Big misconceptions

The final chapter in Wiggins deals with the three most common qualms about backward design, all of which seem germane to any change. The first misgiving (“I need to teach to the test”) is effectively refuted by citing the research that shows challenging instruction produces long-term gains (and transfer); as a result, you CAN teach to the test by teaching authentically and without drill and kill on released test items. The third misgiving (“I don’t have time”) is countered with the recommendations to share good practices and collaborate; this seems more effective in K-12 than in higher education.

The second misgiving (“I have too much content to cover”) is an old and well-entrenched argument and is more complex. The notion that the textbook equals the course content is spurious; we know that it’s simply a tool, and if a student can pass the TAKS test without memorizing the entire textbook, a teacher should not attempt to cover the textbook in lockstep fashion. This section then lays out a three-part sequence that few teachers could argue with:

  1. Students come in with preconceptions based on individual histories; we must first engage them.
  2. Students must learn facts, place them in a conceptual framework, and then organize them for retrieval and application.
  3. Students must reflect on their own learning (metacognition) which provides learner control and self-monitoring

Overall, I found this a practical way to end the book; by focusing on misconceptions, Wiggins practices the big ideas of instructional design.


Small groups/worlds

I looked at the Pellegrino article again and still find it directly applicable to what I do in higher ed. His triad of curriculum (scope and sequence), instruction (the teaching) and assessment is right on the money (and ties this article closely to the Bates model). I also started to see common themes emerge:

1. students come with existing knowledge structures which are sometimes inaccurate (the Wiggins’ misperception idea);
2. students must have deep factual and procedural knowledge, understand those facts and procedures in the context of a conceptual framework, and then be able to retrieve and apply the facts and procedures from an organization structured within memory. Pellegrino states (note: check this out since as he doesn’t cite any research directly) that the ability to notice patterns (Wiggins) or draw analogies to other problems (Bloom) is “more closely intertwined with factual and procedural knowledge than was once believed.”
3. metacognition–basically an internal dialogue or reflection–teaches students to take control of their own learning by defining goals and monitoring their progress.

Pellegrino’s four goals of instruction resonated as well:

1. Design meaningful problems;
2. Build scaffolds to help students solve those problems;
3. Give students opportunities for practice using feedback, revision, and reflection activities; and
4. “Promote collaboration and distributed expertise, as well as independent learning.”

Pellegrino amplified this last point  by suggesting teachers have learners work in small groups on complex problems. I recently read an article about an experiment Robert Goldstone, a cognitive psychologist at Indiana conducted that suggested small groups with a few weak connections to other groups are ideal for solving complex problems; large groups with a lot of connections (aka Facebook and wikipedia, aka The Wisdom of Crowds) are best for solving simple problems. I wonder if this maps at all to Dunbar’s Number?

Interestingly, Pellegrino identified a key characteristic of technology-based environments as offering learner control, a point our class made several weeks ago during our discussion!

Getting back to essentials

I found this chapter in Wiggins very applied. Essential questions require the empathic facet and are applicable to the upper level of Bloom’s taxonomy (judging) where there are no right or wrong answers. They lead to big ideas and are built on challenging commonly-held beliefs or on posing dilemmas. The hallmarks of essential questions include:

  • recurrence
  • core idea
  • stimulate inquiry (and yet more questions)
  • appeal to diverse learners (offering alternate viewpoints)
  • force rethinking
  • require  connecting with personal and prior experience

I especially appreciated the recursive aspect inherent in the admonition that a question cannot be deemed essential without an examination of the content, assignments and assessments that surround the question.

The distinction between overarching and topical questions was equally useful as it showed how specific contexts (cases) in topical essential questions lead to overarching essential questions (which require specificity). The division of approaches–open versus guided–allowed the construction of a 4-cell matrix:

Open Topical Overarching
Guided Topical Overarching

I was somewhat surprised that that the following discussion didn’t suggest a sequence of Open->Topical to Open-Overarching to Guided->Topical to Guided->Overarching. That seems like a natural progression that moves from specifics to generalizations and from open inquiry to focused understanding.

The events you are about to see are real

Fools rush in… I see now that these posts should have been limited to 200 words and comments to 100. I’d heard of Gagne’s 9 events before but the interesting part of reading his original work is the bifurcation of the process: the first 5 steps are the learning, and the last 4 are the assessment which implies that every instructional event must include proof. The Presentation step was the most helpful, especially:

  • content must mirror the objective in delivery mode
  • variety is required so learners can generalize
  • present discrimination through finer- and finer-grained examples
  • present concepts through a variety of examples and non-examples
  • provide examples then a definition for concrete concepts with younger learners
  • provide a definition then examples for defined concepts with older learners

I had misunderstood that the Guidance step was practice when in fact it is a series of small activities that build and allow the learner to discover the big idea; constructivists will say that learners who need fewer activities (hints) before seeing the big idea bring a different social-cultural history to the event. I also misunderstood the last two steps; assessment is NOT a repeat of feedback but a drive toward reliability and validity while transfer is applying the concept to an entirely new problem.

For my ILM, I now suspect that assessment of an attitude may require human observation.


Just like we’re supposed to design backwards, I thought I’d post backwards this week–and start with the textbook readings before the journal articles. Not sure if that’s a good method or not but it’s different than what I did last week and experimentation is fun. UbD was not as much fun this week–but mostly because the big section on state standards was boring to me. I KNOW it’s important but I don’t deal with it at all–although maybe I’ll have to in the future if the Higher Ed Coordinating Board starts to enforce their new College Readiness Standards. And one part of the standards part was sort of interesting: the argument on how big or small a standard should be sounds a lot like the arguments on how big or small a learning object should be. And the answer to both questions is still just as elusive and Zen-like: as big as it needs to be. Anyway, the idea of understanding based on essential questions based on skills made a lot of sense although I don’t see why Wiggins concentrates on the skills instead of performance goals (he says the latter are complex and long-term but I sort of thought we wanted to assess via performance).

I was hoping the section on big ideas would have more specifics–but then I suppose if it was easy (or formulaic) to come up with big ideas, they wouldn’t be big. I liked the concept that big ideas are “counterintuitive, prone to misunderstanding” because that ties back to the earlier discussion of uncovering misunderstandings as a first step in the instructional process. The chart seemed to suggest starting with everything you know about a topic–then narrowing it down to enabling skills–then narrowing that down to the big ideas and core (transfer) tasks, a process that makes a lot of sense. However, by the end of the chapter, I felt the authors had spent a lot of words and not said a lot.

On the other hand, Dick and Carey’s approach was succinct, moving from learner analysis to performance context (the environment in which the learning will be used) analysis to learning context (the environment in which the learning will be learned) analysis.The 8 concepts in learner analysis seemed a little redundant: it seemed to really be 5: Entry State (behavior and knowledge); Attitude (toward content, delivery and trainer); Motivation; Ability (potential); and Preferences. The 2 case studies were illustrative and while I think I’d shorten these in a real situation, I see the value in at least asking all of these questions.