Educators are, in my experience, always looking to improve themselves, and often seeking to live up to, or implement ‘best practice.’ But that’s a surprisingly complex idea, and it may even be that there is actually no such single thing. Maybe ‘best practice’ is a phrase that means different things in different contexts.
For example, what’s ‘best practice’ in teaching mathematics? Many educators are familiar with the numerous US studies showing the efficacy of cooperative learning in terms of raising attainment. And it makes sense – we know that there is nothing that helps you learn something as well as having to teach it; and that having peers explain sometimes puts ideas in familiar language. So are collaborative practices ‘best practice’?
In this article three researchers report on a series of well-designed UK studies which show that students in those classrooms where collaborative practices were adopted did no better than control groups. This flies in the face of accepted wisdom; and the message we can draw is fascinating. The researchers identified two crucial differences between UK and US schools; firstly that they used interim assessments in very different ways; and secondly, that they approached differentiated instruction in very different ways. And these differences were intertwined with the differences in the success of collaborative practices.
The conclusion is that the effectiveness of a practice cannot be judged in isolation; one practice rests on a whole system. They write “Teaching methods proven to be effective in one culture and system cannot be assumed to be effective in another. We remain convinced that the cooperative learning strategies that have been found in North American research to be effective in mathematics can be made to work in England, but they are going to require further adaption to the traditions and expectations of teaching in English schools. Given the many similarities between North American and UK contexts, this cautionary tale should perhaps give even more pause to those who propose importing approaches from much more exotic locales.”
For me, this is fascinating, and it shows why the job of teaching is more than simply importing proven ideas from elsewhere. There are precious few ‘Best practices’ because they all depends on context. This basic fact – more familiar, perhaps to students of the humanities than of the sciences – explains many unresolved controversies; whether to group by ability in mathematics; whether to offer awards; what maximum class size should be. There is no single better answer – the right thing depends on the context. So while we are doing the right thing by considering these issues in light of the research, the ultimate touchstone must be our strong sense of identity and vision.
This explains why, with so many different backgrounds, we will have different views. It explains why small-scale experimentation, not mass duplication is the best possible thing, and it explains why we need to address issues as systems, in all their complexities, and not simply treat them in isolation.