Last spring, the teachers in my district learned that we would all spend our June in-service at a training called “Understanding by Design.” On hearing this news, I thought back fondly to the previous year’s in-service, when three other language teachers and I had written a grant proposal for two mobile computer labs. I decided I would read the book on which this training was based, so I could learn what I needed to and still have time to work productively with my colleagues.
Understanding by design, it turns out, is a great idea. It goes something like this: Think about what your students need to understand before you decide how and what you are going to teach. To be honest, I thought most of the teachers I knew were already doing that. We were sending many of our students on to higher education and promising professions, all without ever having learned the Understanding by Design theory. What were we thinking? Obviously, we were all understanding by accident.
The problem with the Understanding by Design model is not the idea, but the book of that name, which somehow attempts to take a concept requiring one sentence to express and stretch it into 191 pages. It was OK for the first few paragraphs, rubrics, and bullets, but after that it was like water torture: drip, drip, drip.
To give the authors their due, a certain amount of resourcefulness is required to take a one-sentence concept and parlay it into not only several volumes, but an entire mini-industry, complete with workbooks, Web sites, videos, and audiotapes. Luckily, the book’s authors, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, are gifted at coming up with charts, variations on the Venn diagram, and a few random acronyms. Still, one sentence is one sentence. My eyes had glazed over by the end of the first chapter. After struggling through the entire book, I asked to be exempted from the workshop, but was informed by my principal that it was not in her power to do that. The district had already paid for the training (at a price, I would later learn, large enough to fund a teaching position).
The first day was one long lecture, with only a few breaks. At the end of these, Grant Wiggins, or his mysteriously silent, Vanna-Whitish assistant, rang a bell to get our attention. To his credit, the presenter later admitted that the overwhelming feedback on the first day was: Ditch the bell. “OK,” we were told, “but only if you stop talking when you’re supposed to.” Not long after that, we were threatened: “Don’t make us use the bell.”
Wiggins’ lectures were punctuated with endless sports anecdotes that even the physical education teachers found inappropriate and confusing. After all, we had been led to believe the presenter was an educator, not a coach. On his Web site, Wiggins manages to evade the issue with a vague description of his experience: “His work is grounded in 14 years of secondary school teaching and coaching. Grant taught English and electives in philosophy, coached varsity soccer, cross-country, junior varsity baseball, and track and field.”
What I cherish in my children’s teachers, my own childhood teachers, and my colleagues is their ability to appreciate the individual child. The presenter never mentioned that essential, personal, student-teacher relationship.
When he did use an actual teaching anecdote, it was inevitably negative and often about one of his children’s notoriously inept teachers. Foremost among these was a diatribe about some unfortunate woman who had enthusiastically promoted a unit on the book Sarah, Plain and Tall. Wiggins described the various hands-on stages of the unit, which somehow ended up with a station full of oobleck (that squishy substance inspired by a Dr. Seuss book) and far too many dioramas. Wiggins concluded that students had learned nothing about life on the prairies except that it was “fun.” He mocked the oobleck and dioramas as gratuitous and irrelevant. He concluded that teachers who are really enthusiastic about the units they have developed are often “hobby teachers.”
Everyone at my table found this statement offensive. All of us remembered the teachers who had positively influenced us because of their enthusiasm. Those of us who were parents could think of teachers who had endeared themselves to our children, again because of their own personal commitment and enthusiasm. Grant Wiggins, lapsing often into his Garrison Keillor voice, strutting back and forth in front of a seasoned group of professionals, was not winning us over. Even the lady serving coffee at the snack bar noticed this. One teacher overheard a conversation between the snack-bar lady and the presenter:
Snack-bar lady: “You’ve been doing this a long time, haven’t you?”
Presenter: “Yes, why do you ask?”
Snack-bar lady: “You lack enthusiasm.”
Strangely enough, there was a strong oobleck component to Wiggins’ three-day training, and it came in the form of an endless PowerPoint presentation of an obscure rock band, named something like the WannaBz or the Nevrwrz, in which Wiggins appears to be playing the guitar. If the presence of oobleck caused students to conclude that life on the prairies was “fun,” what should we, as students of Grant Wiggins, conclude from the shameless self-promotion of his slide show? That teachers should aspire to be rock stars? That we should listen to a presenter who is arrogant and disrespectful simply because he appears to play the electric guitar?
At one point, Wiggins warned us that any attempt to differentiate instruction while trying to achieve state and national standards would result in a “train wreck.” He then clarified his position on the tracks by congratulating us on our well-crafted Vermont standards. That compliment rang hollow, however, when he modestly admitted to being one of the principal authors of those very standards.
Being told I should abandon my efforts to differentiate instruction was a big blow to me, since my classroom becomes more and more diverse every year. I understand the need for standard academic achievement, but I also know that it will not come about through the frantic efforts of already overloaded teachers. Standard achievement will come when there is standard access to standard health care and higher education, standard taxation, and standard socioeconomic opportunity.
By the final day of the in-service, the audience had turned mutinous. The lights flickered on and off a few times, and the applause got louder with each flicker. The presenter appeared either oblivious or impervious. He launched into a rant against high school teachers: “I hate to tell you this, but you high school teachers out there? Three-quarters of you need to drastically change the way you do things.”
Three-quarters? I thought. Seventy-five percent? My children, currently in high school, have always attended the local schools. They have never had what I could call a “hobby teacher.” I have not admired all of their teachers, but I have respected the majority, and I owe to many of them my undying support, essentially because of their enthusiasm. Far beyond that, what I cherish in my children’s teachers, my own childhood teachers, and my colleagues is their ability to appreciate the individual child. Grant Wiggins never mentioned that essential, personal, student-teacher relationship.
An activity called the “Gallery Walk” was scheduled for the last day. This was a time for us to post our very best Understanding by Design unit on the walls, so that everyone could appreciate, learn from, and constructively criticize each other. Among some of the comments were remarks such as: “Needs oobleck,” “Obviously this unit suffers from a lack of dioramas,” and “Where is the PowerPoint presentation on the garage band?”
There were a few brave fans of the Understanding by Design method. One teacher was particularly enraptured. “I love this stuff!” she said. “I live this every day of my life!” There, I thought, there but for the grace of critical thinking go I.
In the end, I cannot lay the blame for this conspicuous waste of professional-development time and money solely on the authors of Understanding by Design. Surely, when he co-wrote the book, Mr. Wiggins never dreamed that its astounding success would force him to trudge wearily across stages throughout the country, sometimes remembering his “Prairie Home Companion” voice, sometimes forgetting, boring astute lunch-ladies across time zones, and collecting large payments along the way. Neither do I blame the publishers of books such as Understanding by Design; if they ever do “fix education,” as most of their products suggest, all of them will be out of jobs.
I blame, instead, those whose incredible aptitude for magical thinking enabled them to benevolently plan a useless, expensive workshop. I blame myself and my colleagues for waiving our right and responsibility to resist taking part in such idiocy.
I encourage all my fellow teachers to insist on meaningful professional development. We have real work to do in our classrooms; the greatest obstacle to accomplishing it is the chronic and critical lack of time. Yes, there are inept teachers who need individual support to either become better teachers or find more suitable employment. Subjecting the rest of us to an inane and pointless workshop will not improve those teachers.
But I will say that although this in-service was widely mocked as a waste of time, money, and human resources, it had some lasting influence. After the workshop, an anonymous request appeared on the teachers’ lounge whiteboard: Does anyone have the recipe for oobleck?
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Understanding by Accident