Beyond ‘Best Practice’: How teacher improvement actually works

Peter Taylor and I are aware that the term ‘best practice’ is still alive and well in talk about teacher improvement. In fact, contemporary educational literature is replete with calls for both leaders and teachers to pursue ‘best practice’ as a holy grail of educational endeavour, a goal that school leaders and staff developers ought to aspire to in every aspect of their daily practice. No-one should settle for anything less! In the brief paper that follows we want to share some thoughts on the impact of this aspirational discourse on the principal audience – school teachers and school leaders – to explain our ambivalence around this term, and to suggest more productive alternatives for the work of improving teaching performance.

The context within which best practice is advocated often involves the characterisation of the current educational environment as one demanding fundamental changes in professional practices. In global terms, relevant change is mobilised by the twin imperatives of developing twenty-first Century competencies, through the ubiquitous use of digital technologies. Nationally the foci include the National Curriculum, NAPLAN and the MySchool website, and the AITSL professional standards. At the individual school level, there is an ever-present concern not to be left behind in the very competitive education market place. Of course there are variations of these themes, but the overarching message is very clear – things must change, at the system, school and individual classroom levels. And the change needs to be in the direction of what we have come to call best practice.

Our concern is that the best practice discourse rests on several problematic assumptions.

First, it assumes the existence of a definite, knowable and implementable set of pedagogical or leadership activities. A clear implication of this assumption is that it locates someone as the knower of this type of practice, and others as un-knowers. That is, it assumes and reinforces a hierarchal relationship between ‘experts’, as knowers and therefore ‘suppliers’, and practitioners, as ‘receivers’ and imitators. The problem here is that this relationship treats the practice as entirely decontextualized and dehumanised – you need make no allowance for the practitioner’s prior experience, their personality, the children’s prior experiences and personalities, the school culture, and so on. Simply put, to use Piers Vitebsky’s terminology, it applies “to everyone and no-one, everywhere and no-where”.

Second, and correlated with the first problem, the discourse of best practice, and its implementation, tend to position teachers as technicians rather than professionals. Technicians tend to be required to follow set procedures – to use imitative expertise – while professionals are expected to utilise adaptive expertise, which involves the disposition of “intentionally seeking new challenges and insights rather than resting on one’s laurels”. Thus, rather than encouraging what Bransford refers to as ‘the gold standard of professionalism, the best practice discourse nurtures a culture of dependency and imitation.

Third, and also related to the first problem, it assumes that optimal activities can be ‘delivered’ by external experts without the need for ‘translation’ to local and specific conditions. They can be recognised and known, without reference to the context in which they were developed or discovered. The problem here is that every aspect of classroom practice is located within larger school and classroom cultures, and the very expression of that practice relies of a suite of related experiences, resources and practices. No practice can be deeply understood, or implemented, without consideration of these larger realities of professional practice. Thus, implementation of any best practice necessarily involves mutual adaptation of desirable practice to actual context.

Fourth, it assumes a consistent, and known, quality of implementation. Consistency is achievable in mechanical and/or automated systems, but once humans are involved, and this certainly means teachers and students, consistency becomes somewhat slippery as an aspiration. This means that even the most promising possibilities for action are likely to be operationalized in uneven and sub-optimal ways.

Fifth, and related to the third problem, the extended use of any practice will be will see teachers paying decreasing attention to the quality of its implementation. This is inevitable, given what we now know about how our mental systems operate,. The problem here is that any gap between the intended and achieved quality is very unlikely to be noticed, as the practice becomes normalised within a classroom setting. Mastery is not a point of arrival but a process of becoming.

Sixth, it ignores the changing context of implementation. As indicated above, the very notion of ‘best’ implies a degree of fixity. Yet what is ‘best’ in 2013 is very unlikely to be ‘best’ for very long, if the original rationale for the call to change is valid. Of course, there are those who believe that notions of ‘best’ are underpinned by educational ideologies, and that the push for change is as much a reflection of the rise and fall of particular ideologies – for example, the current Irrespective of the cause, the fixity of ‘best practice’ is inconsistent with the ongoing changes in the context of implementation of those practices.

Finally, it rests on an assumption of some totally objective measure of ‘nearness to best’. That is, it ignores the value-laden process by which any practice might be recognised as ‘best’. Even the expression of ‘nearness’ implies a more nuanced expression of preference – perhaps ‘better practice’. Of course, advocates of a particular direction (eg, the adoption of TabletPCs for all students) are impatient with circumspection because it invites clarification of the reasoning behind the advocacy, and this might too easily distract from the desire to give direction (especially problematic where product sales are involved!). Certainty, confidence, and expert provision are handmaidens of the best practice discourse.

If not BP, then what?
We have explained aspects of our approach to supporting the improvement of pedagogical practices in a range of online papers – available at ericamcwilliam.com.au. The stimulus for all our co-authored papers, including this one, arises from our engagement with the staff of a number of schools across Australia over more than a decade. During this time, we have noted the importance of learning that is directed towards the re-professionalisation of teaching. Teachers value engagement with ideas that re-engage them with the ideals that motivated their original decision to become a teacher. These include ‘over-the-horizon’ explorations of larger social and cultural trends. They also value systematic exploration of their own classroom practice through site-specific collaborations that investigate the impact on student participation and learning of quite specific practices.

In more recent years, our engagement has involved intensive and extended activity in collaborative conversations at the level of ‘professional learning communities’. Most engagements involved support for the adoption of what we refer to as a Smart Building approach to teacher professional learning.

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