STAT: Undermined by Design

Most teachers or administrators with expertise in instructional design are familiar with the curriculum framework of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, known as Understanding by Design (UbD). This is perhaps the most implemented “backwards design” curriculum model, used in both public and private K-12 settings. The premise is relatively simple: the designer begins with the desired educational outcomes and works backwards through a three-stage planning process towards those outcomes, employing a series of guiding “essential questions” that can help lead students beyond rote repetition and memorization to a fuller, deeper understanding and successful application of ideas and concepts (as opposed to superficial knowledge). In creating this framework, McTighe and Wiggins brought expertise from their own classroom and educational administrative experiences to bear, as well as substantial research.

The latest curriculum and instructional rationale deployed in Baltimore County Public Schools in service of their STAT initiative claims a basis in the Understanding by Design framework but in a vastly modified form; it has been combined with elements of less proven pedagogical effectiveness, including features from the work of education researchers Robert Marzano and Rick Stiggins. Both have limited experience in classroom teaching, school administration, or instructional design, though CEO Marzano presides over a vast aggregation of profitable educational enterprises and Stiggins serves as President of the Pearson-operated Assessment Training Institute.  Instructional elements have also been adopted from the “Framework for the 21st Century,” developed by the nonprofit Partnership for 21st Century Learning, which is not so much an educational organization as a lobbying arm for education/business partnerships, counting Pearson, Intel, and other educational technology companies among their clients.  You can read more about Marzano and their contract in Detroit Public Schools here.

Other STAT instructional elements are similarly derived. One piece comes from the venerable research-based Framework for Teaching, by longtime teacher and instructional designer Charlotte Danielson; yet another is borrowed from the pedagogically dubious SAMR technology integration model developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, who has no background in K-12 education and no research to support efficacy of his model.

In their training workshops for teachers and administrators, McTighe and Wiggins often offered a top-ten list of “How to Kill Understanding by Design,” mindful that implementers sometimes treat elements of learning frameworks as a-la-carte items or temporary fixes for deeper systemic issues, diluting the effectiveness of the model. Item number 4 on their “how to kill” list is “attempt to implement too many initiatives simultaneously (e.g., UbD, Differentiated Instruction, Curriculum Mapping, Brain-based Learning, Professional Learning Communities, etc.).” The BCPS STAT alphabet soup of model implementation does exactly that.

Item number 10 on the list is “standardize all UbD implementation. Do not permit options/alternatives/ different approaches to learning and using UbD. Disregard the interests, talents, and readiness of individuals and teams.” This strikes to the very core of the STAT initiative; while student-centered learning is a professed goal, the talent of teachers has been increasingly minimized and substituted with online content and activities.

This catch-all approach to design is, as McTighe and Wiggins suggest, a major curricular error. In addition, the UbD and the Danielson model both adhere to a constructivist viewpoint of education, in which students strive to develop (or construct) their own learning and understanding through meaningful interaction and guidance from skilled teachers. This is directly at odds with the competency-based STAT model of technology-assisted “personalized instruction,” which has its roots in behaviorist learning theory, based on the works of scientist B.F. Skinner.

Skinner, famous for his experiments in operant conditioning (the use of reinforcement to develop a desired behavior), first pushed the idea of programmed learning from machines in the 1950s.  Not much has changed in the 21st century when it comes to “personalized learning”; instead of a Skinner Box, some STAT classrooms are making use of the DreamBox, Ascend Math or TenMarks mathematics programs, which are operant systems in flashier 1:1 device packages. A student completes a preprogrammed task (a math problem), earns a reward (a few minutes of a video game, virtual coins, or an accomplishment badge), and their data is logged as evidence of progress. The student then repeats the process towards “mastery.”

Behaviorist approaches are great for ensuring the dutiful completion of tasks towards a goal; however, they often lack the depth and nuances to encourage creative and independent thinking, which makes effective transfer of learning difficult. Transfer, the ability to apply learned knowledge between different contexts, often lags in behavioral-based settings; new or novel situations (which do not elicit expected stimulus/reward) can be tricky for a learner to navigate. Constructivist models, with non-virtual hands-on approaches, create more robust learning transfer, encouraging problem solving and divergent thinking.

If the STAT initiative is truly striving to create students with “21st century skills to be globally competitive,” it should employ a more coherent curricular and instructional model that truly fosters critical and innovative thinking. As it stands, it appears to be a conditioning exercise to help create passive students for easy academic handling and dutiful workers for large corporations.

For another article on education technology and the skinner box, you can read Gary Stager’s Outside the Skinner Box , Can Education Technology Make a Course Correction?


3 thoughts on “STAT: Undermined by Design

  1. Behaviorism as a method of teaching children also has a controversial and spotty history. The father of behaviorism, John B. Watson–whose work was the basis for B.F. Skinner’s–tested his theories on infants, including the infamous Albert B. case in which he “conditioned” a baby to fear rats, and anything with fur.

    Here’s an excerpt re: his views on education and child rearing.

    “Watson’s advocacy of behaviorism in child rearing was harsh and influenced more than one generation of parents afraid of coddling their children, a practice he called “mawkish and sentimental.” He declared that infants should be brought up by a rotation of “parents” and nurses, saying that family life destroyed the child’s individuality and independence. A bit of his advice on children from his 1928 book: “Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning.””


  2. Well aware that I don’t fully understand pedagogy to the level of this argument, I do know that for long years, now, I have seen test-score-based school reformers and their many disconnected, top-down minions come into schools and take up learning frameworks as “a-la-carte” items, and then turn around to use these items as temporary fixes for deeper systemic issues (and, in the process, THOROUGHLY dilute the effectiveness of the model). The endless chain of inexperienced, non-educator hires brought to education by an NCLB and R2T test-score reform has served to devastate the larger picture of what a true education actually IS.


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