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Grant Wiggins: Current Views on Curriculum, Testing and HS Diplomas

What if Curriculum Focused on Performance & Ability and High School Really Prepared Students for Their Adult Lives

In a couple of deeply thought-provoking articles the co-author of books such as Learning By Design and Schooling By Design asks us join him in thinking about some basic assumptions about what the goal of education should be, how we should determine what should be taught and how we should measure progress. In a recent post to his blog, Wiggins asks us to think of action, not knowledge, as the essence of an education; to think of future ability to perform, not knowledge of the past, as the core .

Wiggins suggests that knowledge of the past should not be the goal of education but rather learning to perform in the future tasks of life should be the aim; whether it is maintaining relationships, raising children,  cooking for our families, playing a sport or building a house.  Not only are increasing abilities to perform in real life the most important outcomes of education but actually engaging in tasks related to these real world challenges is the best way to learn.  He points out that we don’t spend much time learning the history of soccer in order to learn to play – we start playing and learn the rules, strategies and, even its history if we are really smitten by the bug, in the context of learning to play.  The same is true of music and many practical skills.  The content is rarely the point; content is the by-product of actually learning to perform and then improve our performance.

So, what if the same might be true of history, math and science?  How would that change what we teach, how we teach and how we measure student progress?   Thinking this way might explain some of the problems we face in schools today.  Why school is so often boring, why students forget so much of what is covered in class and why so little of what is “taught” is transferred to real life tasks.  As anyone who has sat down to learn to play a video game can attest, we learn by doing it, just like we learned to walk, run and ride a bike.  We didn’t study all the rules or history before we learned these things.  Wiggins says that by the rules we plan curriculum by,  getting good at that video game shouldn’t happen if we first didn’t study the rules and strategies.  One wouldn’t learn to cook by first reading the entire 700 pages of the Joy of Cooking, for instance.

Rather than march through or tour the breath of a topic perhaps the rest of education should take a page from current professional training. In medicine, engineering, business, and law courses are no longer built backward from content. They are built backward from key performances and problems in the fields. Problem-based learning and the case method not only challenge the conventional paradigm but suggest that K-12 education is increasingly out of touch with genuine trends for the better in education.  How would it change what and how we teach if we focused on performance and abilities of life-related skills, solving life-related problems?  How much more successful and creative in life would students be?  How much more motivated to learn would they be?

Not Which Standards, but Whose Standards

While the current standards and testing movement has us taking steps toward deeper understanding and application of knowledge, Wiggins has argued that they may not be the right standards.  If the purpose of secondary education is to improve all students’ ability to be successful as adults why is Algebra II required but not child-rearing or financial literacy or ethics?   The answer lies in the fact that we are choosing standards content just like we have been for the past 100 years. It is the experts of the academic fields that are deciding what students should be learning and if you ask a social studies, math or science teacher what is most important, what would you guess the answer is going to be?   Rather we should thinking about what students actually need to succeed in the current world outside these individual content areas.  Wiggins has a suggested list to start us thinking about it:

  • Philosophy, including critical thinking and ethics.
  • Psychology, with special emphasis on mental health, child development, and family relations.
  • Economics and business, with an emphasis on market forces, entrepreneurship, saving, borrowing and investing, and business start-ups.
  • Woodworking or its equivalent; you should have to make something to graduate.
  • Mathematics, focusing primarily on probability and statistics and math modeling.
  • Language arts, with a major focus on oral proficiency (as well as the reading and writing of nonfiction).
  • Multimedia, including game and web design.
  • Science: human biology, anatomy, physiology (health-related content), and earth science (ecology).
  • Civics, with an emphasis on civic action and how a bill really becomes law; lobbying.
  • Modern U.S. and world history, taught backward chronologically from the most pressing current issues.

At the beginning of his article “A Diploma Worth Having” Wiggins quotes from a 1918 report on the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education which was written in counterpoint to the then prevailing recommendation that every student needed multiple years of Greek and Latin.  The statement in the Cardinal Principles about the purpose of high school was: Education in a democracy, both within and without the school, should develop in each individual the knowledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers whereby he will find his place and use that place to shape both himself and society toward ever nobler ends.  They proposed the following “main objectives of education“: (1) health; (2) command of fundamental processes (reading, writing, arithmetical computations, and the elements of oral and written expression); (3) worthy home membership; (4) vocation; (5) citizenship; (6) worthy use of leisure; and (7) ethical character. 

Our current situation is not much different. We are on the verge of requiring every student in the United States to learn two years of algebra that they will likely never use, but no one is required to learn wellness, personal finances, working on a team or parenting. From Wiggins perspective, the current standards movement has good intentions and may result in some positive outcomes but, for all its good intentions, it is significantly narrowing our definition of education, to the great harm of not only students but also entire fields of study: the arts, the technical arts and trades, and the social sciences.  Threatened are visual arts, theater, music, and dance programs despite their obvious value. Indeed, there are more musicians in this country than mathematicians, but you would never know it from the work of standards committees.  

Wiggins ends this article by recommending not that the Common Core be thrown out because it has the potential to bring some order to the diversity that currently exists in state standards and testing but, that we look at them as only an initial rearrangement of current standards done by people with traditional views of courses and subjects.  What we really need to happen is to begin an inclusive quest to answer the questions about what students really need from secondary education and what that would mean to what we teach, how we teach and how we measure student progress.


You can find Grant Wiggins’ blog and post on Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong..

His article: A Diploma Worth Having, in Education Leadership:


Dennis has been the Director of the the VT-HEC since it was founded in 2000. He spent 16 years at the VT-DOE as Director of teams with various names that included: special education, Title I, health and wellness and other family and education support services. Prior to that Dennis worked at the Barre Town School (VT) starting as a special educator and serving many years as the Director of Student Support Services. He also spent 6 years as a classroom teacher grades 5-8 in NJ.

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