Binning Best Practice


A few years ago there was a TV programme called ‘Room 101’ where celebrities nominated things that they wanted removed from the world forever to be consigned to the eponymous room. Every so often I play that game in my head and, as I prepare to embark on my last full year before retiring from teaching, one phrase comes to mind that would happily never hear again:

“Best Practice”.

Now don’t get me wrong - I’m all for sharing good and effective teaching methodologies. I’m all for teachers sharing things they’ve tried out and found to be conducive to teaching and learning. I have been involved in a number of initiatives over the years, such as “Assessment is For Learning” and “Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education”, that have focussed on classroom practice and have learned a great deal from them. So what happened to them?

They became “Best Practice”

By this I mean that they generated a few classroom routines that could easily be passed on to others. Examples include ‘starters’, ‘sharing learning outcomes’, ‘traffic lighting’ and others. Again, don’t get me wrong - these can be useful and effective and, in the hands of people who know what they are doing with them, they generally are. And when they are effective the people who embrace them can be the most enthusiastic and persuasive advocates for passing them on. The problem is that, too often, teachers don’t get to hear these persuasive advocates. Instead of time given for training teachers in them ideas are “cascaded” down by increasingly sceptical voices because they are “Best Practice”, or because they have been promoted by Education Scotland or HMIE.

The result is that they become, at best, bolt-ons to lessons. At worst teachers do them but have no idea why they or doing them or  what they are intended to do or how they are related to the rest of their classroom practice. In some cases they can be misunderstood completely. When I was working on AiFL one of the techniques introduced was ‘traffic lighting’ - that pupils could indicate the extent to which they were confident in having achieved a learning outcome by the colours red, amber or green. This technique was duly cascaded down and embraced as ‘best practice’. A couple of years later I was sitting with another teacher from another school discussing classroom practice and I mentioned ‘traffic lighting’. “Oh yes!” she said. “I do that. The kids start at green and the first time they misbehave I move them to amber…”.

At this point ‘Best Practice’ simply becomes ‘this year’s fad’. Whether it’s the ‘three stage lesson’, ‘no hands up’, ‘catch them being good’ or whatever, they become just one more thing that teachers are supposed to remember to do in already crowded lessons. They become a bolt-on to,  rather than an embedded part of, their practice. At this point we are in chocolate teapot territory as far as effectiveness is concerned and they soon fall away to be replaced by the next raft of ‘Best Practice’. 

So, off to Room 101 with that phrase. “Best Practice” smacks of dogmatics and received wisdom. It smacks of knowledge handed, or cascaded, down from on high. It smacks of the divinely ordained or the officially prescribed. It lands on teachers’ desks with a thump as a burden to be borne rather than an opportunity to try something fresh and new that will reinvigorate their lessons.

We are told change is coming to Scottish education. I hope so. I hope too that I have not sounded  cynical. As I said, I am all for sharing good and effective teaching methodologies but experience tells me that they do have to be shared, not handed down. They need to be explained by people who have found them to be effective and understood why they are effective. They need to be embraced by teachers with enthusiasm and a sense of freedom to try something new, even if it may not work for them - teachers are individuals and some methodologies work better for some than for others. 

I would love to think that the generation of teachers that comes after mine will be a genuinely self-confident profession; that they will not be hidebound by notions that there is a ‘right’ structure to lessons or that there is a ‘right’ way to organise their classrooms or that there is a ‘right’ structure to questioning. I would love to think that stern edicts of ‘Best Practice’ will become enthusiastic encouragements from fellow professionals to try something new. I would love to think that time and opportunities will be made available to those professionals to share ideas and think about how they can be embraced and embedded in their own practice. That is essential because if nearly four decades of teaching have taught me anything it is that ‘Best Practice’ bolt-ons don’t work.