Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Five Essential Questions

Sometimes in your journey through life, you encounter writers or artists who speak in a language that feels like it was written just for you. The things they say or show you may be brand new, but those things resonate and reverberate with you, touching something that’s already there. They wake up something inside you that feels absolutely your own, but also brand new.

Grant Wiggins was one of those people for me, and when we lost him (far too young) on May 28, it hit me hard.
I can’t remember if my introduction to Grant Wiggins was through his book, Understanding by Design, co-written with Jay McTighe, or through a presentation at an ASCD conference. Whichever it was, it happened years after I stopped being a classroom teacher, and it made me wish (as all of my subsequent encounters with his thought made me wish) that I had had access to his wisdom when I had young people in my charge.

One of the first things that Grant Wiggins introduced me to was the idea of the Essential Question—the open-ended, thought-provoking query that can frame a curriculum unit or even an entire year. In honor of that First Learning, here are five big questions that Grant Wiggins posed, either in his books, his presentations, or his blog—five questions that have rattled around in my brain for years, and have affected my thinking and my work:

1) Who taught you how to think?

This question was posed as an opening activity/icebreaker at a conference workshop, and the language was left deliberately vague. When people asked Wiggins for clarification, he refused to provide it. “I don’t know what I mean,” he said. “You tell me what I mean.” When it came time for us to share, each of us discussed what we meant by “think,” and who it was who first taught us how to do that thing. Interestingly, most of us came up with the same, basic definition; we saw “think” as the ability to reason, argue, and analyze. Many of us said that our parents had taught us to think, usually as part of dinner table conversation. It spoke powerfully to the importance of a family sharing meals and having time away from electronic devices to just…talk. I know that for me, dinner was often a time of lively conversation and sometimes fierce debate. Even when I wasn’t the focus of the argument, merely witnessing the back and forth taught me a lot about the importance of being able to communicate and defend a point of view.

2) What was a meaningful learning experience that was deliberately crafted and shaped for you?

This was another intriguing opening question and icebreaker, and Wiggins was careful in the way he phrased it. He didn’t want us thinking about life experiences that taught us valuable lessons (“…and I never stuck my finger in an electrical socket again…”), but activities or experiences that had been deliberately crafted and shaped by someone to produce learning. The language was left open to accommodate non-classroom activities, if that’s what came to mind. And, as it turned out, that is exactly what came to mind for most people in the workshop. When we shared responses, we were surprised to find that almost no one spoke of an academic classroom experience. For almost everyone, the meaningful learning experience was something that had been led by an athletic coach or a choir director—the kind of person most likely to teach through demonstration, or to set up some kind of simulation or “scrimmage” activity to reveal people’s skills and limitations. Even though we were all educators, very few of us connected our most meaningful learning experiences with academic classroom teachers. It reminded us that “teaching” takes many shapes and forms, and doesn’t live solely in the schoolhouse…and that learning can be profound and important to us, even when it’s not about math or language arts.

3) What is the job description for Classroom Teacher?

This question unleashed quite an interesting and contentious debate in a workshop. Wiggins stood in front of a crowd of teachers and “outed” himself as an addict: “I’m Grant Wiggins,” he said, “and I’m addicted to content.” We all laughed, but it was a rueful laugh of recognition. We knew what it was to be enslaved by the pacing plan.
“What’s our job, actually?” he asked us. “If our job description is simply to deliver content, then it doesn’t really matter whether the kids learn or not—that’s their job, not ours. So do we just march through the content and call it a day?”

Everyone groaned “No!”  

“Then what is it?” he asked. “If you were hiring, what kind of job description would you write?”  Step by step, he led us through an activity of clarifying exactly what the job of teaching really entailed and required. And in some places, the end result was a little surprising to us. Where we ended up—pushed in Socratic fashion by Wiggins—was something like, “the teacher shapes and directs activities and opportunities that cause learning to happen in the student.” We realized there could be quite a difference between “teaching,” as we had all traditionally defined it, and “making sure learning happens.”

4) Why are you teaching that?

One of the questions that Wiggins and McTighe forced us to grapple with in their seminal book, Understanding by Design, is this existentially frightening one: why are you teaching what you’re teaching? In other words: who needs it? Who wants it? Why should anyone care?
Imagine someone bursting into your classroom, mid-lesson, and asking questions like those. Would you have an answer at the ready for every lesson you teach? Or would there be places where you’d have to say, “It’s just what comes next?”

This is part of what Wiggins meant by being addicted to content. There’s a comfort that comes from having a textbook or a pacing plan that tells you what to do from day to day. But Understanding by Design challenged us to be more thoughtful and active in our lesson planning, starting with the end in mind and working backwards to the day-to-day. What’s the point of all of this? What’s the big idea I want my kids to understand? How will I know that they have reached that understanding? What knowledge or skills will I need to provide to help them to get to that understanding? Planning backwards ensures that you know exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing.

5) What is a standard?

In recent years, during the adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards, Wiggins spent a lot of time, especially in his “Granted, And…” blog posts, helping people understand what we mean—and should mean—by the word “standard.” It’s a topic that many of us have been arguing about—sometimes heatedly—without figuring out if we’re all using the word the same way. That’s guaranteed to lead to trouble.
Wiggins used his daughter’s experience running track—as he had often used his own, and Jay McTighe’s experiences coaching sports teams—to make powerful analogies about how we measure performance. And he offered up insightful analysis of the new standards to show us where they were helpful and where they might be lacking. As always, he challenged us to think twice or three times about things we had assumed we understood. As always, he prized conceptual understanding over factual knowledge, and was willing to dig (and push us to dig) to get to what was essential.


All of these questions have affected the way I think about teaching and learning. When I reflect on presentations I’ve given and blog posts or eBooks I’ve written, I can see how powerfully Grant Wiggins has shaped my thinking. Although I only met him a couple of times, and never spoke with him more than briefly, I have long considered him one of my gurus. And now he is gone.

It’s a sad and strange thing when your wizards and wise-men disappear. It’s another stage of growing up, I suppose—and it’s a little shocking to realize how long that process really is, how many years into  adulthood it can extend. We depend on the authority and protection of our parents when we are children, but we lean on our heroes for far longer. We turn to their wisdom, and sometimes their example, again and again. But a time comes when they leave us. Either they reveal themselves as less than heroic and they abandon us (or we abandon them), or we lose them to illness or old age. We learn that we have to stand on our own, wise enough to take the right actions and strong enough to defend our positions. We discover that others are relying on us now, to be their heroes and wizards, as frightening as that thought may be. It’s our turn, whether we like it or not. We may never stride the world like the giants we once knew, but we have to do the best we can.
There is a Wiggins-sized hole in the world of education, and it will not soon be healed. It is a loss we will feel for some time. His words are still with us, though, and his passion still burns, clear and hot, through everything he wrote, and said, and shared. What we do with that fire is up to us.

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