Education Letter to the Editor

‘Understanding by Accident’

A Response From Grant Wiggins
March 22, 2007 5 min read
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Includes updates and/or revisions.

To the Editor:

It was a bit sickening to read the one-sided venting you published in which I was attacked, paragraph after paragraph, in an ad hominem and false way by Kim Chase (“Understanding by Accident,” Commentary, March 14, 2007).

I am a champion of a free press and of giving people the opportunity to provide feedback. What you have done here, however, is a terrible bastardization of that right: Let readers think that anyone’s rant can be published without even a check of the facts.

In the 20 years I have been a subscriber to Education Week, I cannot recall your publishing anything close to this kind of subjective vitriol, even under the Commentary heading. Worse, not only did you not give me the professional courtesy of a response, you clearly did no fact-checking to see if these rude comments had any basis in fact. Much of what Ms. Chase said was nonsense—and false but snide innuendo—that has no place in a so-called professional publication.

1. The in-service training at which I was a presenter was designed to provide a working session for 300 people. To that end, more than a half of the three days was spent in small-group work sessions, with people writing lessons and units. The writer makes it sound like the session was one endless lecture—utterly false. Under very trying circumstances—a state fairground—we had constant group work and the sharing of work with colleagues.

2. The acting out by approximately 15 percent of the participants began from the moment we started, and was not due to my presentation. I was in fact informed prior to my arrival in Burlington, Vt., that I should expect some acting out because a labor dispute was ongoing, a fact conveniently not mentioned.

3. I described the “train wreck” as not about differentiation (I not only support this, but, as many readers know, Jay McTighe and I work closely and publish with Carol Tomlinson and her colleagues), it was about the head-on collision of mandatory state standards for everyone vs. a commitment to personalized differentiation. (Why in the world wasn’t Ms. Chase’s innuendo that I have perhaps lied about having been a full-time teacher not a red flag to you? I taught full time at the 9th, 10th, and 12th grade levels; coached varsity and junior varsity teams for two of the three seasons each year; ran student clubs—even served as a dorm parent with students in a boarding school.)

4. My colleague, Elizabeth Rossini, shared the duties with me as a presenter. Elizabeth is a veteran teacher, administrator, and excellent trainer who helped Fairfax County, Va., attain its status as one of the top districts in America. Allowing the author to refer to her as “Vanna Whitish” is a profound insult, and utterly unwarranted.

5. The focus of the three days was on a general approach to planning and design, not instruction; of course, then, there was little discussion of teaching and the one-on-one it requires.

7. The conversation with the snack-bar lady? False. I said I was tired of the rudeness in the room!

In short, you gave a huge amount of space to a one-sided hatchet job. The author is, of course, entitled to her opinion. And fortunately she shoots herself in the foot repeatedly in offering it. My aim in responding, rather, is to look the editors squarely in the eye and ask: What were you thinking? Why did you feel the need to dignify such a diatribe without at least checking out the facts? Did you even check with other teachers in her district?

In sum, this was a hurtful and highly public character assassination. It is not only unfit for a publication that purports to be a record of the profession, but it also sets a terrible precedent, no doubt emboldening other cranks and resisters everywhere to write in and vent about anyone who bothers or threatens them concerning school reform, in the knowledge that if they throw around enough reckless and rude claims, they’ll get their day in the sun. Is this the kind of crude stuff we can now expect in your pages in the future? Should we conclude that there are no standards for a Commentary? Are you now an educational tabloid? I believe you have some explaining to do to the educational community.

Grant Wiggins

Authentic Education

Hopewell, N.J.

To the Editor:

Kim Chase’s Commentary “Understanding by Accident” included many resonant points about the state of professional development in many (but not all) districts. I agree with her that time is the most precious commodity for teachers, and that there is nothing more infuriating than being forced to listen to someone who neither respects nor understands your needs or teaching context.

I am a teacher and a member of the National Writing Project, an organization whose network of teacher consultants facilitates professional development across the country based on the principle of “teachers teaching teachers.” Many of these teachers have felt the pain of pointless, wasteful professional development, and their work is informed by those experiences. Part of Ms. Chase’s message is that good things can happen in this area if the teachers are a part of it.

Unfortunately, her own arrogance clouded the message of her Commentary for me, and I was frankly surprised that you published what read like a slanderous diatribe. Her response was hardly an intelligent discussion of the professional-development dilemma, and instead was a caustic blow-by-blow account in which she insulted not only the leader of the training, but even her teaching colleagues.

I have always contended that the answers to my questions and my teaching needs are most likely right down the hall; teachers just need time to share, read, talk, and conduct action research. If the landscape of professional development for teachers is to change, teachers do need to speak up, as Ms. Chase implores.

We cannot, however, let bitter, insulting sentiments carry the day. I cannot imagine anyone—even people who agree with Ms. Chase—allowing her to be the banshee of change. You get more flies with sugar than oobleck, Ms. Chase.

Bill Connolly

Mount Holly, N.J.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Understanding by Accident’


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