‘Best practice’ or ‘next practice’?

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Alan Kay

For many years the teaching profession has been familiar with the term ‘best practice’; sharing what is working well in one setting so that it might be implemented in another. It is happening within schools, between schools at conferences and TeachMeets, and online through both ‘top-down’ websites and ‘bottom up’ blogs from teachers.

Even the recent review of the English National Curriculum has been influenced by a comprehensive review of ‘best practice’ in different subjects from across the world (DfE, 2012). There is a problem with taking such practice at face value. The ‘best practice’ that is often held up is Finland due to the high levels achieved in international PISA league tables (OECD, 2009). However, when looking at international comparisons ‘best practice’ is only part of the story. Practice in schools is coupled with the Finnish culture, which places a high value on academic achievement, and a high status for their teaching profession. How can we replicate Finnish achievement unless we take the complexities of Finnish culture and implant them on the English?

The first head I worked with, Neil Hopkin, used to talk about needing to replace the quest for ‘best practice’ with the search for ‘next practice’ (Hopkin, 2010, Deakin Crick et al, 2011). I always used to think this meant that aiming for today’s best practice resulted in achieving the best of yesterday. By aiming to invent the future rather than re-hash the past you would create the ‘current’ best practice.

It has taken me three years to realise it is more complicated than that, for my initial conception implies that one day you will invent the future and reach your goal; get to the ‘next’ and stop.

Recently I have realised that ‘next practice’ is not about the goal, it is about the journey. A commitment to ‘next practice’ is a commitment to continually develop what you are doing in the context in which it is situated. In most cases this is going to take a fair bit of learning from others, of looking at the current ‘best practice’, but fundamentally I think it is not about emulation but about a research based approach to constant evaluation and development.

‘Next practice’ is a commitment to a process not an end product. In moving from ‘best practice’ to ‘next practice’ we acknowledge that the best solutions come from development, not imposition. Perhaps a process of development that never stops should be our real goal.

 

References

Deakin Crick R., Jelfs H., Huang S. & Wang, Q. (2011) Learning Futures Final Report, University of Bristol. Available at: http://learningemergence.net/technical-reports-2/learning-futures-evaluation-2011/ (Accessed 12th July 2012).

DfE (2012), Review of the National Curriculum in England: What can we learn from the English, mathematics and science curricula of high-performing jurisdictions?. Available at: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/DFE-RR178 (Accessed 13th July 2012).

Hopkin, N. (2010), ‘Energising Education’, December 6th 2010, in Neil Hopkin’s Blog. Available at: http://neilhopkin.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/energising-education/ (Accessed 13th July 2012).

OECD (2009), OECD Programme for International Student Assessment: PISA 2009 Results. Available at www.oecd.org/edu/pisa/2009 (Accessed 12th July 2012)

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9 thoughts on “‘Best practice’ or ‘next practice’?

  1. Is there a danger that if we’re constantly in a process of ‘inventing’ the future we won’t be grounded in “what works”?

    CPD should be like Weight Watchers. We know eating less and exercising are the best ways of losing weight so these are consistent messages. If you were to invent a new way of losing weight it wouldn’t invalidate what already works. It *might* be better but that needs to be tested before abandoning tried and tested methods.
    Dylan Wiliam says we should try to stop teachers doing ‘good things’ in order to focus them on doing the ‘best things’. Feedback & formative assessment are at the top of our ‘what works’ list. Wouldn’t we be better off refining these rather than haring off in some exciting but potentially fruitless direction?

    1. Thanks for the comment David, you make an interesting point.

      To begin with, the Weight Watchers analogy… Weight loss or exercise is a very common analogy for learning, but I think it is a troublesome one. The weight loss or fitness industry is worth a colossal amount of money, Weight Watchers alone had revenue of $503.5 million last year (http://www.weightwatchersinternational.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=130178&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1690635&highlight=). Of course “we all know” that eating less and exercising are the best ways of losing weight; there is a multi million pound industry’s marketing machine behind subscribing to the beliefs which make us spend money with them.

      Very few people actually question the perceived common wisdom on this, yet do they actually look at the scientific evidence? If they were to explore the evidence around for example calorie counting, then this common wisdom might not seem to wise.

      My point is, what is ‘tried and tested’ in teaching is often actually just a common assumption about ‘what works’. Many teachers would be shocked by the findings of John Hattie’s synthesis of educational research, as it debunks through research many common practices which are perceived to work and yet he has shown make little or no impact on achievement. Some of his work should be scrutinised and questioned as to its findings of course, but then so should much of what happens in classrooms.

      The point in my original post was that teachers need to be adaptive, and take a research and evaluation based approach to their teaching, rather than taking something off the shelf and hoping it just works without any solid evaluation.

      Dylan Wiliam’s work is an interesting one to bring to this, because feedback and assessment for learning are some of the few strategies solidly and repeatedly backed up by research. Amongst the many ‘off the shelf’ strategies we could give teachers without asking them to engage their thinking and evaluate, this is probably the best (I am not for a moment suggesting this would be Wiliam’s approach).

      However, it is so easy to see implementing an innovation such as this as moving towards a place where it has been achieved, it is ‘done, we are now ‘outstanding’ and evaluation ceases. Hattie also found *any* innovation has an impact on learning. In many cases this is because of the Hawthorne effect; when you are trying out an innovation you evaluate and analyse more closely the learning that is happening, so it is little surprise achievement increases.

      What I am suggesting is that we introduce the Hawthorne effect as standard, see practice as a process and not an end product, and empower teachers to constantly evaluate what they are doing. There will be some dead ends, but that is part of the learning and evaluative process. If this process is shared with the children or learners so much the better, role modelling the learning process in such a way would be very valuable.

      I am not suggesting wildly innovating off into the sun, trying a new vastly different approach each day of the week. I am suggesting teachers repositioning themselves as learners, and recognising that this is a process that never reaches a final product.

      My thinking on this has also been influenced by Kevin Kelly’s writing on co-evolution, particularly the concept of being ‘poised in the persistent state of almost falling’, which he has shared here: http://www.kk.org/outofcontrol/ch5-c.html.

  2. Hi Oliver,

    Really interesting blog, I’d not thought of the term “best practice” it in that way but it makes sense. Professional development should all be about the process of learning and improving practice. I think it’s important to remember that “outstanding” is not the end of the road as we all have something else that we can learn, develop and innovate no matter how we are judged/graded…next practice not best practice!

  3. Hi Oliver,

    I think that your blog raises a number of interesting issues around the value and place of CPD in helping to define the idea of professionalism in teaching.

    As Charlotte says, ‘outstanding’ is not the end of the road – is this a summative or formative judgement!

    In my experience, CPD is too often about remedial action to fill in gaps or to help bolster a CV prior to promotion.

    There is an interesting comparision with many Scandanavian countries where CPD is seen as part of the professional role of the teacher. In Finland for example, Action Research is an integral part of Initial Teacher Education with the expectation that the teacher will continue with exploring and discovering when they get to the workplace. For me, it is this perception of the role of the teacher also as a researcher and learner which helps to define ‘professionalism at the front line’.

  4. In the light of your comments on the need for educators to know “what works best” (evidence-based teaching, or the meta-anlayses of Hattie or Marzano), my company has created a website with over 100 evidence-based teaching techniques on it. Of equal significance, and uniquely, each and every one has been depicted in visual, step-by-step infographics. This results in easier, faster and more accurate learning by teachers of new techniques.
    The site offers teachers the ability to plan for, capture, share and check their learning. Do have a look (www.how2teach.co.uk) and see how it fits nicely with current peer-based models but with the constant reference to, and reassurance of, the evidence.
    Oliver Caviglioli
    Director, Train Visual

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