Three Lessons from Grant Wiggins

Today is the birthday of the educator and author Grant Wiggins. Many of us who work in schools were very sad when he passed three years ago at the relatively young age of sixty-four. But his work lives on in the many classrooms around the globe where he helped usher in positive shifts in a variety of pedagogical approaches.

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There is much to be gained by reading Wiggins’s books and articles, but if I had to boil down his writing into three main lessons, it would be these:  

Feedback is Essential for Optimizing Learning Outcomes. 
Throughout his career, Wiggins often wrote about the importance of clear, frequent, and accurate assessments that impact teaching strategies and provide students with the specific feedback they need to learn effectively. Educational research over the last few decades supports Wiggins’s theories of assessment. As he often noted, providing this kind of feedback to students is one of the best strategies to promote active and continuous learning.   

Plan Lessons Backward to Attain Key Learning Objectives. Wiggins emphasized the importance of designing curriculum in reverse by starting with a clear understanding of the desired learning outcomes. While other educators before him also endorsed this approach, Wiggins’s framework known as “Understanding by Design" fostered a deep understanding of pedagogy that prioritized an efficient transfer of knowledge. Wiggins was the champion of purposeful teaching through careful planning and skillful pedagogy.

Always Empathize with Students. Wiggins encouraged teachers to walk in the shoes of their students and not fall into the trap of what he referred to as the “Expert Blind Spot.” What is clear to teachers is not always clear to students, particularly those who are being exposed to content or skills for the first time. Wiggins noted that it is easy for experienced teachers to forget the struggles they had when they were young and quickly lose patience with their students. But when teachers can take a step back, recall their own struggles, and empathize with the inherent difficulties in the learning process, they will cultivate greater patience and become more effective in their classrooms.  

Throughout his career, Wiggins always reminded us that good teaching is hard to do. He knew it was important to offer clear, insightful, and practical advice to teachers so they could continuously perfect their craft. As he wrote, “. . . we must strive unendingly as educators to be empathetic with the learner’s conceptual struggles if we are to succeed.” Thank you, Grant Wiggins, for giving teachers so many helpful strategies to do so.


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