Podcast: Can a Focus on Best Practice be a Problem? - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Can a Focus on Best Practice be a Problem?

Can a Focus on Best Practice be a Problem?

Adam Grant, the author of “Think Again,” states that the term best practice can create an illusion that we have reached an endpoint where there is nothing left to top. It’s unlikely that any educational best practice is the best for ALL students. As educators, we need to be exploring what’s better. Do we want to implement an improvement or a change?

Read the article, “The Problem With Beat Practices” here.

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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley, ponders out loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening. I’m thrilled you’re here.

Steve: 00:33 Can a focus on best practice be a problem? Adam Grant, the author of “Think Again: Speaking to Entrepreneurs,” suggested, “it’s time to rethink best practices.” He states that the term is used to describe a preferred method of performing a given task or procedure and that it can be limiting. The moment an organization calls a practice best, they’re creating an illusion that they’ve reached an endpoint where there’s nothing left to top. Across the years, I’ve shared my thinking frequently with educators that best practice is good to know as a place to start, but that it’s unlikely a researched best practice is best for all students. As educators, we need to be focused on finding what might work better. In an article titled, “The Problem With Best Practices, you’ll find the link in the lead-in, Shane Snow, writing for Fast Company states that best practices don’t make you best.

Steve: 01:55 They make you average to everyone else who follows them. He shares two examples from business. When Debbie Fields applied for a loan to start a business that makes soft chewy cookies, she was denied and told that America likes crispy cookies. She eventually gained a loan and the rest is history as Mrs. Fields, world cookie stores open. In another example, the independent British newspaper switched to a smaller tabloid format after the large newspaper size had existed for nearly 400 years. They saved money on paper and sold more papers. Interestingly, the original big size thought to be what customers wanted, (best practice) was initially implemented in 1712 when the government placed a tax on the number of newspaper pages. The tax was lifted in the 1800’s but the previous “best practice” continued. Snow states, “in business, best practice is often arbitrary and based on habits that resulted from conditions that frequently no longer apply.”

Steve: 03:30 He adds, “history is clear that best practices can be the enemies of growth. They allow us to take the lazy way instead of pushing ourselves to be creative.” I do believe that best practice provides a great place to begin our conversation for how to maximize our success with students. Then, our observation of the results we are achieving and consideration of what we’d like to achieve that could be higher and better should drive us to consider improvement or change. The question is, when do we believe that we can improve current practice? And when do we need to change practice in order to reach the desired progress? It would be rare that a research- based practice would be successful for all students. Working with coaches and colleagues, we should be examining where we might improve the practice or decide to experiment with a different approach in our desire to best serve our students. A few years back, my wife, Michelle Bradley, implemented a change rather than an improvement in her elementary school in order to create a new lunchroom environment. An environment that was positive at learning focused for students. Listen in as she shares her experiences.

Steve: 05:17 Would you talk a little bit about what caused you to decide that you wanted to make a change in that lunchroom environment at your school?

Michelle: 05:27 Well, I’d seen over a period of time that the lunchroom seemed more like an institution. It resembled a prison. It was in rows and there were long rows where kids sat. The voice and the loudness in the room was extremely high so two people couldn’t have a conversation. There was a lot of dependency on the people who worked in the lunchroom and teachers who were on duty. Every time that the kids wanted something more, they needed to raise their hand and it just seemed that that increased dependence was also increasing the unhealthy environment for the kids to eat.

Michelle : 06:16 I’m kind of hearing just the feeling wasn’t right.

Michelle: 06:19 Well, so much so that it was the least desirable duty for teachers to have. So teachers would actually try to swap out anything, take extra duties to avoid the equivalency of a 30 minute lunch duty.

Steve: 06:38 So the environment was impacting the adults as well as impacting the kids.

Michelle: 06:41 Absolutely. And it wasn’t just it wasn’t just in the lunchroom that it was pervasive, but I don’t think I really realized that until later on when we made the changes.

Steve: 06:54 What’s the process that you went through for coming up with a new plan and then tell us a little bit about the plan that you’ve created.

Michelle: 07:03 So I asked for a group of volunteers who were interested in looking at learning spaces. The lunchroom wasn’t actually our original focus, it was a group of teachers who were interested in looking at how we might enhance and alter learning spaces to make it more conducive for kids. So we had quite a healthy number of people who volunteered for that team and we met once a week over their lunchtime and we began by taking what we called field trips around the school. And we were looking at at different areas and sharing our thoughts with what we were seeing. And then we decided that we needed to zero in on an area and do an experiment to see that if we actually altered the environment, what impact it would have.

Michelle: 08:20 And thus, we decided the lunchroom. First, because it has such an impact on the kids and teachers and the space but also because it was visible to the community. All teachers would be able to have an experience of our experiment. So everybody wouldn’t have to be telling the story, but everybody would be seeing the story. So we chose the lunchroom and we observed in the lunchroom, student behaviors to identify what kind of things that we were seeing and what kind of student behavior and outcomes we would like to have. First and foremost, we recognized that we wanted the students to be able to be more independent and that we wanted them to treat each other with more respect and to take an ownership in what their lunchroom experience was. And so we set up three tables off to the side and we took random kids. So every lunch, we have three settings of lunch and so first and second grade.

Steve: 09:33 A group for each of the three settings is your experiment?

Michelle: 09:36 Yes. And with that, we designed it so that they were at tables of six so they were in small groups. We gave them the control. So we brought them platters of food and they had to help each other serve each other. In the initial experiment, we gave each person at the table a job so to see if everybody had had a responsibility, if they would live up to that responsibility. And we also gave them the responsibility to ensure that the table had been served, eaten, cleaned up, everything ready, and that they could then have, with taking care of that responsibility, have the freedom to leave the lunchroom when they were done. So they didn’t have to stand in these long lines that we had. We used to have long lines kids standing to come into the lunchroom, lining up to get their trays and then there was students were dismissed tabled by table. And if you think that there’s 45-50 tables, you can imagine how loud and crazy that must have been. So they had the freedom to come and go, and they had the responsibility of what happened during the time there.

Steve: 10:50 What what did you discover in the experiment then that caused you to move to implementation at the start of the year?

Michelle: 10:59 Well, it was almost immediate that the kids rose to the occasion of taking the additional responsibility. They took pride in it. They clearly loved the freedom, but they clearly loved the responsibility.

Steve: 11:22 Yeah. Those two things go together.

Michelle: 11:24 And also the behavior of what was happening at the table was completely different.

Steve: 11:32 The environment impacted the kids’ behavior.

Michelle: 11:34 They were talking in small groups. Because they were responsible for everybody else’s wellbeing at the table to make sure
that if I’m pouring your water, if I’m passing you your food, if you’ve spilled your cup, and I’m the one responsible with the sponge to clean up the table, they had a shared ownership and responsibility for each other’s wellbeing. So it actually decreased the negative behaviors that we were seeing in the lunchroom and it was just a very far more quiet, thoughtful kinds of conversations at the table.

Steve: 12:18 So can you, you paint a picture for us? If the listeners were to be in your lunchroom today, can you kind of describe what the environment looks like? And as kids walk in, what are the responsibilities that the that the kids take on?

Michelle: 12:36 So really anyone who previously had been in the lunchroom and is in the lunchroom now, it doesn’t take more than 30 seconds to recognize it’s just a completely different environment and a completely different experience for the kids. And to the flip side, I can say that if we typically have three teachers on duty for lunch, you will often see six to eight teachers in there. We have teachers who are actually sitting in there and eating their lunches with the kids now. So that’s just to give you an impact of what it feels like. But now you walk in, there are no lines. Kids know that they can choose where they wanna sit with the exception that if you buy lunch from school, you need to sit at the tables that are for that, because on the tables are the serving dishes, the dishes are all stacked, bread, fruit, silverware.

Michelle: 13:34 So those kids sit together and then those who bring it from home sit together. Kids come in, they choose where they’re gonna sit. The first ones to a table that is a school lunch, immediately start putting out the silverware, dishes, everything, while others begin to join. And they have to take the wrapper off the bread and the fruit, they sit down, they’ve got the whole table set, they start serving each other. They
serve themselves the food, they pour each other’s water. I would say that one thing we found in the experiment is that you didn’t have to impose the jobs. So that was the only thing in the experiment that we decided wasn’t necessary.

Steve: 14:23 So the kids actually take more responsibility.

Michelle: 14:25 Absolutely. It’s innate. It actually comes from them. When we were doing the experiment, we thought that you would have to
impose that upon them, but that was glorified dependence in its own way. So these kids, they all take ownership of everybody else’s wellbeing. They’re choosing who they’re sitting with and they’re having genuine conversations. Teachers are floating around and encouraging kids to put their feet out straight. Sit, stay a while, enjoy yourself, relax. Be mindful of your voice. Do you really need to be speaking that loudly? I’m noticing that such and such across the table has still not had some of the rice, ah – and they’ll quickly be passing it. So though all of those are very learned behaviors.

Steve: 15:22 Awesome. So you see the kids learning from this experience.

Michelle: 15:26 Not only the kids, it’s definitely, as I say, teachers, as amazing as that may sound are flocking to the lunchroom because
they themselves are gaining so much from that experience and a lot of them are taking what is happening in the lunchroom and they’re making connections to what’s happening in the classroom, what’s happening in the hallways or out on the playground. And we’ve actually begun to see a shift in how kids treat each other in other parts of the school. It was something that I would have not expected. I hadn’t given it thought, but of course, if you take 30 minutes in the middle of the day and pure focus on family relationships and being purposeful and responsible and setting those high expectations for how kids should be treating each other, they are just less likely to go out on the playground after that lunch and push somebody over and not care whether they’re alright or not. We’re seeing it in other areas.

Steve: 16:33 It’s interesting – family was the word that was in my head as you were describing it and then you came back and used that word.

Michelle: 16:40 We actually call it family style.

Steve: 16:42 Ah, terrific.

Michelle: 16:43 So the kids understand that we’ve switched. We don’t call it the old prison like style. We refer to it as we’re now eating family style.

Steve: 16:57 That’s neat.

Steve: 17:00 As I have shared Michelle’s experience, many educators have responded that changing from the institutional lunch lineup system had
never been considered in their thinking. Consider how opening the opportunities for your staff to describe what outcomes with students they’d be motivated to create might be a starting point. Then explore whether current practices being improved will gain the goal, or whether experimenting with change is more likely to gain the success. H?ow can coaching support the process, gathering observational information and extending reflection along the way ponder how best practice can support our goals and how we can avoid having it limit our thanks for listening.

Steve [Outro]: 18:12 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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