This past July I was one of a number of Sewickley Academy faculty members who travelled to New Jersey for an Understanding By Design three-day seminar. The seminar leader, educational consultant, and curriculum design guru Grant Wiggins had visited our school a few years ago to help facilitate the early design stages of our curriculum mapping work. While much of the work at that juncture involved a broad-based survey of varying state and national curriculum standards, Mr. Wiggins spoke about how to design an actual single classroom unit. For me, his focus on the tangible and the immediate provided some relief to the more amorphous conceptual labor required at the outset of the curriculum mapping project. Similarly, it turned out that for the three days that Middle School English teacher Deborah Golden and I attended his seminar this summer, we actually got to roll up our sleeves and apply Mr. Wiggins’s categories—not to mention his personal feedback and advice—to the creation of new classroom units. Mine related to an American literature class on the transcendentalist writers, while Deborah’s explored the nature of romance in Romeo and Juliet. Deborah and I were both already familiar with Mr. Wiggins’s standard-bearing model, but to apply it for two days nonstop with Mr. Wiggins himself cracking the whip gave us a new appreciation of its possibilities.
The conference hotel was set right on the Delaware River, and the two small towns that flanked the local bridge—New Hope and Lambertville—were flush with art studios and trendy cafes. Yet up the hill from the busy main drag of New Hope was a quiet brew pub where the tireless Mr. Wiggins played the bass guitar on our last night there with his band mates, The Hazbins. No longer faced with the hazards of confusing ‘engaging’ with ‘effective’ or ‘content’ with ‘meaning,’ it was easy enough to sit back, listen to the music, drink a beer, and smile at nearby Eagles fans as they plotted out their projected Super Bowl trajectory. Alas, applying Mr. Wiggins’s design criteria to their scheme, it was not difficult to conclude that it had a major flaw—the likelihood of its desired outcome.