In a recent article in Educational Leadership, Grant Wiggins writes about a definition of mastery that holds students to high standards through authentic, challenging assessments that demonstrate the effective transfer of learning. In order to do this, he says, curriculum design cannot support the creation of “microstandards” – the practice of breaking standards down into “lists of bits” that actually prevent students from developing fluency and skills in authentic work. These “bits,” according to Wiggins, actually prevent deep learning.
And Wiggins is right. He even warns that it is a “peril” of curriculum development and design. What some don’t see is that standards don’t need to be broken into small chunks – they need to be attained. The skills students need to attain the standards are another story. Skills need practice and sometimes we even need to isolate parts of a skill in order to develop it and improve. It’s like hitting a baseball: we know we have to watch the ball, step forward and swing the bat. If the standard is to hit the ball, then the skill required to attain the standard is all in what we do when we swing.
Wiggins cited an interesting analogy: microstandards are like twigs; while twigs come from trees, you cannot use twigs to make a tree, but you can use twigs to burn one down. Breaking apart standards, therefore, renders them useless.
Another pitfall of “microstandards” is “micro rigor.” When we pull the standards apart, we decrease the rigor. For example, if we want students to write a clear, focused essay that contains insightful evidence and well-articulated ideas, do we get there by breaking down the standard to only encompass clarity? And once they have clarity, do we then move on to focus? The result is lots of students who know how to write a thesis statement, but few who know how to actually use one in their writing. (more…)