Best Practice

I don’t like the term “best practice”.  I recently delivered a session on lesson and course planning, and have been thinking about the concept of best practice on a range of levels. I was also forcibly reminded of it when I saw a simple reference to “demonstrate best practice by…” in a guidance document. It’s a term which has irritated me for a long time, partly because of its superlative nature, but even the concept of its non-superlative cousin “good practice” causes me some concerns.

 So the beef with best practice, then? It’s the way that the concept immediately excludes everything else. If I say, for example, that reducing teacher talking time in an ESOL classroom is best practice, it immediately excludes the possibility that sometimes a bit of extensive teacher talking might work really well. If I say that using technology to support learning is best practice, then it follows that not using technology is not best practice, and therefore may well be bad practice. Indeed, for that latter example, even if we say that technology use is good practice, a much less controversial idea, perhaps, then the logical outcome is that the absence of technology can only be seen as bad practice. I have strong opinions on both of these points, but am willing to discuss and analyse these views with an open mind because I question the idea of a single practice as being “best” or even simply “good”.
Any talk of best practice is dangerous talk. For one, despite proposals to carry out clinical-type randomised control trials in education, and huge meta-analyses of research, it’s quite challenging and difficult to prove that any one intervention is inherently and universally better than another. Education is a social science, and therefore a randomised control trial is going to be hard to stand firmly by, given the huge number of variables at play in the classroom, and all other studies absolutely must be taken in the context in which they were carried out. A study of assessment for learning practices in a primary classroom in Henley-on-Thames may or may not be useful in informing practice for teaching English to homeless adults in Brazil. Let me emphasise one thing here, though, and that is that education in one context can inform practice in another. I have never said we have nothing to learn from each other. What I am saying is that you can’t always transfer any given practice from context A to context B and assume it will work in both contexts.
In some contexts, “best practice” is indeed just that, but sometimes the same “best practice” is useless. We can only start using terms like “best practice” when the evidence in favour of that practice is absolute and incontrovertible, and I would be willing to suggest that there is no practice in education which has that kind of evidence to support it. (By way of an aside, the educational establishment seems also to be very good at ignoring fairly convincing evidence and arguments when the evidence fails to meet a fashion or political agenda).
The other danger with talk of best practice is that it reduces teaching to a single, rigidly fixed set of codified, standardised practices which new, inexperienced teachers (and some more experienced teachers) then take as “the Rules.” You must share & review learning outcomes, you must structure lessons so they flow carefully, you must use technology, you must use learning styles for differentiation, you must use a lesson plan, you must not use excessive resources, you must have a scheme of work for the entire year, you must not talk too much, you must individualise instruction for all learners based on individual targets, you must make sure learners are engaged all the time without fail, learners must reflect on their learning in the lesson, etc. etc. etc.
I would argue that all of these, at some time or another, are absolutely required practice. I have observed (and taught) lessons which would have been vastly improved by some of these practices. I have also observed and taught lessons which used these practices but were the worse for them. It is all about context. But for some teachers, especially perhaps those who are feeling insecure about their roles, through inexperience or otherwise, these things become fixed parts of the teaching landscape, absolutes, the inclusion of which, they think, will automatically produce good (or indeed Outstanding) lessons. The same can happen for a (fortunately small and decreasing) number of observers: the tick box list of “best practice” is present in their mind, and absence of any of these, utterly regardless of the impact on the learners in that lesson, becomes a black mark. This then leads to this kind of observer explaining their reasoning in these deeply useless terms. “That lesson would have been better if you had …” “Why?” “Because it’s best practice.” Facepalm. Or possibly facedesk. Repeatedly.
There is no best practice. There is simply practice which works well in a given classroom on a given occasion. There may be something to be learned from this, and shared, but equally there may not. The things that get called “best practice” are good ideas, and absolutely should be explored and used in classrooms, don’t get me wrong. But if we could stop pretending that best practice works all the time for everyone, that would be great.
Given that for most of the life of this blog I had a challenging quote about this term, it’s strange that I never really unpicked the term. Indeed, the post you are reading was more or less entirely written some time back but for some reason I have been reluctant to upload it. I’m not sure why that is, but there you go. I certainly have said nothing here I haven’t said in other ways elsewhere. Go figure.
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8 comments

  1. Very well said, Sam. You make two excellent points. Firstly, there’s the idea that calling one thing good/best practice implies that the absence of that thing is somehow bad/worst practice. This is plainly ridiculous. The other, more important point is that it is wrong to reduce teaching to a series of techniques, and to suggest that a teacher can simply apply these techniques to any context without much further thought. This greatly devalues our profession and is a dangerous, yet increasingly widely-held, belief.
    I think I need to write a post of my own about this. Give me a few days though.

  2. Did you decide to post this after my very hasty query about the quote in question? 😉 If so, very glad it may have prompted you to post this – all super sensible points, I can’t find anything to disagree with. Feel mentally ready to argue with any downgrading I get in observations now 🙂

  3. BTW I used the quote in a talk about experimental practice in Hungary, to illustrate that we should always view stuff with a critical eye. I’d like people to try things out in class, regardless of whatever anyone says about them, to learn from the experience and see what works in their particular context.

    1. It’s a post long in the brewing, stemming in fact from a research project I did a while back! I do agree about not dismissing anything out of hand, but to at least give it a fair crack of the whip first. That’s the spirit of learning after all. We aren’t teaching professionals, but learning professionals, I think: not in the official “it’s all about the learners and their learning” way but in the sense that as professionals we should be open to learning and change: always evolving.

  4. “… you cannot always and necessarily transfer any given practice from context A to context B and assume it will work in both contexts.”

    It seems to me that BP often means what most people do and is used to impose an unsupported consensus running counter to pragmatic solutions for specific training situations. Organisations unquestioningly copy from other organisations because they lack the expertise and confidence to establish their own solutions. They seem to ignore the possibility that BP is sometimes particular to a context and may not readily be transferred to similar but slightly different contexts. In other words, not all BP is generalizable. It can be a form of intellectual laziness.

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