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Defining "Best Practice" in Teaching

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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Boy looking through books in library stacks

It's often said in the teaching world (as in many professions and trades, I imagine), "Why reinvent the wheel when there are plenty of practices that already work?"

In their book, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan share their definition for "best practices," which they define as existing practices that already possess a high level of widely-agreed effectiveness.

We teachers are standing on the shoulders of giants before us who have developed tried-and-true strategies by testing them out, reflecting on the outcomes, and honing those strategies over decades or longer. And they work; they get results.

What are some of the best pedagogical practices I've adopted over the years from my mentors and guides in this field? Here are just a few straightforward ones that are known, and used, by many educators:

  • Check for understanding often and in a variety of ways.
  • If you don't have a well-thought out plan for your students, they will have one for you.
  • Set up the next activity while students are completing the current one -- this makes for a smooth and speedy transition with little to no downtime.
  • Design the end goals and end product first (also known as backward planning).
  • Share models with students of the product or outcome you want them to create or design -- and also continually model in your own behavior how you want them to act and treat each other.
  • Don't throw anything away, especially in your first few years of teaching; you might need it later.

The Role of Research

There are also those best practices that have data to back them up. When looking at the work of educational researcher Robert Marzano, we see that he has spent hundreds of hours observing classroom practices and using this data to suggest best practices for vocabulary instruction, student assessment, and classroom management.

Marzano's six-step process for building student academic vocabulary is deeply informed by his research and used within school districts across the U.S. When it comes to growing student vocabulary, he asserts that direct instruction is a best practice and essential. (Here's a post I wrote, Doing It Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary, that says more on this.)

"The Next" Best Thing

It is the adventure and challenge for all educators, grades K-16 (yes, university instructors as well), to take that tried-and-true strategy and evolve it -- making it best to next. In this digital age, for instance, as our students' needs and strengths shift, we must remain innovative, and our best should always be transforming and moving toward the next best approach, tool, or strategy.

When thinking about the learning and teaching in your classroom, what best practices do you utilize? What are ways that you've innovated and transformed a best practice to a next -- or better -- practice? Please share in the comments section below.

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sbarback's picture

The above article makes all the sense in the world. Sadly, this is not the world in which many teachers find themselves. All that is new requires a throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. Currently, because it is "only three points on the Test," I have been warned against teaching grammar on pain of earning a negative report in my employee jacket. I'm an English teacher. This is an element of writing that needs explicit instruction and practice with checks. My poor babies have never seemingly had explicit grammar instruction. By 6th grade, some sort of knowledge--What are the parts of speech called? How can I tell if I'm using the proper form of a verb?--should be shown. I am not seeing such a rudimentary understanding. This is necessary for all writing, for being understood in written form. I hope that we are able once again to admit to the brilliance of the giants on whose shoulders we stand.

Steve P's picture

As a teacher candidate in graduate school (k-6 certification program) I've been going through the daily roller-coaster of thoughts regarding the current emphasis on standardized test preparation, and the "best practices" I'm learning about in my classes. "sbarback" seems to be indicating that students could have benefitted from more basic literary vocabulary before they made it to a 6th grade classroom. For those of us hoping to prepare younger students for middle school and higher learning, how have some of you found balance between what you are REQUIRED to teach, and what you know your students should be learning?

Margot Schultz's picture
Margot Schultz
Waldorf Teacher

There are a lot of gems in this article that I use as a teacher. I am all for research and data driven decisions as these usually produce stellar results, but I also like to incorporate a more intuitive sense in my teaching. Meaning that the lesson plan is flexible based on what I feel the students most need that day and what their energy is receptive to. I like to keep my lessons modular so they can be taught out of order. Obviously this is not always possible, but in a general sense, I find that students learn and integrate the material at much deeper levels when they are open and receptive to it.

In that sense, I also often use the NLP concept of pre-framing to help students get excited about what is being taught. What that means is I make sure it is clear they understand how learning the topic will directly benefit their lives. When they can see a clear connection between the material and greater happiness, joy, fun, etc. in their everyday life, they are always very excited and engaged with the lessons.

Mary Langer Thompson's picture

Yes, checking for understanding is one of the most important strategies. I'd love to see a whole post on how to do that regularly, Rebecca. It takes a lot of practice.

Jake UCDS's picture

Reading this article, I immediately thought of the term "best practices" on a grand scale, but more essentially at the school and classroom levels. Many would agree that best practices are techniques that have been battle-tested, survived the passing fads of quasi-reform, and remain relevant from one generation to the next.

However, even systems that are widely employed and deeply rooted in tradition must be examined for effectiveness. When we are looking to evolve best practices at UCDS, we expect teachers to question the relevance of their individual approach, as well as the methods of the collective whole. It has been our experience that this only works when a school cultivates the free flow of ideas amongst its entire faculty.

So how can we ensure the methodologies of our experienced educators are passed down to newer generations of teachers? And how can we ensure our teachers have the autonomy to move away from institutionalized practices that do not promote growth for teachers or students?

These are big questions. And the answers inform the direction of a school, on almost every level. In order to achieve sustained, best practices in the school, teacher mentorship must be valued above any other means of professional development. Because, in the end, it is essential that even our newest teachers think of themselves as educational leaders, capable of shaping their craft, as well as determining the outcomes of their students.

It's only after we entrust our teachers to forward the mission of the school that we can truly maintain the highest level of best practices. Because when your school is comprised of teachers and administrators practicing an ethos of collaboration and leadership, an innovative school culture begins to emerge. When this happens, you really start to see best practices take flight.

Jake Cutone
Director of Special Programs
UCDS - Seattle, WA

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Edutopia's case studies of schools that work. The profiled schools are all doing a variety of interesting things and demonstrating good results.

The practices range from arts integration to project-based learning to robust orientation programs to community based learning. There's something for everyone, and I recommend checking them out:

Kyle Berry's picture

"Currently, because it is "only three points on the Test," I have been warned against teaching grammar on pain of earning a negative report in my employee jacket." < Wow... That is a sad state of affairs. I hope they come to their senses.

Michiemart's picture

I agree with everything on the list except "don't throw anything away". Keeping everything creates clutter and smaller space. It's hard to decide what you need to keep or not, but it's ok to not have it all.

T.L. Zempel's picture
T.L. Zempel
Author and Teacher

I've seen a lot of educational fads come and go over my 25 years as a regular classroom teacher, and have come to the conclusion that most highly-educated and highly-paid administrators and researchers are missing the most obvious determinants in how and why children learn: class size and kid motivation.

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