I was only able to participate in a short segment of Grant Wiggins’ session yesterday—wish I had been able to come in sooner. When I worked with Grant back in 1999 as part of a Klingenstein Summer Institute, his Understanding by Design framework came at exactly the right time for my practice—over a dozen years later, Grant is still ahead of the curve. Here are some of the big questions he raises:

  • What would schooling look like if we designed it “backward” from the school Mission & using sound principles?
  • Where do mission and long-term learning goals get lost in short-term actions? What, then, should we do to change this?

Wiggins advocates for what I’ve been arguing for as well in my district: everything in our schools should be aligned—the mission, curriculum, response to personnel issues, response to students, administrative walkthroughs, and certainly professional development.

Having recently read Unmistakable Impact, Wiggins reminded me of aspects of Jim Knight’s work. Knight argues that a school’s improvement plan should be clearly written on one page—too many initiatives get lost. The strategies should be easily understood by the whole school community—administrators, teachers, parents, and students. If not, the school isn’t focused enough to experience real impact. Wiggins provides one sensible method of focusing school initiatives by tying everything together through a backwards design approach using the school’s mission.

Everyone seems to be recognizing the necessity of alignment and clarity, yet schools still seem to struggling to find their focus. I’m convinced it takes strong instructional leaders who have vision and a clearly articulated plan (developed with the support of all stakeholders) to make this happen. The most difficult task is learning to filter out all of the distractions to maintain the school’s focus, making sure the short term doesn’t overwhelm the long term.

One of my favorite Wiggins’s quotes: “The point of school is not to get good at school.” Schools must have a plan to move students towards autonomy in solving real world problems.