From Best to Effective

“People often become attached to best practices. The risk is that once we’ve declared a routine the best, it becomes frozen in time.”
― Adam M. Grant, Think Again

Over the past several years, I’ve worked to shift my thinking and language away from “best practice” into “effective practice.” I think Adam Grant explains this effectively (I almost said, he says it best, LOL), “People often become attached to best practices. The risk is that once we’ve declared a routine the best, it becomes frozen in time.” In education, I think this looks like utilizing a practice because we’ve read or been told it’s best without examining whether that practice makes good sense for our current students or intended learning outcomes. For example, I learned early in my career that it was best practice to start the year off being super strict with my desks in rows. You know, the whole, “Don’t smile until winter break.” So, I clung to that methodology as best I could as a serial smiler even when it wasn’t working for my students. I was frozen in time for those four years of teaching high school English. It wasn’t until I started a position as a 7th grade ELA teacher that I could clearly see the need to change my practices.

Many of us learned how to be good teachers while teaching in the middle because our middle school students show up in many different places developmentally. Some of them present behaviors that seem more elementary in nature while others look and sound like they could be in high school. I wish I could say that I made pivots to my instructional practices right away, but it took a good amount of struggle for me to finally stop clinging to those “best practices” that I believed to be true. I write about this experience in my upcoming book. This journey of uncovering what it looked like to stop attaching my self-worth to whether my practices worked and worked the first time. I discovered how freeing it can be to treat every day in the classroom as action-research. I learned how to become deeply curious about what was or was not working well for my students and how to respond accordingly.

This is not to say that every old practice is bad or every new practice is good. In fact, it’s about not weighing our research-based practices as good or bad – period. Instead, let’s take a step back to ask the hard questions about what our students need and which practices might effectively meet those needs. When we stop labeling most practices as good or bad, we also learn not to label ourselves, the implementers of those practices, as good or bad. It’s not about good or bad. It’s about great teaching moments and nourishing the conditions that make those more likely. As I mentioned in a previous post after listening to a keynote by Tanny McGregor, we can embrace the ampersand. Multiple research-based practices can be effective and needed at different times. The key is to allow ourselves to hold some space for the questioning and not knowing, so we can make an objective decision as best we can.

One of the most dangerous thought patterns we can get into, especially when we are tired and run down this time of year is, “Well, this is how we do it,” or, “We’ve always done it this way,” or “This is what I learned is best practice.”

Best doesn’t leave much room for curiosity and exploration. It has a certain finality to it. Best is also high stakes and high pressure. “What is best practice?” pumps more stress into a conversation than, “What is an effective practice for us to consider?”

Words matter in a big way. We are tired. We are overwhelmed. When we commit to using language and strategies in conversations and meetings that leave people feeling lighter and more capable, the work gets better. When our work can feel more inquisitive and playful, there is room for deeper thinking and reflection. Isn’t that what we all want for adult and kid learners alike? Critical thinking and meaningful reflection?

A small tweak in our language and approach can open the door for more rich dialogue.

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