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There's no such thing as 'best practice'

Blog Editor, IOE Digital24 April 2014

Frank Coffield
For over 30 years a central plank in the reform programme for education of all governments has been the strategy of identifying and disseminating ‘best practice’. There’s only one thing wrong with this approach: there’s no such thing, but the FE and Skills sector is saturated with the term.
I first began to doubt the strategy when watching with student teachers a video of an ‘outstanding’ teacher working with a small group of well motivated and impeccably behaved pupils in a sun-lit classroom. Were the students inspired by the ‘best practice’ of Miss Newly Qualified Teacher of the Year? On the contrary, they either pointed out that they were teaching not 12 middle-class but 32 working-class students from a sink estate, some of whom were refugees with next to no English. Or they worried that they would never be able to match the smooth, practised performance of the more experienced teacher.
In other words, the two contexts were so different that little learning was transferred or the expertise of the “outstanding” teacher was so far above their current level of performance that they felt intimidated. My attempt to spread ‘best practice’ was more like a con-trick played by the unimaginative on the unsuspecting, particularly because the students were left to work out for themselves how to transfer the ‘best practice’ of the video to their own classrooms.
Further reflection led me to the central weakness with the strategy: it builds up psychological resistance in those at the receiving end, because they are being told implicitly that their practice is poor or inadequate. If their practice was thought good or outstanding, why are they being expected to adopt someone else’s ‘best practice’? Almost certainly they think their practice is pretty effective; that’s why they are using it.
Besides, there are questions that need to be asked of all those pushing ‘best practice’. Who says it is? On what grounds? Based on what criteria? Would another observer looking at the same teaching episode agree that it was the best? Is this ‘best practice’ equally effective with all age groups and all subject areas? What are the distinctions between ‘good’, ‘best’ and ‘excellent’ practice, terms which are used interchangeably? These questions are not answered; we‘re expected to take ‘best practice’ on authority, without evidence. There are no sure-fire, student-proof recipes for the complex, ambiguous and varied problems in teaching.
Luckily, there is a well tested alternative – JPD – where tutors jointly (J) share their practice (P) in order to develop (D) it. In an atmosphere of mutual trust and joint exploration, they explain to each other their successes and struggles in teaching their subject. They then move on to observing and evaluating each other’s classroom practices in a supportive atmosphere which encourages the creativity of both partners.
JPD restores trust in the professional judgement of teachers because it does not undercut their current practice, as happens with the strategy of ‘best practice’, but rather it seeks to enhance it by opening it up to discussion with supportive colleagues. Both partners in the exchange play the roles of observer and observed, of being the originator and receiver of practical advice; and both roles are accorded equal status. This equality in the relationships between tutors in JPD goes a long way to explain why it is proving to be far more effective than ‘best practice’.
This is one of the main themes that I explore in my new book – Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in FE – which is published this month by the Institute of Education Press. The rest of the book is devoted to showing how some FE and sixth form colleges are responding to Ofsted making teaching and learning the number one priority by introducing what the research claims are the most effective interventions, while dropping the least effective.
I shall explore here in a little detail two examples. First, I show how to harness the potential power of feedback; I say ‘potential’ because too often feedback has negative effects and some types of feedback are more powerful than others. Many students are dissatisfied with the quality of the feedback they receive – eg what is meant by “Be more analytic”? Tutors too are frustrated by students who prefer to receive praise rather than being challenged to think more deeply. The research emphatically suggests that tutors use the strong definition of feedback, namely, if it doesn’t change students’ behaviour or thinking, it isn’t feedback.
Another chapter shows how Socratic questioning can change the culture of learning in classrooms and workshops. It’s a means of challenging students’ thinking in a non-threatening way; and it treats challenges from students as constructive contributions to dialogue.
Other chapters show how social media can motivate students; combine psychological and economic factors to explain students’ motivation; and they assess the impact of ‘flipped’ learning, peer teaching and peer assessment.
The final chapter addresses the question: “can we transform classrooms and colleges without first transforming the role of the state?” My answer is that we can improve the quality of teaching and learning and make our colleges more like learning communities even within the current constraints of government policy and declining resources.