Avoiding Polarizing Conversations: Best Practice

As long as there have been at least two teachers, there have been polarized debates about how to teach. Two teachers whose conviction is based on deeply held belief and success stories, can look at each other as though they are committing malpractice, yet both produce good learning. I would like to explore some of these polarizing debates by looking at how we tend to talk about learning in ways that polarize debates rather than moving teachers in a school closer to a shared vision of what teaching should look like.

Best Practice is a term I hear whenever I’m on a team looking into an aspect of a school, be it food service, assessment, coaching, cleaning, discipline, reading or whatever you can imagine. I am sure I’ve thrown it around a few times myself. It’s hard to argue with someone who claims that they are talking about best practice without seeming like you’re advocating, mediocre practice or even worse, malpractice. How many of us though, when shown ‘the research’ on best practice have felt a bit of a twinge of doubt. When phonics fell out of favour, how were those of us who learned to read that way meant to react when schools trumpeted whole language only? When a principal from elsewhere extols the benefits of Zero Budgets, how am I meant to feel about our budgets? This comes from our tendency to think in binary terms: things are either good or bad, right or wrong. (Unless you’re a Theory of Knowledge teacher.)

In past few years I’ve adopted Twitter and Flipboard as ways of keeping up-to-date on issues, and when I read the wash of articles about Mindfulness, Collaboration, Mindsets, they all help to build a loose consensus about what best practices are around these concepts. If Mindfulness is best Practice and my school doesn’t have a program, are we failing? And then, to my rescue, comes an article about a guy who went crazy after practicing Mindfulness, and another article about how too much collaboration is driving introverts out of the teaching profession, and causing a rise in levels of stress because we’re always working together. So maybe if we are slow enough to adopt the newest best practice, it will fall out of favour before we need to do anything about it. John Hattie’s work on effect size helps to bring in perspective how most broad initiatives, on their own, don’t have much effect on learning.

Going back to my phonics example though, I think that any experienced teacher will draw on what works for them, rather than worrying about whether or not it is a phonics or whole language strategy: good teaching is good teaching when learning happens. When a teacher believes in a strategy, knows it well, experiments with it, refines it and perfects it, it works, even if it’s not ‘best practice’. On the other hand, forcing a teacher to adopt a ‘best practice’ that they don’t believe in, don’t know how to execute, and don’t have much support and resources for is not likely to produce much learning. What I’d like to advocate for is a focus on ‘next’ rather than ‘best’ practice.

What could this look like? Two teachers compare notes on how they teach something, and find that they are different; they have a conversation and one decides to try a little bit of their colleague’s magic. There is another conversation, materials and strategies are shared perhaps an observation and then a teacher moves on to the ‘next practice’ a step closer to ‘best practice’. They then take time to consolidate what they’ve learned and are then ready for the next step.

In staff meetings and PD sessions where the term best practice is thrown around, I have noticed that it can stifle engagement, cause defensiveness in non-believers (and people who just don’t have enough information yet) and a sense of moral superiority among early adopters of said practice: not the best state of mind for group learning. If we want to move as a group towards shared best practice I believe that paradoxically, we need to not focus on the best practice. We need it clearly in the back of our mind, but instead of waving ‘best practice’ in front of a good teacher who is not convinced or ready yet, a more productive conversation starts with sharing practice, and helping others find the ‘next practice’ that they are willing and able to try, with your support or course.