Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Best Practice" or just "Broadest Generalization?"

I have always had trouble with the term "best practice." For the past seven years this term continually comes up in conversations about education and school improvement. I hear it in speeches, I see it printed in education journals, I hear administrators throw the phrase around, I hear people in job interviews use it to sell their practice, and worst of all I often hear actual practitioners use the phrase. This seems to be indicative of a real and broad problem, one those who are loose with the term usually don't notice. The problem is that the term is more likely a positive branding of a concept than an actual value statement. The term "Best" is misleading.

Before I get into the nitty gritty of my explanation I would like to relay a conversation I had at my neighborhood convenience store with the midnight shift clerk. The store chain was undergoing a remodeling and as part of it they had adopted a catchy name for the different sizes of their soft drinks. I do not remember exactly what those names were except to say that they were something obviously thought up by someone in a corporate marketing office. I made some off-hand remark about the change and the clerk went into a story of all the different slightly misleading slogans he has seen in his time as a convenient store manager. My favorite of these was the phrase "Yesterday's Fresh" to describe items in their day-old bakery. After all, "Yesterday's Fresh" sounds a whole lot more appetizing than "Day-old." The same is true for the phrase "Best Practice."

The problem with a phrase like "Best Practice" is it leads people to think "Best" ought to be applied in all situations. Fact is, most "Best Practices" only work for at best a majority of learners and often less than a majority. Often "Best Practice" is used simply to describe a documented procedure, policy, or strategy that seemed to work more often than others, not necessarily a majority. So, what is best for one is not necessarily best for another. Work in any alternative school setting or in any classroom with a higher than average demographic group in any category and you will find rather quickly that the "Best Practice" for that group is not exactly that which published or established "Best Practices" prescribe. They either need to be modified or done away with entirely.

Just as "Yesterday's Fresh" really means "Day-Old Bakery Items" "Best Practice" really means "Broadest Generalization." If we start using the term that most closely resembles what we mean to describe in education practice do you think practitioners would be so quick to buy what that term is selling? If we stop using the term "Best Practice" teachers would be more likely to be responsive in their practice and less prescriptive. By being more responsive they will be by necessity become more reflective and through these two consequences (responsiveness and reflectiveness) they will elevate their status as professionals. The adoption of "Best Practices" is really just an adoption of prescriptive mindless teaching, an adoption of methods that address student needs in their "Broadest Generalization."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Imagine a taxi-cab company that used current research on driving and safety to help inform company policy. This, it would seem, is a good idea. They then looked at the data and found that, statistically, right-hand turns are the safest driving maneuver that a cabbie can make. They therefore come up with the policy that, from now on, drivers may only make right-hand turns. No lefts, no merging, no changing lanes, no reversing, just rights.

We can see that as clearly insane, a gross misuse of the research. Yet that is what "best practices" has come to mean: using the same techniques, regardless of situation or effectiveness.