Friday, July 29, 2011

On Best Practices

by Shelly Blake-Plock

A lot of talk recently about 'best practices'. Best practices for using the iPad in the classroom. Best practices for social media in schools. Best practices for dealing with kids more interested in Angry Birds than in schoolwork.

Trouble is: There are no 'best practices'.

In fact there is no 'best' anything when it comes to teaching. There is no 'best' in teaching any more than there is a 'best' way to win a football game.

Now, there will be those pundits who claim that one team's Super Bowl victory means less than another's. Pundits make a career of saying what is 'best' for someone else. But we all know that teams win games based on preparation; on the ability to adapt strategy -- often in the middle of a play; on the way their unique culture expresses itself as teamwork. Teams don't win because pundits say what's best.

And student's don't learn because of what the educational equivalent of pundits say is best.

Students learn based on the relationship that exists between themselves and their teacher; they learn because of the preparation, strategies, adaptations, and teamwork involved. And there is no standard way of producing success. That preparation, those strategies, those adaptations, and that teamwork will be different in each class -- or at least should.

Because no two kids are the same. No two teachers are the same. No two schools are the same. We're all working with what we've got. And what we've got -- to slice through all the murk on all sides of the Ed Reform debate -- are relationships.

Great coaches and great athletes know that it is relationships, not 'best practices' that win championships. Love of the game inspires kids. Love of passion and hard work and determination and grit and love of love itself.

No kid wants to grow up to be a pundit.

And no kid is inspired by 'best practices'.

In the end, 'best practices' are just another form of punditry. They inspire nothing but further standardization.

And standardization is the opposite of passion. It's the opposite of joy, motivation, love of being part of the struggle -- the pathos -- of sport and learning alike. Standardization tells you that making a mistake is a bad thing. Standardization suggests there is a clear cut measure. A process that works. No gray.

'Best practices' tell you that there is a 'Way'; and if you just follow that way, you'll find success.

This has never worked. There is no Way in teaching. There are only teachers looking for a way on one hand and those making their own way on the other.

If you really want to inspire learning, you don't need 'best practices', you just need practice best.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. I just had the same conversation with a colleague and just how offensive the term best practices can be because it dismisses all of the other practices that are not "in" at that moment. It seems we must always conquer and divide. Great post!

  2. Oh! BINGO!!! You hit the nail on the head. Learning is, like life, situational. There is no single recipe we can follow that will ensure every one of our students will be successful. It's all about building relationships, growing your toolbox, and finding out what works for each student at every turn. This made me smile today :)

  3. Great point. It is another reason I choose to teach in an independent school rather than the local public schools. Most everything you describe in your blog are well know to those of us in the trenches, but not of high import to the "pundits" who are actually running the system. Odd, is it not, that when school districts are flagging these same administrators/politicians/ pundits are quick to blame the teachers; those who are forced into these so-called "best practices." I can think of no time in the past several years when I heard a superintendent of schools say something akin to, "Gee, the initiatives I forced our schools to undergo are not working out; I should resign, as I am the one who led them." At least in my private, independent school I am encouraged to determine what "practices" are "best" for my students.

  4. While I agree that there should not be a codified, dogmatic list of "best practices" and that what works in a classroom is often contextual, I also see a point in saying, "this strategy works better than that strategy in this context." If that makes it a best practice, then I guess I believe in best practices.

  5. Good post, although I would quibble that "best" is whatever works for a particular educator and their students. Which means that best is also a constantly moving target, a fact that reinforces the idea that teaching is more of an art than the mechanized process implied by books and videos full of "best practices", not to mention the concept of one test to assess them all.

  6. Practices is plural!
    And there are certainly best practices, literally, on how to win a football game.
    Isn't this whole site about what you consider a best practice: going paperless?

  7. I have always thought that people who touted "best practices" were blowing smoke. If students are following their interests and passion and doing their best work, we end up with products (projects) that can be judged subjectively at best. Education isn't physics. It is more art than science and this is coming from someone with a science background. I think a read of Young Zhao's book "Catching UP or Leading the Way" would be of interest. You can read a summary here. Douglas W. Green, EdD

  8. We like to try and quantify what successful people do and put it in a neat little package and call it "best practice". Then we take our boxed up best practice and try to duplicate it over a system. Usually some short term successes take place, but long term, the new-new thing runs out of steam and then we replace it with the next boxed up "best practice". What is forgotten in this cycle is that it is the people not the practice are the difference makers. It does matter if you are superintendent, principal, teacher, coach, or parent it is, and always will be, about building relationships.

  9. The "modern" institution of education (which is really a political one) came as a result of the Industrial revolution. The word du jour in the Board that I teach in is "...high yield strategies...", which is just another way to say "best practice". And, just like an assembly line, educrats et al. expect "measurement" and "quality control" as if teachers work on as assembly line building widgets of some sort. Thing is, I can't seem to get the tape measure I use to measure a length of 2 x 4 into little Johnny's cranium.

    Referring to the comment above, "Isn't this whole site about what you consider a best practice: going paperless?", I don't get your point. Going digital isn't best's reality; it's the world we live in. So, if you mean that "common sense" is best practice, then I agree with you. Otherwise, I see no contraction in the writer's message or media of choice to share it.


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