12 Winters Blog

The myth of ‘best practices’ in education

Posted in August 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 20, 2017

Last Wednesday I began my thirty-fourth year as a schoolteacher. To be sure, teaching has changed in those years, kids have, too — although neither as much as one might think. There is one thing, however, that has been amazingly consistent: the number of people who, year upon year, insist that I and my peers adopt a method which they bill as a “best practice” — some technique that they know will improve my teaching because, well, how could it not? It’s a best practice.

Not once — in all those innumerable workshops, inservices and presentations — has a purveyor of a best practice offered a shred of evidence that what they’re promoting will actually lead to better (let alone, the best) teaching. It’s always offered under the implied guise of common sense. It’s the epitome of the logical fallacy of begging the question: Dear Teacher, accept the fact that what you’ve been doing (whatever it may be) hasn’t been as effective as what I’m about to tell you to do. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

And teaching is, allegedly, an evidence-based profession. Schools claim that what they’re doing is “evidence-based,” but oftentimes, if there is something like evidence out there, it’s contrary to what’s being prescribed. On the one hand, I don’t really blame folks for not presenting the evidence to support their claims of the effectiveness of the practice they’re advocating, because (as I’ve written about before) testing in education is fraught with problems. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to generate data which can be reliably analyzed. In any given testing situation, there are simply too many variables to control, and many of them are literally beyond the control of educators. Students are not rats confined to the tiny world of a lab where researchers can effect whatever conditions they’re studying. Imagine scientists sending their rats home each night and asking them to return the next morning for continued research; and periodically the group of rats they’ve been studying are replaced by a whole new group of rats whose histories are a total mystery. (Apologies for comparing students to rats — for what it’s worth, I like rats … and students.)

All right, so I don’t blame purveyors of best practices for not presenting their (nonexistent) evidence; however, I do blame them for suggesting, implicitly, that evidence does exist. It must, right? Otherwise how could they say some technique, some approach is “best” (or at least “better”)?

The reality is, best practices are a myth. Forget good, better, best; let’s turn, instead, to effective versus ineffective (and even that paradigm is nebulous). Effectiveness must be considered on a case by case basis. That is, we want all students to benefit as a result of our efforts, but what works for Bobby versus what works for Suzie on any given day at any given moment, for any given skill or knowledge acquisition, may constitute completely opposite approaches; and tomorrow the reverse may be true. And quite honestly, whether an approach is effective or ineffective may be unknowable, in the moment and even in the long term. The learning takes place in the student’s mind, and the mind is a murky, complicated place. Hopefully the skill or knowledge is identifiable and assessible (via a quiz or test or paper or project), but it may not be, especially in the humanities, which are more concerned with creative and critical applications than in the sciences or the vocational area, where right-or-wrong, black-or-white distinctions are the rule rather than the exception.

Generally the purveyor of a best practice is able to communicate the technique in a few bullet points on a handout or a PowerPoint, but the differences — the vast differences — between grade levels, subject matters, demographics of students, backgrounds and knowledge-levels of teachers, etc., etc., etc. make such simplistic declarations ridiculous. Imagine going to an agricultural convention and telling an assembled group of farmers that you have for them a best practice, and here it is in six bullet points. You’re welcome. No matter what they’re growing, where they’re growing it, what sorts of equipment they have at their disposal, what the climate models are suggesting, how the markets are trending — This is it, brother: Just follow these six steps and your yields will be out of this world. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

The farmers would be nonplussed to put it mildly. Plug in professionals from any other arena — business owners, attorneys, medical doctors, engineers — and the ridiculousness of it (that a single set of practices will improve what they’re doing, regardless of individual situations) becomes clear. It’s so clear, in fact, I can’t imagine any presenter doing it — telling a room full of surgeons, for instance, to do this one simple procedure all the time, no matter the patient’s history, no matter their lab work, no matter how they’re responding on the table — and yet it happens to educators all the time.

Almost without fail, techniques that are presented as best practices are observable. It’s about what you say to students or what they say to you; what you write on the chalkboard; what you write in lesson plans or curricular outlines. It simplifies the process of evaluating teachers’ performances if the evaluator can look for a few concrete actions from every teacher, from kindergarten teacher to calculus teacher, from welding teacher to reading teacher; from the teacher of gifted students to the teacher of exceptional students. It makes assessment so much simpler if everyone is singing from the same hymnal.

I deliberately used the word performances in the previous paragraph because so often that’s what evaluation boils down to: a performance for the audience-of-one, the evaluator. We often hear the term “high-stakes testing” in the media (that is, standardized tests whose results have significant consequences for test-takers and their schools), but we have also entered into a time of “high-stakes evaluating” for teachers, performance assessments which impact their literal job security. Teachers quickly learn that if their evaluator claims x, y and z are best practices, they’d better demonstrate x, y and z when they’re being observed — but quite possibly only when they’re being observed because in truth they don’t believe in the validity or the practicality of x, y and z¬†as a rule.

In such cases, teachers are not trying to be insubordinate, or mocking, or rebellious; they’re trying to teach their charges in the most effective ways they know how (based on the training of their individual disciplines and their years of experience in the classroom), and they disagree with the practices which are being thrust upon them. Teachers do no take an oath equivalent to doctors’ Hippocratic oath, but conscientious teachers have, in essence, taken a personal and professional vow to do no harm to their students; thus they find themselves in a conundrum when their judgments about what’s effective and what isn’t are in conflict with the best practices by which they’re being evaluated. For teachers who care about how well they’re teaching — and that’s just about every teacher I’ve had the privilege to know in the last thirty-four years — it’s a source of stress and anxiety and even depression. More and more teachers every year find that the only way to alleviate that stress in their lives is to leave the profession.

Again, much of the problem is derived from the need for observable behaviors. I like to think my interactions with students in the classroom are positive and effective, but, as a teacher of literature and especially as a teacher of writing, I know my most important and most valuable work is all but invisible. My greatest strengths, I believe, are in developing questions and writing prompts that navigate students’ interactions with a text, and (even more so) in responding to the students’ work. When a student hands in an essay based on a prompt I’ve given them about a text, it is essentially a diagram of how their mind worked as they read and analyzed the text (a novel, or story, or poem, or film) — a kind of CAT scan if you will — and my task is to interpret the workings of their mind (in what ways did their mind work well, and in what ways did their mind veer off the path somewhat) and then, once I’ve interpreted their mind-at-work, I have to provide them comments which explain my interpretations and (here’s the really, really hard part) also comments which will alter their mental processes so that next time they’ll write a more effective essay. In short, I’m trying to get them to think better and to express their thoughts better. (I should point out that to do all of this, I also have to possess a thorough understanding of the text under consideration — a text perhaps by Homer or Shakespeare or Keats or Joyce or Morrison.)

It’s the most important thing I do, and no one observing me in the classroom will ever see it. If my students improve in their reading and thinking and writing and speaking — largely it will be because of my skill to interact with them productively, brain to brain, on the page. The process is both invisible and essential. This is what teaching English is; this is what English teachers do. And we are not unique, by any means, in the profession. Yet our value — our very job security — is based on behaviors that are secondary or even tangential to the most profound sorts of interactions we have with our students.

I know that purveyors of best practices mean well (for-profit educational consultants aside). They are good, smart people who sincerely believe in what they’re advocating, and frequently a kernel or two of meaningful advice can be derived from the presentation, but we need to stop pretending that there’s one method that will improve all teaching, regardless of the myriad factors which come into play every time a teacher engages a group of students. It makes teaching seem simple, and teaching is many, many, many things but simple isn’t one of them.

(Image found via Google Images here.)