Understanding Without Design

Laying with the beast that is Learning

“It was the best lesson I’ve done in a long time.”

So said a teacher on my team the other day. This teacher, normally a paragon of preparedness, had done what happens every so often to all of us teachers — she had “winged” a lesson, coming to school without a planned sequence of events, without an objective, nothing.

If you knew this teacher, you’d understand what a wreck she must have been before class started — I imagine sweaty palms gripping the dry-erase marker as panic sets in… Without a preconceived notion of what was to happen in class, she was left “on her own” to work out what would happen in the next 46 minutes.

When I started teaching 20 years ago, there was a teacher who was nearing retirement who every time I asked him what he was doing in class that day would reply, “Tap-dancing and farting.” It didn’t matter what day of the week it was, how far into the year it was, the answer was always the same. At the time, I thought that this was just a reply from an old teacher who was blithely moving into senescence. As I move through my career, however, I think I now realize that tap-dancing and farting at least every once in a while may be a good thing to practice in education.

UbD — Understanding by Design — took the teaching world by storm. This model was built upon the larger “backward design” model, and essentially means that you start your lesson planning at the end — assessment, with an eye to what you want your students to get out of the lesson, then move “backwards” to the activities that, when accomplished by the students, will inexorably move them to success on the assessment. This is all fine and well, except that there’s an inherent sentiment that learning can be “planned”.

Learning is a wild beast. It defies structure, and it prowls around without the ability to be predicted. It’s quicksilver, eely and slippery, unable to be tethered or corraled.

If you’ve ever seen “Jaws”, or read “Moby Dick”, you’ve encountered what it’s like to “design” what is to be learned. The monster is learning; it’s quite easy to see the analogy between the search for these monsters and the search educators have for “learning” — the only way to capture it is to destroy it.

And that’s what we typically do as educators — from UbD to standards to curricula to Madeline Hunter to whatever-the-heck is to come, the whole modus operandi of the industry we are in is to capture and tame the wild beast. And in doing so, we always kill it. You can take the metaphor as far as you want — taxidermy, and hanging the beast’s head on a wall come to mind…

So what are we to do as a profession, when we seem doomed to destroy what we covet so badly?

I was recently doing some reading on unicorns (strictly Wikipedia, snicker away). Apparently one legend says that, “When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.”[10][11] Hmmm…. sounds familiar…. I teach middle school; I think I’ve had kids like this…

How does one catch a unicorn? Well, the most prevalent method is to use a virgin — the virgin simply goes into the woods and waits around. Another Wikipedia quote, this time supposedly from Leonardo da Vinci — “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.” [19]

“…For the love it bears to fair maidens…” What is this trying to say about us, as educators? We need to be fair, virgin maidens, sitting around in the woods, drawing out learning? Maybe a tap-dancing, farting, virgin maiden?

Well, yes. It’s my belief that the more pure of heart and intention I can be in the classroom, the more my students will appreciate this, and start to reach out and learn. “Winging it”, “tap-dancing and farting”, whatever you want to call it — is a best practice in arriving at purity of heart and intention. It strips away at the objectives, standards, curriculum, and allows the true nature of an educator to come out; one where the educator says (usually in a panic), “I hope something, anything, is learned today.” Unfettered by a Design, the teacher focuses on the important things. virginal, unsullied by the trappings of what is meant to capture learning rather than educe it.

To educe — to “bring out” learning from the learner, like the unicorn drawn out of hiding, is our goal. Understanding by Design and other backwards models may have their place, but so should the opposite. To Understand Without Design — to bring out and allow the beast to lay with us without the purposes of measuring, quantifying, capturing or shackling, is also a paragon of education whose place in the hearts and minds of educators needs to be edified.