The Sound of Silence
When I first started doing professional development workshops, I always opened them up the same way: "So what kinds of things are you doing now?" And I always got the same reply: silence. If it isn't polite to ask a group of dinner guests about their religion, it's even worse to ask a group of teachers about their teaching. So, as it turned out, the first lesson about best practice was mine to learn, and I hope I've learned it well: I now start all my workshops by giving away Hawaiian vacations.
For a variety of reasons, teaching is a very personal matter that seems best explored behind a closed classroom door with no other adults present. And yet, there's been a lot of talk in the last few years about so-called "best practice" or, as it is also termed, "research-based best practice." For the first time in American history we are engaged in a national dialog about the quality of teaching. It now matters, in a way that it never has before, how individual teachers teach.
I'm not going to say here that best practice is easy to pursue; most of the time, most of us can't even figure out what it is. I'm not even going to say that anyone has to use it. That's up to you, your school, and your community. But I am going to say that it exists and that it's better to be looking for it than to pretend that it doesn't.
In my own pursuit of best practice teaching, I've probably experienced as much frustration as the next person: notions are numerous, confusing, and at times contradictory; research is hard to find, laborious to review, and impossible to verify; all claims seem tinged with self-interest. And yet I have also found that some things are true, useful, and enduring, and these are the things that guide me.
Teaching practice can be defined. As someone who attempts to make a living by communicating practice to others, I would definitely concede that teaching is not easy to quantify, define, or explain. And yet I do find that it is possible and that some people do it quite well. Despite being an intensely personal and subjective undertaking, teaching can be discussed and analyzed in a rational way that illuminates more than it obfuscates.
Some practices are better than others. It just stands to reason that of all the different ways to do something in teaching, some ways might be more effective than others. If it's true that some practices are better than others, then others are probably even better than those, and so on. It is simply a statistical impossibility that all practices are equally effective, that differences in practice are neither meaningful nor significant, or that these differences can be rationalized away because everything can be said to work for at least some teachers and some kids to some degree at some time. The point is this: there are not only best practices but worst practices, too, and the differences between them, in terms of student success, can be quite dramatic.
Practice cannot be separated from theory. In my experience, the only thing teachers hate more than talking about teaching is talking about theories of teaching. "Just tell us what to do!" is the common cry. But if we don't understand the theory behind something, it's hard to know if we're doing it well or if it is working. What's even worse, we can't modify the practice successfully to account for situational differences. Theory is the "why" of teaching. When we ignore it, we can't make good use of the "what" or improve on the "how."
Best practice is always getting better. Best practice wouldn't be best practice if it wasn't always better than something else. Somewhere, someone is doing something different and getting a different result that is better. The best teaching, just like the best science and the best medicine, is a moving target. And so the process of pursuing best practice is just that: a process, something fluid and dynamic that we should all try to stay actively involved with as much as we possibly can.
The Pit and the Pendulum
When I started exploring a career in education, one question was always on my mind: “What’s the best way to teach?” I knew that other professionals, like doctors and psychiatrists, kept up with current research and contemporary trends in practice in order to offer the best possible service to their patients, so I assumed that my first job would be to familiarize myself on the latest equivalent information about teaching.
I talked to and observed experienced teachers, and I followed up on their recommended books. I read the newest texts from the most respected educational publishers. I also dove into the many available magazines and journals.
For a couple of years I was both enthused and confused. There was certainly no shortage of interesting ideas out there, but everyone seemed to have a different take on what good teaching was. Most of the teachers I asked didn’t even believe that my question about the best way to teach had an answer at all. “Education swings like a pendulum,” they would say. But this never made any sense to me. Every discipline I'd ever studied had easily identifiable features of progress. Why would teaching be any different? And, as I eventually discovered, it isn't. But many people seem to wish that it was.
Over the years, I have come to believe that the “pendulum theory” of educational practice is a convenient and self-serving myth. The more I've read of educational history, the more I can see a recognizable arc of progress. But progress stands at odds with tradition, and tradition with change, so holding fast to the pendulum theory provides a solid and seemingly responsible approach to justifying complacency. If the pendulum theory was the dominating trend in teaching, it would dominate in other professional disciplines as well, and every decade or so we'd be sucking down ether or biting on a bullet whenever we went in for surgery, and lawyers would be wearing those big funny white wigs.
What got me off the pendulum and out of the pit was a book I came across called, not surprisingly, “Best Practice: New Standards For Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools.” There it was in a single paperback volume: a concise and insightful overview of contemporary educational research along with detailed recommendations for the best ways to teach in reading, writing, math, social studies, science, and the arts.
Discovering a single resource for information about best practice was a turning point for me. For the first time, I could begin to make sense of all the knowledge I had accumulated. Teaching has always seemed to me an awesome responsibility. Having the knowledge of research-based best practice to guide me not only made me more competent, it made me more confident as well.
Now, just because it's called "Best Practice" doesn't mean it is best practice. But at least I had something concrete to begin working with.
What Does This Kind of “Best Practice” Look Like?
I realize now that one of the reasons I had such a hard time getting information about good practice is that it's so hard to translate from one person's experience of teaching to that of another. Every teacher is unique, every subject has its subtleties, every grade its nuances, every classroom its exceptions that break all the rules.
That’s why I appreciated the way the authors of “Best Practice” described good teaching. Rather than offering a set of “black and white” pronouncements, they expressed good teaching in terms of a continuum of improvement that involves doing less of harmful or ineffective practices while doing more of the research-based “best practices.” For example, here's a sample of the book's "best practice" recommendations for reading:
And a sample of "best practice" recommendations in writing:
On one end, we have well known teaching practices that we now recognize are not successful in and of themselves. At the other end, we have practices that have been shown through research to be significantly more effective.
Looking at good teaching this way helped me realize that best practice is best described as a continuum. Instead of throwing out the old and replacing it with the new, we simply change the emphasis, replacing things that don’t work with things that do.
The best way to get started is to get the book. Two other books written by the same authors on the same subject include “Methods That Matter: Six Structures for Best Practice Classrooms” and “Rethinking High School: Best Practice in Teaching, Learning, and Leadership.” All three books are published by Heinemann.