How Grant Wiggins has Influenced Me

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is a Biology Teacher in San Diego County. He is working to understand how he can improve the student experience for all students at his high school. Follow him on Twitter at @CG_Bioteach


I cried. It was during the passing period between the first two block periods of the day as I was checking my text messages and the news stopped me in mid step. “Did Grant Wiggins pass away?” Sure enough, the shocking news blanketed the Twitterverse.

I had met and spoken with Grant many times through UbD workshops and ASCD Conference Sessions. He significantly impacted me as an educator. In fact, my first exposure to the world of educational consultants was my involvement in a UbD conference with Grant and Jay McTighe.

I remember being in awe of their brilliance and wanted to learn as much as possible from them. Since that first exposure, I jumped at every opportunity to study their enduring understandings, essential questions, and insights in order to help me design more productive spaces to engage my students in deeper learning.

To begin the #ASCD16 conference, I attended the incredible memorial to honor the life and work of Grant. Jay and Grant’s wife, Denise Wilbur Wiggins, masterfully (and as Jay quipped, “by Design”) led the audience through Grant’s life. They reminded us all of the core beliefs that guided Grant.

Upon reflection, I realize that I’ve adopted many of these tenets which guide my efforts especially as I attempt to co-create a more personalized learning experience with my students.

Grant was the master at comparing learning to sports.

Grant believed teachers could learn from the best coaches who quickly assess the knowledge and skills of their players in order to provide the feedback that will help them improve. Additionally, Grant argued that no one joins a team in order to learn knowledge and practice skills without eventually transferring the learning to the game. Therefore, why should a student learn basic knowledge and practice skills without eventually translating their learning into the non-school world?

When students are co-creating learning experiences, they are provided the opportunity to learn basic knowledge and skill in conjunction with topics that they find interesting and important. Rather than only practicing, students connect how knowledge and skill can be meaningfully applied to real-world work.

As an example, I once taught genetics by giving students dozens of problems in order to practice the math. Now students study genetic traits and disorders that intrigue them or are known to run in their family or people they know. Instead of a teacher telling them about the genetics patterns, the students propose them based on patterns found in their research. This leads to deeper understandings as classes compare how genes may influence present and future organisms and species.

Prioritize student learning above teaching and covering standards.

As a young teacher, I perceived that my job was to be the “all-knowing oracle of biology,” ready to fill the minds of students with knowledge. I struggled because students would memorize enough to do well on an exam (or not) but forget about these ideas even more quickly. They could not connect or apply the ideas in future units.

When working with Jay and Grant through my early UbD days, they helped me understand there must be a relevant and important reason to learning. In Personalized Learning, rather than the teacher determining these reasons, teachers and students can collaborate to find issues, problems, themes, questions, or case studies meaningful to each student.

Students should be immersed in the process of developing knowledge and skill.

Grant WigginsIn the last attempt to co-create learning experiences with my students, they were tasked with understanding how a specific problem (within a larger global issue) might influence the ability of a cell to produce the energy needed to carry out cellular processes. While some students chose to examine how increased global temperatures affected cellular respiration, others focused on problems associated with ocean acidification, acid rain, deforestation, or drought.

These students needed to study the ideal process of cellular respiration, the changing environmental factors, as well as the history of how environments have changed. From their exploration, each student then designed an experiment around their learning to build new knowledge through their investigation.

The variety of experiments allowed students to compare and contrast how the various factors influenced a cellular process and to infer how the variety of changing factors may be influencing the world. This generation of knowledge led to an organic discussion around how the world might be able to reduce harmful environmental factors to decrease the negative impacts on living organisms.

“The research is very clear on this point: students who really develop and ‘own’ an idea are more likely to successfully interpret new situations and tackle new problems than students who possess only drilled knowledge and skill.”

A colleague of mine is struggling. From her perspective, students are disengaged, unwilling to put forth effort, and reluctant to learn. I have also noticed that when I select the task a student must perform, the audience to whom they are writing, the process they must follow, and in what format a demonstration of their understanding must take, my students also seem to personify these detached qualities.

If instead we empower students by bringing them into the design of their learning experiences and help them build knowledge around their interests, students are more apt to truly engage in their education. As seen in the previous example in which students studied cellular respiration, they explored and investigated the content.

Their investigations opened lines of inquiry that I could not have fostered in the classroom due to the fascination and wonder that blossomed in their work.

“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
As I learn more about helping students personalize their learning, I continue to see the rewards and benefits that may never be observed on a standardized exam. I see students gain confidence in their thought processes and love of learning.

Unfortunately, I also hear high school teachers confidently proclaim that bringing personalized learning to their classes can’t work because their students are incapable of thinking. This myth is one that must be broken. Elementary students at Aveson Charter engage in co-creating their learning experience.

At my current site, students that are often allowed to slip through the cracks are beginning to thrive in the first iteration of a personalized learning academy.

These students are being given opportunities to help define their tasks and decide how to demonstrate their learning. While not perfect, the students are no longer passively watching others work, hiding in the classroom, showing up late to class, and/or ditching school. While previously considered discipline problems in their past classes, they are no longer perceived like that. Students are learning how to engage in learning and develop their thinking schools.

I cried when Grant passed. I will miss his brilliance and insight. But after Jay and Denise reminded us of Grant’s impact on the world of education, I am convinced that helping to personalize the learning for my students will help me honor Grant and his efforts, as well as enhance my students’ education.

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