Sunday, July 28, 2013

Understanding By Design®'s flaw

Right idea...
Understanding By Design® seems, on the face, to be a wonderful idea, and backward design has been practiced under various names for a long time before Grant Wiggins found his fortune. I've read the books, attended the conferences, practiced the method, and while there's much to be said for it, I've had a niggling, vague discomfort that has been growing over the past couple of years.

There's a huge chasm between the idea that students will be "provided with complex, authentic opportunities to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess" and the nuts-and-bolts of the program itself.

Wiggins' idea of developing a few essential questions resonates with me, but watch a room of teachers wrestling with essential questions is like watching a priest pry open a condom. We're uncomfortable, we're not quite sure if we're doing it right, and at any rate, we have no real intention of using them anyway.

I suspect one reason so many people have trouble developing essential questions is because so many of us, in our fast and furious lives, fear examining why our lives matter. We cover curriculum as well as we can, grumbling along the way about "these kids," and look forward to summer.

Wiggins does a (mostly) admirable job chunking down essential questions, but in his valiant (and profitable) effort to make essential questions more palatable for the classroom, he offers a third definition that ultimately wrecks UbD (though makes for better sales):
There is a third important connotation for the term “essential” that refers to what is needed for learning core content.
Educators  latch themselves onto that kind of question like a joey on a roo's teat, comfortably wrapped inside a pouch, oblivious to everything else except that.

I suspect that if Wiggins had not given us a place to hide, his program would not have the roaring success (for him, anyway) that it has had.

For many of us, though, it's become just another template.
Memento Mori, "To This Favour," William Harnett, 1879

So what would be the essential questions of our profession?
I'll toss a few out there....

What, in the end, do you want your students to learn?
This question drives curriculum committees, but is is a bad question, particularly for science classes. It reduces the child to a receptacle ready to be filled with knowledge.

We can no more answer this question than we can live our children's lives.

What matters....?
Before we delve into what should we measure, we need to be explicitly clear about what matters. This is not a conversation that happens much in public schools, for a variety of reasons, but it's a conversation we need to resume if we hope to reclaim some

What conversations we would have, a maelstrom of morality and mortality, passionate discussions of the sort that got the Pilgrims tossed to Plymouth, ideas worth fighting (and dying) for....

Most of what happens in school would be washed away if we explored what truly matters, but I bet it would be a happier place.

...and how do we get there?
This is the crux of education, and the essential question of our profession, if we choose to become a profession.  

So long as we're mere agents of a curriculum developed by "professionals" who have never lived in our towns, who do not (and cannot) know our children beyond their purchasing power, we will have little say in "how do we get there."


@educatoral said...

In my opinion, we don't have the conversation about what matters much or often because we don't agree on what matters. You ask a room full of teachers what matters and we can agree on some things but still each person will have different ideas. I'm sure we all have the best interest of our students at heart but is that where our common ground on what matters ends?

doyle said...

Dear @educatoral

That we may disagree on "what matters" is (I agree) a problem.

That the discussion does not occur because of that, though, may be the heart of what cheapens public education, our fear of examining the purpose of what we do.

I do not believe that we all have the best interests of our students at heart--if we did, a lot more of us would know a lot more about the lives our children lead.

I've mentioned this before, but too many of us are just too durned polite to get into a discussion that exposes us.

In the end, I bet different communities end up with different ideas on what matters most. I think that's OK, but I bet many (maybe most) teachers think that's not good.

You got me thinking, and I think I am going to push this discussion in the teacher's lounge this year.

John Spencer said...

I love the line, "is like watching a priest pry open a condom. We're uncomfortable, we're not quite sure if we're doing it right."

So true.

I hate how often students don't get to be a part of creating the essential questions, exploring the questions or choosing to reject/accept what is essential.

LCM and GCF are not essential to life in the future and completely irrelevant to an eleven-year-old kid. As long as we "have" to teach that, our questions will not be essential.

doyle said...

Dear John,

(Want to create a school together?)


John Spencer said...

Sure, Michael. Let's do it. You can be the principal. I'll teach humanities.

doyle said...

Dear John,

Neither one of us are natural principals--it's one reason we married the wonderful women that we did!