Can a focus on best practice be a problem? Adam Grant, the author of Think Again, while speaking to business entrepreneurs suggested, “It’s time to rethink best practices.” He states that the term, used to describe a preferred method of performing a given task or procedure, 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.”
Over the years, I’ve shared my thinking frequently with educators that best practice is good to know as a starting point, but it’s unlikely that a researched best practice in teaching 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” Shane Snow, writing for Fast Company states that best practices don’t make you the best, 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 would make 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 succeeded. In another example, an 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 1800s 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.”
Snow adds, “History is clear that best practices can be the enemy 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 all of our students.
My example of the need for going beyond best practice is to consider the medical community. Where would we be if the only thing that the medical community did was to identify and implement current best practice? Certainly, we want doctors to know what best practice is and respond to it. But when they see insufficient results, we want them to think of alternatives to gain a better wellness for a patient.
“It is the adventure and challenge for all educators to take that tried-and-true strategy and evolve it — making it best to next. As our students’ needs and strengths shift, we must remain innovative, and our best should always be transforming and moving toward the next best approach, tool, or strategy.”
Moving Beyond Current Best Practice
I’ve frequently described that as a school year begins, each teacher should have a plan for achieving something with students that they’ve not previously achieved. How to make that happen should generate a hypothesis for the teacher to explore. Checking best practice research is a significant initial step. As the most effective teachers explore this question their hypotheses may well lead them to an innovative approach that creates new insights about learning. (Beyond best practice) This type of professional growth planning should produce continuous teacher growth driven by a desire for increased student success.