Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Is Best Practice (and how do I know when I have it)?

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.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My 3 X 3

This post was supposed to be written weeks ago but oh well...better late than never.

It is inspired by a friend's blog post which was in turn inspired by ProfHacker.

I thought this was a good idea for the reasons that ProfHacker writes about but also the fact that I really should reflect in a purposeful way about the various experiments I conduct in my classroom.

Three things that worked well last semester

Combining two sections in one BlackBoard course shell -- I was worried it would get too chaotic but once we got past those first few weeks of acclimation it worked well for me and I think for the students.

Giving my students' IM access -- I was worried that it would be disruptive to me and there was one incident with a student who couldn't understand I was already doing something else and couldn't talk at that moment but for the most part it inspired some truly great teaching moments because I was available when the student needed help. IM also meant we had a record of our conversation so if we were brainstorming the student could just go with the flow of the conversation and not worry about taking notes or remembering. IM also allowed us to clear up confusion that email (or discussion board) can't always provide clarity for -- or at least the process of clearing up confusion in email is more time-consuming and cumbersome.

Shifting focus to writing about writing -- as the main focus of a writing class should be writing I decided to eschew writing about other topics. My choice of focusing on writing for school and professions had mixed results but still a better choice than giving students free rein or focusing on some other unrelated topic.

Three things that didn't work well

Focusing on writing for school was not a good choice -- or at least the way I framed it for students and most of the readings that I provided. It just didn't lead students in the direction I wanted them to go.

Excessive summary writing. I don't know what I was thinking. I was sick of grading them. Students were sick of writing them. Blick. Way too much work for everyone and why?

Excessive assignments. Again. Don't know what I was thinking. I do believe you need to write to improve as a writer but there is also a balance in a workshop situation and this semester didn't find that balance. Shudder just remembering...

Three things I changed for this semester

First-year writing as introduction to writing studies -- I already blogged about this idea

Eliminate summary -- I lied above when I said I didn't know what I was thinking assigning so much summary. I know what I was thinking. I was thinking about how many students the previous semester struggled to learn how to write a summary. But I've sense decided that while this is an important skill perhaps that was not the right approach. I once focused more on the annotated bibliography assignment and I moved back to that approach this semester.

Cut down the number of writing assignments -- bring back sanity for myself and my students and focus on quality rather than quantity. My new approach will focus on smaller, more reflective assignments that then build to a longer, focused research paper inspired by that earlier work. We'll see how it turns out.