I spent most of my teaching career teaching at least one subject daily that I delivered to two different classes: The same lesson, repeated back-to-back. Many times the second class got the better deal. I tweaked, I edited, I improved what I did, and sometimes I even tried something completely different. But sometimes, things went awry. Sometimes, what worked perfectly in my first class simply floundered in my second class.

The fact is that teaching is very individualized and context driven. What works for one child or one set of students, may not work for another child or another set of students.

Looking at (today’s) definition in Wikipedia:

Best practice is an idea that asserts that there is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive or reward that is more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer problems and unforeseen complications. Best practices can also be defined as the most efficient (least amount of effort) and effective (best results) way of accomplishing a task, based on repeatable procedures that have proven themselves over time for large numbers of people.

I don’t think there is ‘best practice’ in education. There are ‘processes’ that we should have in place, but these are still not ‘best practice’. For instance, it is desirable to have teachers do formative assessment rather than just summative assessment… BUT is there a ‘best’ way to do formative assessment? Does this self-reflective process work the same way for all students? Can you take any one assessment and apply it to different lessons or contexts or classes or students? No.

Teaching is a practice. We practice teaching. We have an obligation to do our best, but that will ultimately change as we… practice. If we want to apply ‘best practice’ to teaching, then we need to look at ourselves as role model learners. We need to be relentless learners striving to be our best. We need to be self-reflective, we need to seek advice from our mentors and teachers, we need to engage in learning conversations, and we need to share our enthusiasm for both teaching and learning. We need to ‘practice teaching’ to the best of our ability.

What we don’t need is a bunch of processes labeled as ‘best practice’ to limit us from seeking something that is yet more effective.  Best practice is still just practice.

22 comments on “Best Practice is still Practice

  1. “Best Practice” in education is one more bit of nonsense stemming from the industrial model. There must be a “best” “most efficient” “most effective” way to do this, and if “this” does not happen it is either the fault of the “industrial equipment” (the teacher) or there is a flaw in the “raw material” (the student).

    Despite the stunning inhumanity of this vision it is preserved because it prevents real change by always shifting blame away from the system itself.

  2. Dave I agree teaching is a practice, but so to is medicine (ever hear of a medical practice?). The issue isn’t that there is a single best practice, but that there are aspects that ‘should’ be included in every lesson. As with formative assessment, there may not be one activity that teachers ‘must’ include in their instruction for the day, but they ‘should’ include some type of formative assessment in their plan so that they can analyze the efficacy of their lesson.

    I agree the wild card that education has that many other professions don’t deal with as readiliy is there are so many variables sitting in front of us. A doctor treats a single patient at a time, and her treatment is geared to her best guess for that patient; where as for a teacher my best guess is geared at thirty patients at a time and I have to try and figure out what is working for each one in the next 50 minutes.

    That said, if I start with a plan that uses components that are recognized to be more effective by some relative standard than just my own experiences then I’m probably making the best informed decision I can and then can begin to react from there, rather than teaching the same way I was taught because… that’s how I learned best.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve been lurking on your blog for some time. Great stuff. (rodaniel on twitter)

  3. @irasocol Thanks for the comment! It is amazing how many things we drag along with us as by-products of the 100+ year old industrial age. Well said!

    @rodaniel Thank you for doing more than lurking and leaving such a thoughtful comment!

    I fully agree, yet I still hold some contempt for the term ‘Best Practice’…

    Let’s talk about ‘Good Pedagogy’ and not pretend that our practice is “more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc.” The term ‘best practice’ is archaic as it pertains to meaningful teacher practice.

  4. Great post, David. You’ve hit some important points in the debate. Here’s my usual response to the term.

    “Best practice” makes three big assumptions.

    1) That best practices exist, that there are in fact ‘best’ practices.
    2) That these practices can somehow be extracted, mostly oblivious to the style of the teacher, the student, the learning environment, the social environment, the cultural environment …
    3) That these practices can somehow be transferred, used by other teachers, in other contexts.

    These are huge assumptions, ones that de-emphasize “teacher as compassionate human” in favour of “teacher as technician”. There needs to be a balance.

    And as you allude to in the end of your post, what happens when we achieve “best practice?” Where do we go from there? Is that why there are still teachers using the same techniques and approaches that they used 30 years ago? Did the reach some state of teaching perfection?

    OK, I’ve probably overstated a few points …. Thanks for the thoughtful post, and for letting me rant here.

  5. @rodaniel @datruss — believe it or not the same types of challenges you face with “best practice” are the same that we struggle with in medicine.

    1. Some populations (racial minorities, elderly, very young) are sometimes underrepresented (or not represented at all) in the studies that fuel best practices. Can we extrapolate to those populations?

    2. Can the conditions under which the studies were conducted be replicated? A study that includes intensive one on one attention may get great results but can that reasonably be reproduced in the average practice?

    3. Funding can control what get’s studied. Companies with a vested interest in a product will do studies to prove that product is effective where non-commercial funded studies tend to look at the overall picture. Who has more money to do more studies that contribute to best practices?

    So consider that the physician who has one patient in front of them has to decide in less than 10 min if the patient fits the “profile” of who was studied, if they can offer the same level of care studied, take into account personal wishes, cultural beliefs and economic factors. Plus they have the added pressure of knowing that if they don’t follow “THE GUIDELINES” (ie best practices) and something untoward happens they risk being taken to task (or sued).

    Best Practices/guidelines are like any other good intention — taken too far they impede a practitioners ability to do what is best for the individual (or group) that they serve. As an “education outsider” looking in the one thing I have learned is that the challenges professions face have more in common than not.

    Our system has made the move from “Clinical Practice Guidelines” to “Towards Optimized Practice” and I like that shift. It suggests a model of constant motion in an ever changing world. Is there room for a name/ideology change in education as well?

  6. Thought I should clarify for the record — I’m a pharmacist — not physician — with an interest in Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) and experience in academic detailing.

    Sorry if the above post was misleading re: profession. 🙂


  7. […] These kind of debates, I have found, are often not really about “education,” and – if we were really to look below the surface – the stories of student success or failure which around which the posts are typically built – we would find that they are not really about “the students” either. What they are really about is a struggle over a philosophical vision of the world, and the future.

    Is the world essentially “right” right now? The design correct but the implementation flawed? If you believe that then you are out seeking “best practices,” the silver bullet solution to the problem. You want technology in service of doing things “the old way, but better.” […]

  8. Reading this, reminded me of Heidi Hass Gable’s beautifully done video which she made for the Ministry of Education. You can view it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81LPAu5TkAY. In it she makes the point that there is no single answer.

    @ Roland, We need to be careful I think of teaching to a class rather than teaching to individual students. As Alec points out we have a huge advantage that needs to be made use of. We are people capable of much compassion, not simply technicians. We have the capacity to treat each child with respect, dignity and importance. Having said that, I do think there is much we can learn in terms of what has worked elsewhere and so the term “best practice” if taken as a suggestion or guide, rather than an prescription can serve a purpose.

  9. Hi David,
    my problem is I do not have a problem with best practice…certainly in the sense I understand it. Pedagogy is continually evolving and with it best practice…..in my professional sphere anyway. I do not view best practice as some fixed dictonomy but rather a process… ongoing, evolving, fluid it mirrors the movements in education and the socio political and cultural environment . It recognises changes in all aspects and is continually developing its responses to this.
    Best practice is a road map certainly for new teachers and teachers struggling in a particular aspect of education. Like all road maps its just a rough guide on how to get from a learning intention to the final goal
    Not everyone needs one, but hey I look at it this way, if someone else had the same problem that I am experiencing and they solved it in this way, then I will try that…I may have to tweak it to fit the context but at least it gives me something to build on. Other teachers experiences can be very valuable.
    …and finally I must also confess to being somewhat bias since I am and have been for the last 5 years a “best practice ” teacher. My role is one or providing outreach to other teachers who actually request my assistance. I do not promote the way I teach as the best way to teach merely as a model that other teachers might develop in their own way for their own situation
    Blah humbug!

  10. Hi Silvana,
    I’m not sure where the ‘Blah humbug’ came from, as your comment makes some wonderful points and it seems that these last few comments are all in agreement beyond the semantics of the term ‘Best Practice’.

    The fluid nature of how you describe best practice suggests ‘practice’ and as a role model you obviously guide teachers rather then prescribe a specific best way to do things, “its just a rough guide on how to get from a learning intention to the final goal,” and “I may have to tweak it to fit the context but at least it gives me something to build on. Other teachers experiences can be very valuable.”
    Beautifully said, and suggestive that you make a great mentor!

    It seems Betty would agree with your description of the term when she concludes, “the term “best practice” if taken as a suggestion or guide, rather than an prescription can serve a purpose.”

    Penny calls this moving “Towards Optimized Practice” and I like the shift in terminology she is referring to.

    I’m not sure why Alec considers his comment a ‘rant’, since his objections to the term ‘best practice’ are succinct rather than overstated.

    So, in my humble opinion, that leaves us with terminology that does not fit with the intent of professional practice. ‘Best Practice’ is still just practice. We can lead teachers on paths of ‘formative assessment’, ‘differentiated instruction, or ‘Universal Design for Learning’ but as Alec says, best practice suggests, “That these practices can somehow be extracted, mostly oblivious to the style of the teacher, the student, the learning environment, the social environment, the cultural environment”.

    ‘Best practice’ is not a term that fluidly yields to being a guide in a favorable direction, something that helps us continue to seek better practice. The term is burdened with connotations of the ‘Right’ or ‘Best’ way to do things as prescriptive. It is a business term that speaks of ‘simplified and effortless’ efficiency and standardization… something that is easily measurable with expected outcomes that come easily when done ‘correctly’.

    If teaching, and mentorship, were an exact science the term ‘best practice’ could meaningfully apply. But the art of teaching requires a continual learning process, as suggested by the thoughtful and insightful comments shared here, and I feel that the term ‘best practice’ does not contribute meaningfully to the practice of teaching.

  11. Kia ora Dave

    I concur entirely with what you say here.

    The practice of so-called ‘action research’ is often applied incorrectly in the same way as so-called ‘best practice’. Action research findings of one teacher are rarely transferrable to another teacher even in similar environments and student levels. The reasonis that the findings are what works best for that teacher.

    While much of action research brings forward useful material for the researcher, there are on occasions findings that may lend themselves to what some might call ‘best practice’.

    But as you say, it is practice nevertheless.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  12. Hi Dave,

    First of all I must say that I agree with much of what you, and your commenters have written. I think my issue lies in the definition of best practice. If we assume that the wikipedia definition is the universal definition of best practice then you are right. But I think that is were the real discourse lies. How do we define best practice?

    If we look at the idea of formative assessment, one fundamental part (at least for me) is that the assessment is meeting the needs of the learner. It is inherently differentiated. Of course there are limitations and I will never be able to the “best” for all and in every situation, but I don’t think that is what best practice is about. The problem with the definition is that it assumes there is one best in every situation.

    According to Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde (2005):

    The expression “best practice” was originally borrowed from the professions of medicine, law, and architecture, where “good practice” or “best practice” are everyday phrases used to describe solid, reputable, state-of-the-art work in a field. If a professional is following best practice standards, he or she is aware of current research and consistently offers clients(students) the full benefits of the latest knowledge, technology, and procedures.

    I like this definition better. I think it takes away the industrial nature of wikipedia’s definition and fits better with how it is commonly used in education.

  13. The notion of “best practice” is anathema for any profession, such as teaching or medicine, primarily concerned with helping people.

    The individual differences among us makes what might be “best” for one of us “worst” for the other.

    I’m a big believer in beta practice. (It connotes a sense of constant improvement/growth for me; i like that.)

    Not only are people all different from each other, they keep changing. What works today may not work tomorrow with the same person.

    The word “best” suggests we’ve arrived, we’ve solved the problem of education, there’s nothing left to learn, we’ve got it all figured out. That just strikes me as an impossibility.

    I think the whole notion of best practice is a promise that can never be fulfilled.

    As you suggested Dave, I think the “best” we can do is to keep trying to get better.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. Great comments here too. Alec really nailed it.

  14. I was toying with the parallel in photography of the best camera being the one in your hands.

    It’s not that what ever we are doing may be our “best” like a number 1 ranking with a medal and a ribbon, but just by doing the act of teaching, even when we are off, we are getting better in the long run- of we go about it with a sense of practice like a musician or an athlete.

    When I have done some sessions on photography, I describe it something that you get better at just by doing it over and over, and reflecting on what works, what did not, and trying new techniques. That’s the practice part, the trying, not hoping to be perfect all the time.

    Maybe. I think my metaphor is flailing.

    Like a pair of dimes dropped off a bridge 😉

  15. First I love that this conversation is almost 4 years old and still going on. We need to do a better job of finding and interacting with ideas that are more than 3 hours old.

    This reminds me a bit about some recent conversations about language and definitions. If when talking about best practice we’re dealing with specific techniques and strategies I tend to agree with much of the responses. But if by best practice we’re talking about bigger ideas such as providing choice, hands on experience, making learning more relevant then perhaps there are best practices.

    We need to do a better job defining things as opposed to jumping into judgements when we’re often talking about different thing.

    1. Good point, well said. You made me think. Opinion adjusted accordingly.

      I particularly appreciate the idea that we need to revisit some of these older conversations. I find in many cases the discussions from 5+ years ago are still relevant and continuing today.

  16. Both the ideas of constant beta (thanks Darren) & best practice being metaphorically compared to photography (thanks Alan) appeal to me.

    My wife is an amazing teacher, but I’d be an epic fail trying to emulate her. We can both get better, and there are strategies we both use that can be taught, but it would be a challenge to extrapolate ‘best practice’ in a transferable way between us… Both in perpetual beta:)

    I’m an amateur photographer who gets the aesthetic rules of photography, but some of my favourite photos I’ve taken break those rules. Hundreds of pictures I’ve taken, with the rules in mind, gives me the expertise to break those rules.

    I think teaching can be the same way. ‘Best practice’ depends on my skills, my knowledge, the environment I’m in, the ‘subject’ (interpret as course subject, or lesson topic, or student, or group of students), preparation time, and even my current mental state. ‘Best practice’ means adapting practice to circumstance.

    Also, best practice means being willing to fail…

    Because beta means ‘still not perfect’. Probability, not guaranteed best version.

    Because I take many photos that push the rules… And suck, so that I can get the great shots.

  17. Was commenting & didn’t see your comment before submitting mine Dean. Excellent point(s):

    1. Shelf life of most blog posts seems to be 2 days, it is so hard to get a learning conversation going on topics that deserve greater attention… And I’ve noticed people trying to have these conversations in 140 character chunks on Twitter – #fail.

    2. I think there are some very powerful teaching and learning strategies that we can label as ‘best practice’, that we can practice, and that do help improve practice. To me it gets scary when things like ‘The Flipped Classroom’ get labels like best practice. Strategies utilized within the flip, yes… The flip itself, no. More than just semantics IMHO.

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