The Elusive Search for “Best Practice”

Teacher giving a demonstration

With the state-led effort to adopt new standards combined with government policies such as Race to the Top, educators face increasing pressures to adopt “instructional shifts” that will help students succeed on new rigorous forms of assessment. Along with these pressures, schools are once again inundated with resources and recommendations for “best practices.”

But determining what practices qualify as “best” is no simple matter. This month, in Educational Leadership, James Hiebert, Ronald Gallimore, and I explain how imitating best practice is antithetical to the continual improvement of teaching. Specifically, we identify three major problems with the use of the term “best practices.”

  1. They encourage a plug-and-play approach

Teachers are encouraged to quickly adopt new methods and use them as often as possible but are rarely given opportunities to develop deeper understanding of those methods. This plug-and plug-and approach implies that each practice works perfectly without the need for analysis or change on the part of teachers.

  1. They can uncouple learning goals from instructional methods

Effective teaching must always be aligned with a well-defined learning goal. A good method for or one goal might not be effective for another. Broadly advocating a best practice absent specific learning goals can stymie student achievement.

  1. They can focus on activity instead of achievement

In many cases the idea of sharing best practices represents a search for ways to keep the classroom environment “fresh,” “innovative,” or “high interest.” Although there’s nothing wrong with employing high interest activities, it’s counterproductive to make them a focal point of instruction rather than a means of fostering student learning of specific content and skills. Ends can be confused with means; activities can be substituted for achievement.

We also propose three suggestions for a more effective approach.

  1. Researchers and educators should drop the term “best” in favor of “effective” practices explicitly tied to well-defined learning goals.
  2. There’s an urgent need to develop a carefully indexed knowledge base of useful cases (e.g., digital libraries with multiple resources, expert analysis, formative assessments and alternative instructional moves…each tied to specific learning goals.)
  3. Finally, professional development should focus on continual improvement of teaching rather than imitating best practices. Better teaching is the product of steady, relentless, continual improvement–one lesson, one unit at a time.

Click here to read the full article in Educational Leadership.


About Brad Ermeling
Brad Ermeling, Ph.D.

Brad Ermeling, Ph.D.

Bradley Ermeling, currently a principal research scientist at Pearson, spent seven years working as an educator in Japan developing first-hand knowledge and expertise with Japanese Lesson Study and has published numerous articles on developing and supporting systems for collaborative inquiry and continuous learning. Dr. Ermeling was a recipient of the 2010 Best Research Award from Learning Forward along with Ron Gallimore, Claude Goldenberg, and Bill Saunders for their published studies on instructional improvement through learning teams. He is currently conducting qualitative studies on blended and virtual assistance models to guide school and instructional improvement efforts and is also investigating methods for measuring and facilitating teacher reflective practice. Prior to his research career, Dr. Ermeling taught high school English and special education for 11 years and holds teaching credentials in both Japan and the United States. He also holds a government issued certificate for Japanese language proficiency. He earned his doctorate from UCLA in Educational Leadership and his bachelors in English literature from Concordia University, Irvine.