Larry Ferlazzo, a wonderful teacher and writer, writes a great blog for Ed Week where he asks questions from various people from the field. Here’s my response to his question: “What education buzzwords are the most overused?”
One of the most common buzzwords used in education is ‘best practices’. Take a minute to go to the World Wide Web and use whatever engine you are comfortable to do a search of the term, best practices in education. What are you likely to find? –Millions and millions of databases from this one key word search. There are so many best practices in our field that we should be asking ourselves- is there really such a thing?
In Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, educational scholars Andy Hargraves and Michael Fullan define best practices as an existing practice that has been widely shown to be effective. Indeed, we do have many valid and reliable bodies of research about practices that have been shown to be effective. But, does this mean that using them in our own classrooms is a guarantee for success?
Let’s look at an example. A middle school school science teacher designs a unit of study based on what it is that she wants students to know and be able to do by the end of it (also known as thinking backwards). Drawing from her state’s science standards on climate change, the course text, and her knowledge of best practices, she designs the unit to include the following overarching question, “Why is the absorption of carbon dioxide important to our planet?” She posts the question on the board, reads it aloud to her students, and asks them to talk with a partner about what they think that the question means. In response, many students stare vacantly at the question and then their teacher. She quickly realizes that her students are not familiar with the term ‘absorption of carbon dioxide’. She then has them refer to the science text and takes time to explain the concept. Once this is done, she then checks for understanding (another best practice) and realizes that the students continue to struggle with the meaning of the term. Using years of teaching experience, she then walks up to the board and quickly changes the question to “Why is the Rainforest important to our planet?” She shows them photos of the rainforest and a map of its location. Students begin to make meaning of the term Rainforest. With her support, they begin to explore why it is important. She then sends them home to ask their families about its importance. Students return the next day to share what their families have discussed. If you were to meet with her and ask her what a best practice is, she would say, as many of us do, that it’s a guidepost of a promising practice that she adapts based on the needs, concerns, and ideas of her students.
While the term best practice is highly used, we have to think about it as a way of teaching that has been found to be promising when we use our own professional craft to make it work based on what we know about our particular students (their personal, cultural, social, and world experiences), our classroom environment, and the goals of any unit of study that we teach. A best practice should never be a prescribed one-sized-fits-all approach. This is especially true given the dynamic diversity of our students and the ever-changing evidence based findings that will surely point us in new and exciting directions about what shows promise for our students’ success.
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