Grant Wiggins, Who Inspired Shifts in Classroom Instruction, Dead at 64

By Ross Brenneman — May 28, 2015 3 min read
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Grant Wiggins, the educator and author who helped usher in a shift in the pedagogical approach to classroom instruction, died Tuesday. He was 64.

In 1998, along with Jay McTighe, Wiggins wrote Understanding by Design, a book that extolled the virtues of backward planning, in which teachers focus on learning goals and create a curriculum that drives toward the desired outcomes. Wiggins was also president of Authentic Education, a New Jersey-based education training and consulting firm.

Understanding by Design, or UbD, became a major influence on instructional practices. “I never actually met the man, and yet he was like my educational rock,” wrote Diana Neebe, a teacher and instructional coach, in a blog tribute to Wiggins published Wednesday. “The best units, the best lessons, the biggest ‘aha!’ moments in my classes have been fueled by his work.”

Wiggins died of a heart condition, according to his wife, Denise Wilbur.

“We moved here happily from central New Jersey, where the taxes on our house were $20,000, to do anything required a painful drive in traffic, people were unfriendly, and real estate prices and taxes were so high many people commute from Pennsylvania. The only thing I will miss is not having to pump my own gas.”

—Grant Wiggins, in a letter to the editor of the Hartford Courant, defending his new Connecticut hometown against criticism from a March 15 op-ed

Wiggins wrote like an unstoppable engine, whether through his personal blog “Granted, and ...,” published op-eds, Twitter, his Authentic Education blog, or letters to the editor.

“He answered every email, from the most august to the most humble, and he befriended many young educators seeking to make a difference,” Wilbur said via email. “He cared, every day, about people and practice.”

"[Burris] incorrectly complains that Piaget showed that pre-adolescents cannot engage in abstract and deductive thinking; therefore, the new common-core tests have developmentally inappropriate questions. ... We do our kids no service to shield them from intellectual difficulty. We too often wrongly think that most kids cannot think really hard.”

—Grant Wiggins, in response to a Washington Post op-ed by former principal Carol Burris and educator John Murphy opposing the Common Core State Standards in math as “developmentally inappropriate.”

Friend and intellectual opponent alike, Wiggins didn’t pull his punches.

“He came, over the last several years, to embrace an opportunity to facilitate serious and spirited discourse about educational topics of import,” Wilbur said. “Disagreement was welcome, but there had to be civil discourse and it needed to be well grounded by research and sound thinking.”

Wiggins’ most recent blog post, for instance, concerned a dispute with author Daniel Willingham over the correct approach to reading comprehension.

Willingham retweeted Wiggins in tribute Wednesday afternoon.

“My question is basic, history teachers. Given that most history textbooks are comprehensive and reasonably well-written, why do you feel the need to talk so much? Your colleagues in science and English, for example, do not feel the same urge.”

—Grant Wiggins, arguing that history teachers should use less class time on lecture

Wiggins graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., in 1972, and earned his education doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education over a decade later. Wiggins worked in secondary education for 14 years, as an English and philosophy teacher, as well as a coach, according to his company biography.

“I know that he was deeply proud of his (self-designated?) moniker of ‘educational troublemaker of long standing,’” Wilbur said. “He believed in truth and in digging deep to find the truth, even when such digging made people uncomfortable. And it often did.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Diana Neebe.

Commentaries by Grant Wiggins:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.