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.