As a National Writing Project site director best practice is key to what I do (what we do as a site). We base our professional development on best practice. We direct our Fellows to prepare their demonstration lessons the best practice way. Recently I embarked on a research project with Dr. Brian Still (my dissertation adviser) focusing on measuring the impact of teaching and he asked me if I was using best practices. I said yes but the question certainly prompted me to think -- what is best practice and how do I know when I have it?
Best practice is one of those terms that is often thrown around in education circles and as a result it has lost its focus and for some its meaning. Yet the term best practice is used in many professions and often it is specifically defined or outlined by professional organizations. Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar in Teaching the Best Practice Way compared the standards documents published by the national professional associations of educators including those for science, reading, English, math, geography, and history as well as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and found they all endorsed a very similar model of teaching and learning -- a student-centered or progressive paradigm of teaching that Daniels and Bizar call best practice. In other words, best practice is another word for good teaching.
While some may think of best practice as nothing more than an educational buzz word, I agree with Daniels and Bizar that best practice is not something nebulous and fuzzy but something very specific when it comes to the activities and ideas that take place in the classroom. Best practice teaching is based on research, the study of development and learning, and the history and philosophy of American education.
Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde give us the main ideas that represent best practice in Best Practice, Today's Standards for Teaching and Learning in America's Schools:
Student-centered: Active and hands-on, holistic, and challenging.
Cognitive: Higher-order thinking, constructivist, expressive, and reflective.
Social: Collaborative, cooperative learning in a Democratic community.
Best practice is research-based. Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde say: "We have decades of research and thousands of studies showing that progressive teaching practices do 'work'." They further point out that the standards of educational associations are backed up with still more research to support the effectiveness of best practice in specific content areas.
Best practice not a new invention and it is not a fad. It is built on a firm foundation of what we know about development and learning and you can find these ideas embedded in important philosophers and educators including: Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Eric Ericson, Carl Rogers, and Elizabeth Harrison, as well as more recent figures such as Jonathan Kozolo, James Beane, Paolo Friere, Deborah Meier, Maxine Greene, and Howard Gardner.
But how does a teacher know best practice when she uses it?
Daniels and Bizar say best practice offers less whole-class-directed instruction and less student passivity.
Check: I rarely lecture and prize engaged student activity.
Daniels and Bizar say best practice offers less stress on competition and grades.
Check: I try to shift the focus away from grades and focus on drafts and workshop to help students grow and improve.
Daniels and Bizar say best practice emphasizes higher-order thinking and learning a field's key concepts and principles.
Check: My writing classes are about writing studies with students (yes, even freshmen) reading research and theory about the current thinking in the field of writing studies.
Daniels and Bizar say best practice encourages cooperation and collaboration in a classroom community.
Check: I strive to create a sense of community and through workshop and group projects stress both cooperation and collaboration.