The Educational Canvas: R.I.P. Grant Wiggins

A Teaching Tolerance staffer reflects on how Grant Wiggins influenced her teaching and the education world at large.

Editor's note: We learned of Grant Wiggins' death this morning via Twitter. A conversation with one of his colleagues at Authentic Education confirmed that he died suddenly yesterday afternoon. Our condolences go out to his family, his friends and all those he touched during his remarkable career.

I was saddened today to hear about the loss of an influential giant in the field of education: Grant Wiggins. Wiggins, in his work with James McTighe and Authentic Learning, transformed the way I and countless other educators think about teaching, learning and assessment. His dedication to teachers and students was steadfast. His influence is almost impossible to calculate.

The development of Understanding by Design (UbD) and backward planning altered the way practitioners in the field of education think about thinking. This transformative approach to lesson planning not only helps teachers embrace content-specific standards with real-world applications and higher-level thinking; it helps students grasp their own learning goals through connections to the big ideas and essential questions (EQ).

Wiggins demonstrated that EQ can help teachers plan instruction geared toward mastering the big ideas and skills, and they can help students transfer subject area knowledge within—and sometimes across—disciplines to their lives to solidify their understanding.

I experienced the effect of UbD firsthand in my own classrooms. Formerly frustrated students found doorways to new understanding when the horizon was broadened by big ideas. Wiggins' work around UbD helped me understand, as an educator, how to expand a particular topic from closed question-and-answer sessions to open-ended dialogue that provoked higher-level thinking and intellectual engagement from my students. I was a better teacher when I planned backward because I knew exactly where I was leading my kids.

Wiggins influenced our work here at Teaching Tolerance, too. Our K-12 literacy curriculum, Perspectives for a Diverse America, was designed using UbD. At its heart is a set of anti-bias standards. Perspectives offers a bank of EQ within those anti-bias standards from which to start planning. The accompanying anthology of diverse readings gives educators the "stuff" to build student literacy skills and discuss social justice issues while answering the selected EQ. UbD laid crucial groundwork for our development of this resource for teachers.

The work of Wiggins (and McTighe) forever altered the canvas for educators across the United States and, like essential questions, his memory, influence and contributions to education will live on for years to come.

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

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