June 1, 2015 by

Four Lessons for Life, Leadership, and Learning: A Tribute to the late Grant Wiggins

GW_2008Grant and I first met at my hometown bagel shop. He was kind—and maybe curious—enough to answer my e-mail, which had this subject line: Hopewell high school dropout, now urban school leader.

I was desperate yet optimistic. As a young leader of a new charter school for overage and undercredited youth in St. Louis, I needed all the help I could get. Who better than an education icon who coached soccer and played music in my small hometown?

Growing up, I had no idea that an education legend lived nearby. I am sure we saw each other from time to time. My brothers played sports with his kids and he was often at the pizza shop and pool where I worked. I learned of our common hometown connection years later, while reading his book Understanding by Design. Like many people in education, I was transformed by Grant’s thinking. I was set on figuring out a way to get Grant Wiggins to know and care about our fledgling school. Then I read his bio in the back of the book. Amazed, I sent him an e-mail and asked to meet.

That first get-together turned into many. Grant and I tried to meet whenever I was home. We would talk about work and family and wrap up by postulating about the future of education in America. He counseled me through the rise and fall of that fledgling school (read more here), helped design competency education frameworks on napkins, and stayed with me as I left school leadership and transitioned into my current role with The Forum for Youth Investment.

The lessons Grant shared over coffee and bagels became cornerstones of my professional and personal identities. In remembrance of my dear friend and mentor, I offer four of Wiggins’ lessons for life, leadership, and learning:

  1. Be authentic.

The education world will remember Grant for his championship of authentic learning and assessment. His friends will remember an equal commitment to authentic living. Our experience of life and learning mattered deeply to Grant. From him, I learned to examine my world with deliberate intention. He challenged me to assess my own life and circumstances, asking whether I was living as my most authentic self.

In some ways, I have patterned my life off of his: I chose to move with my husband and young children from the city to a sleepier and smaller community, where I am recognized as a person before a professional; I left the classroom and school leadership to think, write, design, and partner with a broader network of educators and youth workers; and I became a fierce critic of traditional schooling and teaching, in favor of more authentic and competency-based models. The last time I saw Grant, I told him I was harnessing my “inner John Dewey and Grant Wiggins,” and in so doing I had finally embraced my most authentic self.

  1. “Do not ever lose the vision and passion.”

This ended the note Grant sent me after our first get-together and has remained a truism ever since. Grant was older and far more experienced than I. He had intimate knowledge of the struggle that comes with a lifetime commitment to kids and education that works. When we met, I was just starting out, fresh from graduate school and the classroom and new to leadership. Passion and vision ran aplenty.

I came to most appreciate this lesson later on, when faced with the hard decision to either shut down our school or change the model or student body. I never lost the vision or passion. The board and I chose to close the school. We were passionate about disconnected and hard-to-reach young people and had a vision for their lives and learning that could not be accomplished while running a Missouri public school. This choice led me to my current job. Grant taught me that when your passion is unchanged and your vision unrealized, you keep trudging ahead, even if it means charting a new course.

  1. Plan with the end in mind.

When Grant pushed me to orient my life around clear vision and passion, he set me free to identify the “essential questions” that drive my work and give me structure to plan my role in making that vision a reality. To Grant, vision is what we see when our goals are achieved. Vision became the starting point of my professional trajectory and everyday decision making. The overflow became, as Grant and his colleague Jay McTighe would say, logical: “Set a goal, get feedback about where we stand and how we might improve, then take action to close the gap” (Schooling by Design, p. 25). This is now the way that I work and parent, love and lead.

  1. Choose what’s right for kids.

Above all, choose what’s right for kids. Mission matters more than model. This is the most important and significant lesson that Grant taught me. Whenever I would thank him for finding time to meet, he would shrug and smile and say, “Of course, we’re part of the same tribe.”

This tribe, we who choose kids over certain politics or pedagogy, is small but mighty. This week we have lost one of our finest tribal leaders. A wonderful man and mentor who never mistook his leadership and influence for privilege or prestige. A man who stood on the side of young people, poured into the next generation of educators and leaders, and spoke truth to power. Grant always put young people first. The long arc of his too-short life shows an unwavering commitment to improving and moving learning to a place that most benefits those it is designed to serve.

There is much to fix in education today and still plenty of work to be done. Let us rally, as an authentic tribe, in remembrance of a great leader, to envision a world where kids matter most, where their schooling and learning matches how they are designed to learn and grow and flourish. Let us plan our systems, schools, and classroom settings with that in mind. And let us not ever lose the vision or passion.

Grant, you will be missed by us all. Rest in peace.

Stephanie Malia Krauss is a senior fellow at The Forum for Youth Investment, where she focuses on issues of youth readiness and competency-based education. She was previously president and chief executive officer of Shearwater Education Foundation.