What about the Scenic Route?

Wiggins and McTighe use a brilliant airplane metaphor to address the need for planning. They state that when a pilot wants to fly to London, she doesn’t just get into the airplane, set the destination, kick back her feet and hope for an arrival several hours later.  Instead, she monitors progress along the way, makes adjustments based on feedback and lands artfully having been fully alert throughout the journey.  

For years, I have used this metaphor to defend mapping, unit planning and formative assessment.  I still believe in it.  To a degree…

Yet, of late, I have started to question what has happened to this model as it has scaled around the world.

I have seen brilliant units, intriguing essential questions, inspiring assessments for the past 12 years in class after class, discipline after discipline.  I have worked with wonderful teachers who commit to the model and spend hours building curriculum maps and units.  

Still, education has remained largely unchanged.  

Across the world in schools that have adopted backward design (or not),

  • Students still sit at desks and are directed to move by the teacher; even when we’ve shifted to flexible furniture and the students may choose to sit or stand, they are still largely guided by the teacher
  • Teacher to student talk is typically at a 70:30 ratio in favor of the teacher
  • Teachers pose more questions than students do
  • Projects are inventive and “authentic” but are driven by teachers, with tight deadlines and narrow choices; even 20Time Projects have become very scaffolded with rigid timelines

Those beautiful units we’ve designed, a model that I am sure Wiggins and McTighe intended to produce thinking classrooms, have tied us tightly to a linear path of achievement and forward momentum.

So I ask, what happened to the scenic route?

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When I was growing up, Europe by Eurail was all the rage.  A series of destinations over a specific time period driven by the the traveler.  We still know we want to go to Paris, Prague and Warsaw, but perhaps we decide on an extended stay in Slovenia or we veer from our path to take a side trip into Scandinavia.  Perhaps the plane metaphor, albeit well-intended, produced an opposite effect, one in which we fly directly to our destination with no unscheduled stops.  

How could we transform our classrooms if we shifted our metaphor from an airplane to a train?

  • Students are given standards and a timeline, but can choose how to navigate through them
  • Students create the itinerary, pose the questions and do the thinking and the talking
  • Students may step off a path to explore another route; perhaps they get back on the same route, or perhaps they arrive at the destination via an entirely different itinerary
  • We have checkpoints along the way
  • Our planning structures change to that of a thinking plan, not beautifully written documents that live in a digital archive

Perhaps the train analogy is not new but carries some remnant of mastery learning.  Perhaps all things done to scale eventually become too packaged and therefore produce the opposite effect of what they intend.  Perhaps the loosely defined outcomes are scary because we give up control and give it over to the learners.  Perhaps we embrace the plane metaphor because it is modern and because we have become rushed, frantic and too goal-driven as an attempt to counter the rapid rates of change in which we live.  

Whatever our reasons or our fears, as we move further into this century of overwhelming change, I urge us to stop engaging in “work” and start engaging in “thinking”…as educators, as leaders and as students.


Both Wiggins and McTighe have written versions of “How to Kill UbD…”