Musings and reflections on one of the greats

This week we lost a legend in the educational world, Grant Wiggins. I want to take a moment and pay tribute to the impact he has had on my educational career thus far.

As a teacher, Understanding by Design was critical, I just didn’t know it in the beginning. I learned about it a few years in to my career, but it caused a monumental shift in my thinking and practice. It was one of those things that just made sense, but I was never introduced to it in my undergraduate work. Why wouldn’t we want to begin with the end in mind, plan our units and lessons from there, and clearly communicate the end targets with our students? This never occurred to me as I fought through my first years of teaching. I did as I was instructed to in college – plan units in chronological order and create the final assessment just before administration.

Once I made the change in my mindset, planning, and instruction, things were different for my students and myself. We began each thematic unit with a specific purpose and the kids were focused from day one. There were no surprises with assessment, and the link between what we were doing day-to-day with the end goal was transparent.

As I have now moved into a coaching role, Understanding by Design has come up again in an entirely new way. I have been able to introduce teachers to the framework and watch it take hold. Once they began to look at unit planning in a different light, they realized on their own the influence and potential of UbD. They were empowered to own the process and found that it made their lives much easier.

It has been enjoyable to pause for a moment and reflect. Things are funny this way – it can take an event such as this to remind us of the importance of reflection. With busy lives both inside and out of school, reflection can get pushed to the back burner. This week I stopped for a moment to do some important thinking, and I’m so glad I did.

You will be greatly missed, Mr. Wiggins, yet your profound impact on teaching and learning will be felt for decades to come.

I’ve got the standards based philosophy, now what?

When making a shift in grading practices from traditional to a standards based system, step one must be a change in thinking. Reflection upon current practice to see how it aligns to learning is critical. In most cases, traditional grading systems rely on compliance and high stakes assessment to determine the all important letter grade. But what does the letter actually mean? In a nutshell, not much. In a standards based world, grades are communication of academic achievement in relation to the standards. The focus is always on learning. But now what? What if I understand all of this, want to make a change, but don’t know what to do?

1. Separate behaviors from academic achievement. These two elements must be kept independent of one another for grading and reporting to give students and parents accurate information as well as to maintain the integrity of grades. When these two are mashed together, it is unclear how much either one contributes to the grade. Decide what behaviors you will hold your students accountable for throughout a marking period, but don’t combine them with achievement.

2. Identify the standards. Are your standards pre-determined by Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, or the C3 Framework? Are they set by your state? Do you determine them yourself? Once you know your standards, you have clear targets for your stakeholders, assessment, and instruction. Another consideration with standards – you may want to consider rewording them into student friendly language if they are difficult to understand. Clarity is the goal here!

3. Develop ideas and plans for summative assessment. This is simple backward design – begin with the end in mind, and so important for a standards based classroom. From here, you can develop formative practice and instruction for the students. Everything you and your students do must be tied to the standards, so keep that in the forefront of your mind each time you plan.

4. Determine what will be graded vs. given feedback (this goes back to the decision-making process for formative versus summative). In standards based culture, feedback is given much more often than a grade, so be purposeful in this decision. Feedback guides student learning; grades communicate a judgement about proficiency. When you give kids feedback, make sure it is timely, meaningful and actionable – our goal is student learning!

5. (If applicable) Decide upon a method for determining final grades. If you don’t have to do this, consider yourself lucky. If you do have to combine standards and scores for reporting, keep in mind that standards based grades are much more accurate and meaningful by being criterion referenced and evidence based.

6. Revisit the ‘why?’ and prepare for questions. Whenever a change this significant is on the table, there will be questions and/or pushback. If you are going to effectively explain this shift to students and parents, you’ll need to be well versed in the ‘why?’ of standards based grading. I found over the years that it was very helpful to revisit the key ideas. Every time I reviewed the reasons for making the change to standards based grading, it strengthened my convictions and deepened my understanding. I was able to better defend my practices to anyone who questioned me.

There are many more items on the to do list when converting to a standards based system, what else would be on yours?