Reading & Reacting: Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

Photo: Grant Wiggins and Others

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Kevin Jarrett

By PL Thomas @ The Becoming Radical blog

There is always a dark irony to me when I read and react to a post by someone essentially doing the same thing, which is the case here.

However, I have grown to admire the writing and thinking of PL Thomas over the last year or so. He routinely writes deeply thoughtful reflections on the state of education and often captures something that has been rooting around in my head looking for a way to be expressed. That was precisely the case with this post about Grant Wiggins and John Hattie from a couple of months ago, despite my recent discovery.

My short and opening point is this: If in-school factors, notably teacher quality, are in fact the most pressing issues in education reform, and if in-school factors are the only things within our control, and if we are committed to accountability based on standards and high-stake testing as the only reform paradigm, then Wiggins (and maybe Hattie) would be credible.

The last phrase is really the razor’s edge, “Wiggins (and maybe Hattie) would be credible” only based on the preceding premise that teacher quality is the most pressing issue, which is highly debatable. Moreover, there is more than enough evidence that shows in-school factors are simply not the most pressing issue, a point that Thomas uses as a hammer with remarkable effect.

Thomas exposes Wiggins’ similarity to edreformy types who are dismissive of poverty as an excuse but that only serves as the introduction to a sharply insightful critique of the whole Wiggins and McTighe Understanding by Design paradigm.

Wiggins and McTighe’s solutions—backward design, sharing detailed rubrics with students, etc.—are certainly the right way to do teacher-centered, standards-driven education based on measurable outcomes.

But teacher-centered, standards-driven education based on measurable outcomes is the wrong paradigm for democratic and liberatory education; thus, embracing understanding by design is simply doing the wrong things the right ways.

Thomas goes on to highlight the gross inequities that are present in our existing educational system. These inequities are undeniable, despite those that insist on denying them. What’s worse, they continue to go unaddressed and all efforts are doubling down on a test-and-punish model that hasn’t worked for more than a decade. As Thomas adds, “the larger problem here is that Wiggins and the entire education reform movement over the past thirty years are trapped in a flawed solution model for a discounted set of problems.”

Deepening the problem is just how pervasive the term “understanding by design” has become and how it has become a cheapened, program solution. Even the best parts of the UbD approach place the focus on pre-determined, top-down methodology. Nevertheless, UbD is routinely offered as the remedy and the way we do school.

I got a heavy heaping of it when I was in graduate school and getting certified to teach and it is the de facto method at two of the three high schools where I have worked. Like Thomas, I too “found the backward design model compelling at first.” In fact, I had little with which to compare it as a teacher in the beginning.  As I have grown in the profession and gained a variety of experiences, the shine has worn.

It started after I had been teaching about five years. I remember visiting a school as part of a NEASC committee and interviewing a veteran teacher that resented having UbD forced upon her and the rest of the staff. When I pressed her about her problems with UbD, she cited it as just another curricular model in a long line of previous iterations, wistfully wondering when the next one would arrive before she retired. Although I cannot remember that sage teacher’s name, that conversation has never left me. Since then I have increasingly thought of UbD as treatment for a symptom but not the disease.

As Thomas expertly explains:

Wiggins and Hattie are trapped, then, in the measurable and the visible—paralyzed by a world in which we focus on control.

John Hattie enters the conversation because Grant Wiggins uses Hattie’s recent meta-research as justification and evidence for his take on improving teacher quality, as well his criticisms of Diane Ravitch which was the impetus for Thomas’ post. Admittedly, Hattie is newer to me, having only really become familiar with his work this year, but he is only incidental to my response, apart from Thomas’ stark indictment.

Wiggins and Hattie share the charge that in-school reform is the only thing in the control of teachers, but they also share central roles of influence —direct and indirect—in the education reform bureaucracy and industry.

Then, Thomas uses the hammer he has fashioned to smash the notion that it must be this way. From his perspective, there is a flaw in the worldview that perpetuates the paradigm. More passionately, he implores anyone reading to think deeper and do better.

Ultimately, reading Thomas’ take on Wiggins triggered precisely the phenomenon I referenced earlier. Thomas managed to capture some thoughts I have had for awhile but have been awaiting an anchor to hitch their expression.

In recent years, I have become more acutely aware of just how spot on Thomas’ criticism is. As increased pressures of teacher evaluation have become the norm, there is ever more focus on measurable student outcomes. Yet, rarely does anyone ask who exactly gets to determine the end or outcome from which the backward design will be targeted. Simply put, the State determines the standards, now in the form of the Common Core. Aside from alternative, private schools, like those that so many politicians and policymakers send their children, where are students given the power to begin to enter the conversation of just what the end should be?

To borrow a phrase, I would submit that a major aspect of “college and career readiness” for any student graduating high school involves crafting their own essential understandings, as well as essential questions, learning how to be self-directed and autonomous. There is little about standards-based education or a prescriptively enforced curriculum based on UbD that necessarily leads to that outcome, and it is a whole lot trickier to measure.

What’s more, as a teacher I continue to learn that the greatest educational experiences are simply not something that I can control, nor do I necessarily have the desire to control them. I am significantly more interested in creating opportunities for students to discover, think, create, share, and reflect upon their own learning, which I fervently hope is not limited to some arbitrarily finite end or outcome.

I hope that is at least a step along the better path, as Thomas advocates, away from doing the wrong things the right way.

Image: iPad

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4 thoughts on “Reading & Reacting: Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

  1. Pingback: Reading & Reacting: Teacher Quality, Wiggin...

  2. Laura Gibbs

    WOW, this is so spot-on… I remember reading Thomas and thinking to myself how much I agreed with him, but also how hard I found it to articulate in my own terms just why Wiggins rubs me so wrong – and we’ve clashed at his blog; I no longer comment there since it is not a very welcoming space for honest disagreement about Common Core. Your sentence here really captures the most important thing for me: “rarely does anyone ask who exactly gets to determine the end or outcome from which the backward design will be targeted.” In my classes, it really is all about the ending, and working hard every week all semester long so that every student will wind up at the end with a project they are proud of. But… we cannot foresee what those projects will be in their unique and unexpected individuality! I set up some guidelines about length and general organization simply in order to support the week-by-week process, not because I want to standardize anything (just the opposite)… and it is the sense of surprise and delight at what we end up with every semester, different from every semester, that makes me so excited at the beginning of every semester, an excitement that I can convey which carries the students along at first as they start to realize that the end of this class will NOT be a final exam, NOT be about pre-defined objectives. So, I’m bookmarking this blog post in particular for future reference when I need something to jiggle my brain about design and standards and just how they can go awry. It’s a topic that comes up a lot and maybe someday I will figure out a way to express some ideas about that as clearly as you and PL Thomas have both done.

    1. Fred Haas - @akh003 Post author


      We are definitely of similar minds. Working in a high school environment does not offer quite the same autonomy that working in a university offers, however. There is a bit more systemic pressures when it comes to implementing some of these models. Like I said, in most of the schools where I have worked UbD was pretty much the only option, although I would say that it was not as rigid as I have heard other schools can be.

      Thanks as always for the conversation. You are the best.


      1. Laura Gibbs

        Thank you for your kind words! I started off planning to go into high school teaching – did a couple of years of English and education courses to get certified, did my student teaching, but I realized already then (early 90s) that the autonomy issues were going to be a huge problem for me. I wasn’t sure then what kind of teacher I wanted to be … but I wasn’t confident that within the high school bureaucracy I would ever figure that out. In some ways, I feel like I have the soul of a high school teacher trapped in a college instructor’s body, ha ha. But anyway, I’m glad for the choice I made because I really have figured out what kind of teacher I want to be and had the freedom to pursue that! I gave up a lot in exchange (I’m not a professor, just instructor – so I make less than a high school teacher, have no job security – but at least I am fulltime, which is more than most adjuncts can say, for shame) – but anyway, it was the right choice for me I think. Common Core would have me tearing out my hair right now I suspect. Some things about college teaching drive me crazy too… but we’ve got nothing like CCSS and we never will in higher ed. For that, I feel very lucky.
        And listen, did you see Michael Feldstein’s latest (hugh) piece about Pearson? I read his post very much through the lens of your post here, and it was very helpful having your design comments here in mind, since I think that relates really closely to what seems like a new design push on Pearson’s part – anyway, here’s Michael’s post and some back-and-forth about it. 🙂

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