Why Teachers Don’t Like The Term “Best Practices”

In the beginning of last year, I got into a tiff with a colleague around the use of diagnostics in class. On her end, she believes everyone should take the first two weeks to give a diagnostic test, go over rituals and routines, and go over that diagnostic. For two weeks. Only after these elements are taken care of should we start actually teaching our students, according to the colleague.

On my end, I already looked at the Common Core State Standards and thought, “There’s no way I’ll get to cover these in time for me to do this on a deeper level. I gotta be more efficient.” Therefore, I spent the first two weeks doing the diagnostic, grading them, and then ingraining the rituals and routines within my teaching. In other words, I wanted to teach two to three days after I met them.

Boy, that was a problem with some. It was against what people felt were best practices. Even as I got browbeat for standing up for an autonomous pedagogical move, I cleared almost every benchmark in my pacing calendar. I’m not one to count laps, because math requires in-depth assignments and real questioning. I just found myself more and more satisfied with my early decision to teach based on what I felt the class needed.

If I was wrong, I would take responsibility, as I usually do.

Things got even more complicated as I got a new class in December, which is like taking over a sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean that was sailing to Peru when we were supposed to sail to North Carolina. Yet, after a month, the decisions I made for the class helped my kids learn math in a way that mattered. Against the grain. With my vision.

Because no matter what the “experts” say (or didn’t say yet people say they said it), we as teachers have to put their feet down every so often when we need to make a decision that works for our students.

People might ask me, “Why don’t you believe in diagnostics?” It’s not that. I believe in diagnostics. I believe in data. Having timely, relevant, and relatable data can quickly give me information about students, often affirming or disputing things that I see with my students. Yet, when I get students, no matter what level, I almost always have a sense of the deficiencies in the room. For instance, my eighth graders might come in not understanding fractional operations, long division, or the xy-coordinate (Cartesian) plane.

Obviously, I would love for the students to prove me wrong, but in my experience, I haven’t yet. If anything, it tells me that, if I know the existing issues, I can spend more time working with students and getting deeper into my students’ academic and personal needs. Autonomy in teaching is slowly becoming lost in the profession, and we need to take it back. We need to establish our expertise, and have confidence in our decisions when they’re based on experience.

“Best practices” vary from school to school (and school philosophy). Teacher expertise allows us the time to match solutions with the students right in front of us. Our students need that.

  • ReneeMoore

    “Diagnostics” Reflect Sick Thinking

    Your overall point resonates with me. The concept of “best practices” as well as “diagnostics” both come from the common analogy between education and medicine, which in this case, is stretched a bit too far.

    Best practices, in medicine, refers to those treatments that have been proven most effective in dealing with certain illnesses or conditions. Diagnostics, whether at the doctor’s office or the auto repair shop, are intended to find what is wrong or weak so it can be fixed.

    Why not start the school year off locating strengths and letting students use those first; then introduce new challenges for them to tackle as they go forward. 

    The Harry Wong “First Days of School” model has its merits, especially for Wong in his classroom, but should it be standard operating procedure for every classroom?  It is possible to develop and establish classroom protocols and standards while doing actual learning, not in place of it.  Of course, some teachers (including my community college colleagues) tend to see the first weeks of school as a waste because students are still drifting in from the summer for various reasons. So, the cure for that is to penalize those who were there on the first week? All the more reason to make the start of school dynamic and engaging–I can see the texts and tweets now—

  • SusanGraham

    Marking time or moving forward

    Reading Renee’s comment about “best practice” reminds me that diagnosis is based on the principle that the patient arrives with something not working as it should–a deficiet model. Classroom diagnostics tell us what students can’t do. Diagnositcs may tell us whether a student knows less that our expectations, but it is rarely sophisitcated enough to tell us whether students know more than our expectations. Diagnositics only tell us what we want to know, while a student may have knowledge and skills about which we never bothered to ask.

    Spending the first two weeks on diagnosis, rituals and routines, and then reviewing the diagnosis might inform the teacher, but it also informs the student. The student learns that he is something to be acted on-a passive participant in his education. A teacher who  marks time for the first two weeks tells her students that she’s wasting their time. Good teachers start with putting students to applying what they should know to new learning, they assess for gaps, and then loop back as they move forward.


  • JoseVilson

    Using Our Time Effectively

    Thank you both for your comments. I jumped in my seat when both of you wrote a comment. Here’s why:

    The metaphors are certainly obvious between medicine and K-12 education. Unlike education, however, medicine does work from a deficit model. Educators can’t always afford that, especially with students who already feel disenfranchised by the education systems we have. Now that I think about it, doesn’t it make sense that they have similar attitudes about going to the doctor? Most of us do, but it applies so much to our most disadvantaged students because there’s always some sort of issue.

    I’ll have a post up sometime today.

  • Karen Mahon

    Best Practices

    Thanks for the post, Jose. What is interesting to me about what you’ve written is that, to me, what you have described as your process IS best practices. Being able to respond, on-the-fly, to relevant performance data and formative assessments is much more effective, instructionally, than the alternative approach you described.

    It strikes me that sometimes people get too “cookbook-y” with Best Practices. To me, Best Practices describes an approach, not a specific implementation. Best Practices means a functional approach, examining the needs of a learner (hopefully with data) and adjusting your teaching to those needs. It’s teacher experience, in combination with those formative assessment data, that allow customization of instruction according to student needs.

    Right on, Jose!




    • Sandy

      Best Practices

      Right on!! Implementation of best practices is the key!! When they are morphed into rules for teachers, they usually become worst practices! Teachers are on the front lines…best practices combined with experience and common sense…that’s what works in the classroom. 

  • StevePeterson

    Also, there’s more to knowing a learner than diagnostics

    Thanks for this piece, JosĂ©, and for the follow-up conversation. Here’s another thing that sort of bugs me about the “diagnostics” approach that you outline here.

    The approach assumes that those “data” that matter most come in hard little packets of numbers or checks on boxes, rather than as a large (and sometimes squishy) story that includes a lot of anecdotal information. I’m not against those numbers; I like ’em! But they are only one chapter in a story. I’d like to see the idea of “data” expanded out to include other really useful information.

    I’m an elementary teacher so I interact with the kids in our room A LOT. We have tons of conversations about all sorts of things. Gradually, through these conversations, I hear self-created stories by, and create my stories about, the children in the classroom. I find these to be incredibly valuable. In fact, I suspect that my entire year of teaching revolves around creating and revising these stories as I get more and more information about not just WHAT learners can do, but (crucially) HOW and WHY they do what they do.

    I’ve found these conversations to be best when they occur in lots of different circumstances, some relaxed and some in the middle of doing acadmic things. In fact, it seems the best time I’ve found to “assess” (explore) how a child is thinking is at the moment that the child is, well, actually thinking about something! So bring on normal classroom life as soon as possible. My goal in the first few weeks of school is to have as many of these quality conversations as possible, in as many different situations as possible, with as much of an active listening stance as possible.

  • Kate

    Time is precious

    I only have my students for one semester, in which I am expected to teach a year long course… so when I reimagined my curriculum to fit this, I was extra conscious that every moment counted. I always started the first day with actual learning – but now it’s even more important. Then last year I was told I had to give a pretest to my students, so that at the end of the course when they took the post test it could prove I actually taught them something. Unfortunately, I can’t get into the computer lab to give the pretest until the end of the first week! So I am expected to not teach anything until the second week, or I might skew the pre test results! Of course, I don’t want to do that, but then again, if I review scientific method (something they’ve been learning since elementary, but seem to forget every year) and they remember it for the pre test, it will affect my job and potential pay.

    So I’m left with a conundrum – do I do what I know is right and best for my students, or do I do what I’m told so the scores will make me look like a better teacher? It’s a frustrating place to be. Additionally, our pretest/post test covers the science material I teach, which for the most part will be the first time students encounter this information. It’s not old info I’m supposed to get them to recall from the depths of their memory – so with the exception of the child who purposely chose to click random answers on the post test, all of my students will show gains in knowledge. My subject is increasingly ignored, because it’s not part of how the school is judged as a whole, so I’m given more freedom than most (though less time) – but people with no understanding of science or how to teach science are making decisions and forcing “best practices” from math and english teaching on to me. It’s worse every year, and the more they tie my compliance with these practices to my pay and ability to keep my job, the harder it is to do what I know is right for my students, because I must also do what is right for my family. I never thought those two ideas would be in conflict with each other.

  • Ramona Lowe

    Best Practices vs. The Situational Nature of This Game

    What so many people don’t understand about education is that it is profoundly situational. Always. Evidence-based practices don’t transfer to all (or, sometimes, even many) classrooms. There are just too many variables. The only way to guarantee quality of instruction is to equip the teacher with resources, strategies, and the experiences to make the type of judgement calls the author describes.

    Years ago I taught with an amazing teacher who could get away with saying things that I would never dream of saying to students. And by “get away with” I mean that students didn’t take her words at face value, but were motivated and responded to her in very powerful and effective ways. (My brother was one of them–he reveres her to this day.) We are doing a great disservice to our students and our teachers by trying to standardize things. Anyone ever read the short story “Harrison Bergeron?”–we are there. 



  • StevePeterson

    One more thing…

    One more thing that I’ve been thinking about regarding this issue of “best practices” is that these words often seem to be used to close off debate, or discussion. That seemed to be the outcome from the case you mentioned in your original post. It’s been my experience, too, that when someone invokes the words “best practices” they are often not interested in continuing a conversation, but in bringing in an outside “authority” to close the conversation down. Yet, conversation about goals and processes is just what we should be having. What would that conversation have looked like if the difference in approach was acknowledged, and then actually explored as it unfolded during the first few weeks of school? Of course, that would require an inquiry stance toward the unfolding story of your different approaches, rather than an “I told you so” stance. But, who knows, maybe there could be some discovery about learning during the first few weeks of school that could have emerged from the conversation?

    I guess it’s a good post that makes me think for a few days after its written. Thanks for that.

  • samar

    Best practices and diagnostics

    I think this debate has a lot going for it. I am based in India not the United States. I am also not a teacher in a school. Having said that, I will explain how we address the problem.

    Firstly each of our students has a device which allows them to respond to  a question. Secondly we prepare our questions beforehand. Thirdly, we decide beforehand how we will analyse and represent the analysis for these responses directly after the students have responded.

    Hence, our questions are designed to explore, provide diagnostics for later analysis and most importantly, create conversations in the classroom when the analysis is presented on the projector.

    That way we can both teach and  examine. The number of questions vary but 15-20 questions per hour is not impossible. Five would be the minimum. At the end of one month it is possible to know a lot about what students know. A side effect is that students tend to be more motivated by the process.





  • Paul T. Corrigan

    Several Comments

    I was thinking of Wong as I read your piece. I’m glad someone mentioned him right away in the comments.

    I do think it’s imperitive to start off setting the tone–an active and learning tone–right away.

    I’m sad to hear something other than that be called a “best practice.” I hate to see otherwise good terms poisoned (because, why wouldn’t we want to practice what was best?).

    One thing that I think your story illustrates is how “top down” education mandates/reforms/opperating procedures do not work. Teachers have to be learn how to teach and then be allowed to teach. If the people in the classrooms are not capable of doing that, they need to be replaced not made to follow teaching prescriptions (another medical metaphor).

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

  • ReneeMoore

    Defining Terms

    As read through the other comments, it occurred to me that we often misuse the term “best practices” in education.  “Best practices” as I understand them, usually come from a body of case studies and field work that has determined what works best in similar situations most of the time. It has been deemed a “best practice” by the profession itself over time.

    Education is notorious for not passing on a systematic body of pedagogical knowledge from one generation to the next. One of the great weaknesses in our country’s teacher preparation is this lack of consistency. Not that every teacher should have only certain practices, but that we don’t take the time to deeply observe, document, reflect, analyze and develop practice.  At least not from where I sit, but then isn’t that the purpose of teacher education? Isn’t that where the research on our work is done and shouldn’t teacher educators be the logical curators of what could be called “best practices”? 

    Have I missed something, or is this what’s going on in teacher education today?