During my career as both a classroom teacher and as a literacy coach, I have heard the phrase “best practice” dropped in professional discussions countless times. I have always been a little shy of calling any instructional strategy a “best practice” because what is best in one context is not always best in another. What is best for one student is certainly not always best for another student. If we believe an instructional practice is “best,” isn’t it likely that we will use it with all students — even though each student has different assets, funds of knowledge, motivation, and readiness.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are certainly practices that are more effective than others. For example, introducing new vocabulary in context, using examples, is a much more effective way to teach new words than asking students to copy contextless (and sometimes difficult-to-comprehend) definitions from a dictionary. But, can I say, with complete certainty, that my way of introducing vocabulary is the “best?” Certainly, it depends on the class, the student, and the content. Context is extremely important. In a though-provoking article I read a few years ago called “Toward a Good or Better Understanding of Best Practice,” author David Reinking mentions that the phrase best practice “…implies decision making and informed choice…it is still open to interpretation in context and to other possibilities,” and that ”pursuit of the best practice may be an issue for an individual teacher, not for the field as a whole.”
For example, I was once asked to use a teaching framework that I believed to be rather sound based upon my knowledge of research and classroom experience. However, I believed that some aspects were too prescriptive and focused too much on “surface” elements. For example, the framework stated that all word learning lessons should be ten minutes. Why? What if the lesson takes eight minutes or fifteen minutes? I understand that teaching is contextual to your classroom and students’ needs, but some educators are truly married to “one-size-fits-all” approaches.
However, I believe the most dangerous aspect of the doctrine of “best practices” is that the idea of a “best” practice inhibits our professional growth. In some ways, discussing best practices devalues us as teachers – especially if we focus too much on strategy over professional knowledge. Some instructional strategies must be adapted for the “best” effects on students. In his article, Reinking states that “focusing on better [rather than ‘best’] practices keeps us moving forward but without the finality, certainty, false security, or endless debates inspired by the belief that there are best practices.” I think that the moment we believe that we “have arrived,” because we know what is best is when we stop growing as educators. In my experience, students are always changing, so we must continue to change as well. In addition, ongoing research reveals time and time again that what we once thought was “best” was actually just mediocre.
We should work toward better practices because searching for “best practices” may be like searching for the city of El Dorado.