Do We Need to Re-Design the “End in Mind?”

It’s hard to believe it’s been only 16 years since Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe gave us this now famous task: Design with the end in mind! The phrase—and though they disavow it—the philosophy behind it are now so widespread that it feels as though we must have been using it for 25 years, or more. In education policy that’s an eternity. The authors, and the ASCD, deserve credit for having produced a body of work that has shown staying power in a field where this is rare. Indeed, this approach has made a difference in the ways that teachers and policy-makers think about curriculum design. But I’m going to pose a challenge to that body of work, not for what it was intended to be, nor for how it has been realized in the Common Core Standards, but for what it has become in the hands of thousands of day-to-day teacher practitioners.

I finally feel compelled to pose this challenge because of a statement I heard expressed recently at a conference:
“When students have demonstrated mastery of the outcomes, you can stop what you’re doing and move on. The end has been achieved.”

Though I know one instance does not make a trend, and though I know from some of their other writings that Wiggins and McTighe would likely cringe as I did at such a statement, I couldn’t help but feel as though it expressed a mindset, the mindset that typifies our standards and outcomes obsessed culture of education.

Are we obsessed? Prior to Common Core, Marzano and Kendall identified almost 4,000 benchmarks we teachers were expected to help our students master. With Common Core that number may be reduced, but the stakes are much higher. To these standards we’ll also need to add the NextGen Science Standards and the C3 Social Studies Frameworks before this new round of standards-based reform is complete. With so many standards and outcomes to keep in mind, it’s a fair question to ask why anyone would want to waste time finishing anything rather than moving on to the next something. If you’re a harried teacher struggling to meet more and more standards, you may find yourself agreeing with this. I don’t think any one would blame you, and under some performance evaluation regimes, you might even win praise, and a raise.

That said, no matter how justified it may feel the choice to move on is indicative of but one perspective: that of the adults in our schools or, perhaps the adults in the Statehouse or Washington D.C. While this perspective stems from a desire to focus on our students should “know and be able to do,” it is, ultimately, a management perspective, rooted in what we as professional educators are expected do to, and for, our students. This perspective is hard to escape as the profession of education is managed increasingly through the transmission and testing of standards as a measure how effectively the teacher is working on behalf of that system. Yet as teachers we know that the profession of education is a practice focused much more on how effectively students are working. This doesn’t happen standard by standard, but over a long-term arc of learning, one that spans a much more complex relationship than that expressed by a “correct” answer which, once achieved, can be left behind for new questions.

Now, of course, teaching must be grounded in offering knowledge we deem to be correct. Standards and outcomes are a form of professional agreement about correct knowledge, and the best teachers, the ones that we remember from our own education, are passionate and knowledgeable about their subject matter. Command of a subject is necessary to our profession, and we can assure that through professional standards. This command of subject matter is not, however, sufficient. There are at least two other perspectives we must consider, and for these I am grateful to two “critical friends” Dayna Laur and Jill Ackers Clayton.

The first of these is a demand for authenticity. In her book, Dayna Laur suggests that this is best understood as a challenging, action-oriented learning experience in a community (local, state, national, or global) beyond the schoolhouse, and that this perspective comes quite naturally from beyond the schoolhouse in most cases. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge, erudition, may be fine for those pursuing advanced degrees. For parents, employers, parents and often students, the knowledge we share with our students must offer authentic opportunities for a productive and fulfilling life. Standards and outcomes are often written with knowledge of this sort as an end in mind. For example, the Common Core standards students are now expected to “know and be able to do” in many states promise readiness for career or college. Yet, because such knowledge is located in an authentic community context beyond the schoolhouse, there is no “enduring” “core.” Communities will continue to differ about such knowledge, in part because the measure of a “productive and fulfilling life” is constantly changing in a society of learners. As a result, authentic learning must also help students think critically about the changes they will live to see in their lives. Mere rote learning, or training, cannot be authentic learning.

This brings us to a second, and equally important perspective in our learning experiences, that of the students as learners. While some students may indeed demand authenticity from their teachers, most are far more interested to know how their lessons are relevant. Relevancy is not an end we, as teachers can hold in mind, but rather, as Jill Ackers Clayton has suggested to me, relevancy is the link between an individual student’s perception of their present learning situation and their values, needs and goals. We can help them to define those three, but it means that the end in mind that we define together is something different from the standards and outcomes with which we work as professional educators. For example, we might be inclined to write off concerns about popular music, You-Tube videos, or texting as immature and inappropriate. However, as educators we need to appreciate what our students are trying to tell us when they want our help studying these issues. Our students today face new problems, problems we did not face as children, and problems that we may not fully understand. They also face new opportunities, new ways of gaining knowledge from a culture of learning that has expanded far beyond the walls of their classrooms to include many of the same media we dismiss as immature and inappropriate. If we as professional educators cannot make the knowledge we have to offer in our standards and outcomes relevant to this new learning environment, then our students will check out from our classrooms and look elsewhere, rendering that knowledge, and our profession obsolete in the process. What our students are telling us is that they want to engage our materials, but that they need to do so in a way that empowers them to face the challenges that are relevant to their learning arc. Learning that does not do this is not relevant, and will not empower them to succeed in their lives.

Fifteen years ago, after years of professional obsession over daily lesson planning the adults in the room needed to be reminded that education wasn’t about the lessons we designed to engage/entertain our students, but the larger ends our designs needed to accomplish in order to better prepare our students for an uncertain future. Now, as Common Core has come to dominate our “end in mind” regarding an even more uncertain future, I wonder if we don’t need another reminder?

Are the standards and outcomes we’ve been so busy codifying the last two decades really the “end in mind,” or are they rather the means to the end in mind? What if the “end in mind” is not the standards and outcomes many of us now carry as an app on our phones, even while we deny our students the same privilege, but rather a generation of life-long learners empowered by those standards and outcomes to lead productive and fulfilling lives?

Another “critical friend” of mine, Thom Markham has argued provocatively that the Common Core Standards are the 20th century’s last attempt to save industrial education’s fixation on standards. Coming, as they do, fourteen years into the 21st century and at least a quarter century after the dawn of the Information Age, Thom may, indeed, be quite right that they are an anachronism doomed to failure. The industrial age model of schooling assumed that standards were the ultimate metric by which students would be judged—and sorted—before being assigned a role in industrial society. Rolling off the line on graduation day, some students would be found wanting, and slated for more menial work, while others would be found worthy, or even exceptional, and sent on to another round of schooling. This is the problem that schools were designed to solve at the end of the 19th century. The system was idealized as a meritocracy, and it worked so long as the industrial economy it served survived. Yet I think it’s fair to say that we all understand that “fitting kids into the system” is not the problem we face today. Why then is it still the ultimate “end in mind” in our education policies?

Tony Monfilletto at the New Mexico Center for School Leadership in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says that what most schools are good at today is preparing students for more school, and that the problem we now face is that we are simply out of schools for our top performers to attend when the world of work no longer wants students who excel at school. If you haven’t read it yet, check out the buzz surrounding the fact that today’s top companies, like Google, no longer want “A” students. We’re no longer interested in graduates who fit in perfectly, we want graduates who can help us undo, and remake the old industrial systems that we see everywhere in decline. As at the end of the 19th century, the standards by which we judge someone outside of school have changed. Our educational institutions have not. We face a problem in education that requires an innovative solution. Yet, so far, our only solution is to change the standards and outcomes that inform our “end in mind” so that more kids will fit in as the adults we imagine they need to be. Because most of us designing the standards are the successful products of schools, however, those standards only prepare students for more schooling, even if they purport to offer a “career ready” option.

Life-long learning is not the same thing as life-long schooling, and while preparing students for perpetual schooling may be good for the business of education, it certainly does not prepare them for life. Yet the fact that we may no longer be able to manufacture students to a standard required by a stable economic system does not necessarily imply that standards as measures of performance are doomed. Rather, in order for the standards to remain relevant to our students, we must adjust the way we use them to account for the new culture of learning in which we find our students, and ourselves. To do this is going to be a much more complex process than simply holding the outcomes and standards in mind.

A linear, rational, mechanistic, cause and effect society could afford to build an educational system around concepts of fit and merit because almost everything could be reduced to a matrix that showed where things belonged. But we don’t live in that world any longer. We live in a world of inter-twined systems and information exchange, where the value of things is determined not by mechanical cause and effect relationships, but by market manipulations that take place in split seconds within the 24-7 information cycle. Fortune no longer favors the “fit,” but once more the “bold,” those who creatively manipulate information to steer conversations, shape opinion, and create market share. Steady success based on “fitting in” is now far less relevant than innovative risk taking, and it turns out those trained to “fit in” are actually pretty bad at the latter.

Yet neither is worshipping creativity and praising failure as its attendant–which so many do today–the innovative solution we require. No one wants engineers, doctors, or for that matter teachers who “fake it until they make it.” Rather, what society now demands is not graduates who measure up to fit in to an established industrial role such as foreman, manager, or mechanic, but rather graduates who can use standards and outcomes to solve the new and complex challenges that transcend the simple job descriptions of those old roles. This raises what I think is a third perspective, complexity, which implies that our instructional design must be equally poised in a “sweet spot” of proximal development that challenges individual students while giving them the opportunity to be creative with what we know.

To accomplish this complexity, what I’m proposing is a simple shift of emphasis:

When designing learning experiences, the standards and outcomes must become the means to the end–NOT the end in mind themselves. The end must become learning which is relevant to students, authentically grounded in the communities they know, and sufficiently complex that it allows them to span the gap between our world and theirs.

This proposition is based on the realization that some may have a hard time accepting but that, when considered, I think we all know to be true about 21st century life and learning: in the end, we’ll live in the world our students create before they will live in the world of our creation. Our students know this from looking at the world around them, and they need to know that we understand that if they are going to learn from us.

After all, no child comes to school to learn the standards. Children come to school with excitement when they are young because they are eager to learn how to do things in their world. That excitement fades, and with it student engagement fades, because we tell them “First master the standards, then after school you’ll be able to do something.” Nothing we do with the standards can make them more engaging, short of showing students how we can empower them with those standards. Today’s children won’t wait for anything less, and they don’t have to wait because schools no longer have a monopoly on learning. If educators wish to remain relevant, we need to rephrase our invitation to learning. No longer can we promise to prepare them for life and work, but rather to support their early participation in life and work. We can do this by saying: “Let’s work on this problem or project, and along the way you’ll learn what you need to know to complete it.” Our willingness to admit that standards are the means to an end, not the end themselves, will be the potential difference between whether the Common Core Standards succeed as a genuinely 21st century learning initiative, or simply re-brand our students with failing test scores once again.

Back in 2011, Wiggins and McTighe offered this useful analogy as a way out of our present problem with how we implement and assess the Common Core Standards:

state standards are like building codes; local instructional design is our “architecture.” The goal of architectural design is not to meet building and zoning codes in a slavish fashion. It is, rather, the reverse: the goal is to design something that is practical, pleasing, and stylish – while also happening to meet building and zoning codes.

In the end, students care about is what they can do with the standards we have to offer them, and that means they want to finish whatever it was they started because they take pride in their work as something with the potential to make a contribution to our lives. That’s something I’ve found most teachers also want to pass on to their students. Perhaps now you can see why I was so horrified that someone would deny students that opportunity.

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