Back-to-school lessons from an education giant

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By Jay McTighe

The start of a new school year presents the perfect opportunity to reflect on the life and work of Grant Wiggins, an extraordinary educator who died unexpectedly in May 2015. Although I am an only child, I considered Grant my brother as well as an intellectual partner and best friend. I think of Grant every day and still miss him greatly.

While Grant is no longer with us, his spirit and ideas live on, and we can honor and celebrate his life’s work by acting on the sage advice he offered to educators over the years. Here are three of Grant’s most important lessons for teachers.

Lesson #1: Plan backward from an authentic performance task.

Grant always reminded educators of the value of designing their curriculum “backwards,” with the end in mind. While the idea of using backward design to plan curriculum units and courses is certainly not new, the Understanding by Design® framework, which we co-created, underscores the value of this process for yielding clearly defined goals that promote understanding and transfer, appropriate and authentic assessments, tightly aligned lessons, purposeful teaching, and relevant and meaningful learning.

Grant stressed that a backward-designed curriculum means more than simply determining all of the content and standards you plan to cover and mapping out your day-to-day lessons. The idea is to plan backward from worthy goals— transferable concepts, principles, processes, and essential questions that will enable students to apply their learning in meaningful and authentic ways. Grant knew that students needed to understand “big ideas” in order to transfer their learning. Rote learning of discrete facts and skills will simply not equip students to apply their learning to new situations.

More specifically, Grant advised us to think carefully about what students should be able to do with their learning. Rather than simply creating a long list of fragmented objectives, begin by identifying the authentic performances that will demonstrate student understanding and make learning relevant and meaningful.  Examples of authentic performance tasks include designing a history or geographic tour, writing a book review for a web site, crafting a policy brief, or proposing a mathematical model to address a real-life issue. 

Grant likened authentic tasks to an athletic game. While the players need to have knowledge (the rules) and specific skills (e.g., dribbling), playing the game also involves conceptual understanding (game strategies) and transfer (applying skills and strategies to changing game situations). He noted that authentic tasks provide not only worthy learning targets, but also bring relevance and purpose to learning which, in turn, influences students’ motivation. Think about it: how many players on sports teams would work hard in practice if there were no games to be played in their future? How many actors would diligently memorize their lines if they were not going to perform on stage before an audience? Students tend to be more motivated to work on tasks with real-world relevance, a target audience, and a worthwhile product or performance.

Then, with authentic performance in mind, teachers can plan backward by asking: What will students need to understand in order to effectively complete the task? What specific knowledge and skills will enable successful performance? The answers will focus and guide instruction.

Grant argued that this “backward design” approach offers an effective alternative to a practice we see too often in our schools and classrooms—a focus on learning long lists of discrete knowledge and skill objectives without application and relevance. Moreover, teaching students to be able to apply their learning will help them develop the very capabilities needed for success in college and careers.

Lesson #2: Feedback is key to successful learning and performance.

For years, Grant reminded educators that providing learners with helpful feedback was a key to successful learning and continuous improvement. His insights have been supported by research, such as research done by Dylan William, Robert Marzano, and John Hattie, that strongly supports the idea that effective feedback is one of the highest-yielding strategies for enhancing achievement.

However, Grant cautioned us against thinking that feedback takes the form of grades and exhortations (e.g. “Try harder”). To be effective, Grant pointed out that feedback must meet several criteria:

  • Feedback must be timely. Waiting two weeks or more to find out how you did on a test will not help your learning.
  • Feedback must be specific and descriptive. Effective feedback highlights explicit strengths and weaknesses (e.g., “Your speech was well-organized and interesting to the audience. However, you were speaking too fast in the beginning and did not make eye contact with the audience. These are areas for you to work on for your next presentation.”).
  • Feedback must be understandable to the receiver. Sometimes a teacher’s comment or the language in a rubric is lost on a student. Using student-friendly language can make feedback clearer and more comprehensible. For instance, instead of saying, “Document your reasoning process,” a teacher could say, “Show your work in a step-by-step manner so others can follow your thinking.”

Grant suggested a straight-forward test for feedback: Can the learner tell from the given feedback what he or she has done well and what could be done next time to improve? Does the student understand specifically what they need to practice or the revisions they need to make? If not, then the feedback is not yet specific enough or understandable to the learner.

Grant also cautioned us that providing learners with timely, clear, and specific feedback is necessary, but insufficient without follow-up. Feedback is provided so that one can make adjustments for improvement. Feedback without adjustment is like eating without digestion. Feedback only makes a difference when students use it. Thus, teachers must ensure that students have opportunities to self-adjust, to refine their thinking, practice skills, and revise their rough drafts.

In addition, Grant stressed that teachers use feedback reciprocally—they should not only offer feedback to learners; they should seek and use feedback from learners and others to improve their teaching. In addition to asking students and colleagues for input, one good way to get feedback on your teaching is to closely analyze student work (preferably with a team of teachers, when possible) to look for gaps in understanding or skill errors that can be addressed instructionally.

Lesson #3: Empathize with the learner.

Grant thought deeply about the craft of teaching and cautioned teachers, especially experienced ones, about succumbing to what he called the “Expert Blind Spot.” He pointed out that “what is obvious to us is rarely obvious to a novice—and was once not obvious to us either, but we have forgotten our former views and struggles.” He reminded us of the value of being sensitive to learners who do not have our expertise (and sometimes not even an interest) in the subject matter that we know so well. He noted that, “experts frequently find it difficult to have empathy for the novice, even when they try. That’s why teaching is hard, especially for the expert in the field. Expressed positively, we must strive unendingly as educators to be empathetic with the learner’s conceptual struggles if we are to succeed.”

One of the ways Grant encouraged teachers to develop empathy for students is to “shadow” a student for a day and reflect on the experience. Several years ago, an experienced high school teacher took his suggestion and described in a blog post what it was like to walk in the shoes of students. Her account serves as a sobering reminder to educators, especially at the start of a new year, to be sensitive to the experiences and feelings of learners. Indeed, she suggests that gaining such sensitivity—such understanding for students’ perspective — can dramatically improve classroom interactions as well as lesson planning.

School leaders can support “shadowing” by arranging coverage for a few teachers each year. (See shadowastudent.org for practical protocols.) Grant recommended that any participating teacher should take notes, reflect on their shadowing experience, make a report to the full faculty, and facilitate the resulting discussions among colleagues.

Elevating the Profession

These three key ideas—the importance of planning backward from authentic performance, the need for helpful feedback and opportunities to use it, and developing empathy for students—are but a few of the many lessons that Grant offered us. However, they exemplify his insight into the teaching and learning process and his attention to relevance, engagement, understanding, and continuous improvement. His advice, compiled in books, articles, and blog posts, elevates our profession and our teachers. Today’s students deserve the benefits of his wisdom.


About the author

Jay McTighe is an educational author and consultant. He has written 17 books, including the best-selling Understanding by Design® series with Grant Wiggins.

Members-only content: See a primer on backward design, published in the Sept. 2019 Educational Leadership. 

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