Q. When I’ve asked some of my child’s teachers about their lessons, they often say “this is best practice” or if I ask why they might not do it differently, they say “that wouldn’t be best practices.” What are these “best practices” and where do they come from?
Loosely defined as “existing practices that already possess a high level of widely agreed effectiveness,” the concept of “best practices” is a way of telling teachers to “do it this way.”
Now what’s wrong with this? Nothing, on the surface. There are unquestionably effective ways to teach lessons that are as old as teaching itself: Have a calm, orderly classroom. Speak loudly and clearly. Avoid chaos and confusion. Focus on the basics. Have a point in mind for the lesson. Have students practice what they have learned. Test for understanding. The list could go on and on.
But these time-honored truths are not usually what “best practices” are all about. Among some of the more questionable “best practices” I’ve seen are the elimination of ability grouping, clustered seating, and heavy reliance on group work.
Each content area also has its own set of “best practices.” In English, the experts say these include making students physically annotate books and using small workshops for reading instead of having the class read a book together. In math, a new “best practice” is to discourage memorizing multiplication facts. Another is to permit multiple ways to solve a problem. Or don’t permit it. (Sometimes the “best practices” can get a little tangly.)
Mind you, none of these things are necessarily “bad” practices (except for the one about not memorizing your times tables). For many teachers and students they work quite well. We might properly call them “better practices” than some other practices. But to call them “best practices” suggests that they are precisely what all kids need in order to learn. There is no room for a better way. Our educational methods have finally arrived. To do it differently, therefore, is to deprive one’s students of a quality education. That, of course, is total garbage. Most obviously, that kind of thinking stops innovation in its tracks. Why try something new when we already possess the “best practice” for it? It smashes the best, brightest, and most creative teachers into a prefab mediocrity.
Secondly, the proliferation of “best practices” will end up boring students to tears because they will be taught the same way in every class for the rest of their lives. Think a bag of cotton candy is good, kids? Wait until you try 100 bags. Blech.
The proliferation will hurt our students’ chances to learn in other ways. For example, many students despise group work and learn much better independently. But that goes against “best practices,” so tough luck, all you introverts! This highlights why it’s important for teachers to do things uniquely, in a way that works best for their teaching style. Such diversity across schools and grades gives your eggs a better chance to hatch. Piling them all into one basket, if I remember the adage correctly, is not a “best practice.”
In general, these “best practices” have simply been copied from successful teachers. But by focusing so heavily on practices, they omit what is often the most crucial factor in a teacher’s success: the teacher herself. That’s the valuable commodity that can’t be replicated. Think back to your school days. What was your favorite lesson strategy? Which group learning project made the biggest impact on you? What instructional video really changed your life? You probably have no idea. But if I ask you your favorite teacher, the teacher from whom you learned the most, the teacher who changed your life, you’ll have an answer in a snap.
The head coach of a football team can’t just copy the plays and practice regimen of Vince Lombardi and expect the same kind of success. That’s a fool’s errand. Some teachers are successful not because of their techniques but because they connect naturally with their students. They have personalities that engender hard work. They are simply good at the art of teaching. While every teacher can learn something valuable from every other teacher, they have to modify what they take and make it their own. Simply aping someone’s methods isn’t going to make you as great as they are. It’s only going to make you an undistinguished copy.
Finally, it must be noted that it is salesmen, not teachers, who are pushing the most specious “best practices.” Their goal is to sell materials and hire out consultants to those groups with the deepest pockets and the highest predilection to empty them: school districts. Like most of the wares proffered by today’s millionaire snake oil salesmen, it would be best to avoid them altogether.
Instead, teachers will find much more success relying on tradition, cooperation, love, instinct, innovation, and common sense, none of which come with such a high price.