Monday, January 2, 2012

My best practices are better than yours ...

I've been sitting on this post for a while now.  A few weeks ago, I lurked an #edchat twitter chat on defining best practices in education.  I had to stop halfway through as I think I was close to having a coronary.  I will attempt to summarize the general flow of the conversation:
  1. Best practices are awesome.
  2. Umm, what are best practices exactly?
  3. We should find a way of sharing best practices so we all can benefit from each others ideas.
  4. Maybe best practices are not global, instead there are best practices for each teacher-learner-classroom combination.
  5. The moment you say a practice is best it constrains the learning.
  6. We should find a way of sharing best practices so we all can benefit from each others ideas.
  7. The very idea of best practices is silly as all of our practices are best, it's all relative.
  8. Head asplode ....
So, I have decided to lay out my ideas on best practices in education.  I recently finished reading Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape in which he attempts to define a scientific basis for human morality (which in itself is a fascinating idea).  In it, he defines the goal of morality as maximizing the well-being of the greatest number of people possible.  He defines a spectrum that ranges from the worst possible suffering to everyone (at the bad end in case you weren't following along) and the greatest possible well-being for everyone at the top.  He then posits that we can investigate moral choices that move us either towards the worst suffering or away from it.  This can then be analysed scientifically.  

I propose a similar model for defining best practices in education.  One in which have a spectrum from the worst possible education for everyone to the best possible education.  Of course, this requires that we decide what the goal of education is (one of my largest complaints about #edchat discussions is the lack of focus towards achieving a salient goal).  If we take Dewey's stated aim of education as the 'development of reflective, creative, responsible thought' as our goal we have a starting point.  Of course we would now all need to agree as to what that meant.  However, as Harris notes we are able to work towards a goal of improving health without having a clear definition of what health is (although the seeming popularity of pseudo-medicine may show that the lack of a clear definition is fundamentally unstable).

Once we have defined a goal, we can start to measure the results of various practices and if they move us towards or away from that stated goal.  In this regard we can measure the effectiveness of practices and therefore can isolate practices that cause the greatest progress and encourage those practices while stifling the practices that are detrimental.

Note that nowhere in this exposition did I state or imply that there is only one possible best practice.  As Harris states his moral landscape can have multiple peaks on it where being on top of that peak would be the greatest possible well-being; as would being on an alternate peak.  My ideas for best practices is similar, there could be multiple peaks where we achieve the maximum possible education for all people just as there could be multiple means of scaling those peaks.

To summarize, the idea of a best practice is moot without a clear statement of purpose for education.  We need to know what the end point is to define something as being best.  A best practice would then therefore be an approach that maximizes our movement towards this goal.  Although best practices may only exist in theory, they can still exist.  As I have argued before, it all comes back to the purpose, the goal of education.

No comments:

Post a Comment