Grant Wiggins: An appreciation

I liked Grant Wiggins more than just about anyone with whom I disagreed so much. On several occasions, he’d write something about teaching or curriculum I vehemently disagreed with, or vice versa. A sharply worded blog comment or tweet would follow. Then, invariably, there would be an email. Often lots of them. Nothing remarkable there; arguments begun in one venue often spill over into others. But what I came to value about those exchanges with Wiggins, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last week at age 64, is that they weren’t an attempt to win an argument or a convert. If you disagreed with him—if you looked at the same evidence and came to a different conclusion—he had to know why. 

Wiggins, the author of the influential curriculum planning guide Understanding by Design, held to his beliefs tightly and argued them passionately. He would never have embraced the label of education reformer—far from it—but he resisted the facile view of the education world as an “us versus them” proposition. He was adamant that instructional practices he railed against—dry lectures; activities divorced from big ideas and important skills; dutiful marches through content to be covered—were not a product of “reform,” but default modes of instruction widely practiced everywhere, from public schools to charters to elite private schools.

Good teaching and deep student engagement were what mattered to him. These passions compelled him to pen a memorable open letter to Diane Ravitch at the height of her anti-reform influence, risking the wrath of her devoted legions of fans—many of them teachers. “Reform is strongly needed in many schools,” he wrote. “Many teachers are just not currently capable of engaging and deeply educating the kids in front of them, especially in the upper grades. Why can’t we just admit this?”

This quote illustrates well why his loss will be deeply felt. Wiggins focused squarely on reforming what matters most: what actually happens in our classrooms. What teachers teach and what students do all day. One of his best recent posts went viral last year. A teacher, later revealed to be his own daughter, did something Wiggins had often recommended: She spent a long, exhausting day as a student in her own school, sitting and passively listening for hours, with few opportunities to engage or even move. The experience left her with deep respect and empathy for students.

I can think of no more fitting tribute for teachers who wish to honor Wiggins’s memory than to take his good advice: shadow a student and experience personally what we ask of them. “By the very nature of the job of teaching, we are prone to be insensitive (literally) to the actual daily experience of our students, what they feel, unless we get outside of ourselves by acts of will,” he wrote.

I was in the midst of another battle with Wiggins on the day he passed, this time over a pair of posts attacking an argument of Dan Willingham’s, whose work I’ve long lauded and admired. His very last tweet praised Dan for engaging with him on his blog. “Needs to happen more often!” he tweeted. Then he was gone.

Poignantly, when I look at his blog even now, I can still see a comment I hastily wrote that day—a bit cranky; a little too adamant. It’s still sitting there, unpublished, with these words under it: “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

I will miss sparring with him. I will miss his deeply informed pushback. I will miss his sense of what matters and his gentlemanly decency in disagreement.  I fear that without him, too often, my comments will be awaiting moderation.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.