the changes he promoted in our classrooms.
Thank you, Grant, for sharing your life with us.