When ‘best’ is the worst: the problem with ‘best practice’

If I had a fiver for every time I’d heard the phrase ‘share best practice’ used in my teaching career so far, I could probably have retired by now. Policies, SEFs, staff meetings and action plans are so liberally seasoned with those words that you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all we do as a staff. Yet, in my experience, it very rarely actually happens.

The problem is that it’s impossible to pin down what actually constitutes ‘best practice’. One of the rare occasions I can recall an attempt to share ‘best practice’ was in a whole school marking moderation meeting. The class books of an MFL teacher were passed around for us all to see exemplary dialogic triple marking. ‘This is the level of detail our pupils deserve; this is what outstanding looks like’ was the implicit message. Never a mention of the fact that these books were from the GCSE Spanish class which comprised just three pupils, nor that this particular teacher was on 25% PPA.

The point is that ‘nothing works everywhere’ as Dylan Wiliam points out. Every country, every school, indeed every classroom is a different context. What works well for me in my classroom, can’t be just replicated for the class next door. One teacher gives up their break time to painstakingly write individualised comments in every child’s reading journal. Their colleague uses break time to update the centralised pastoral records for the children with behaviour plans. A third colleague waits in line at the tuck shop and wonders if they’ll have time to get to the bathroom before the end of break. A fourth colleague goes to the staff room to check their pigeon hole and sit down with a cup of tea. Four different contexts, four different choices. If the first teacher’s reading journals become the ‘WAGOLL’ for a future staff meeting, what judgement does that make on the choices their colleagues made?

Individualised target cards – the many-headed monster that never seems to die. A terrible hangover from OFSTED many moons ago, when apparently ‘best practice’ was for every child to know what the ‘next step in their learning’ was – read: teachers must write down for each child what the ‘next step in their learning’ is. I have worked in three different schools so far and every year there’s some form of discussion over individualised target cards. I have yet to see them in any form that is either manageable from an admin side or effective from a learning side.

In one of my first years of teaching, I devised a sort of flap-out panel made from a poly pocket that could house a child’s writing target card stapled to the cover of their English books. Management went wild and immediately made everybody replicate this system. It didn’t take long for me to realise my target cards were neither simple to administer nor having the desired impact on learning – yet the ship had sailed and colleagues were working overtime slicing up poly pockets and firing up the laminators. Predictably for the time, inspectors loved the flap-out target cards and recommended the system be extended to other subject areas. Thinking of all the extra work my ‘best practice’ caused to colleagues for probably zero gain is still embarrassing to this day.

Luckily the sensible notion that the next step is the next lesson (as determined by the responsive teacher based on the needs of the class) is gaining traction – however individualised target cards keep popping up like some anachronistic whack-a-mole in the arcade of  lazy management. Having your ‘target’ written on a piece of paper, or laminated rocket reaching to the stars, is no more likely to help you achieve them than not. To paraphrase Dylan Wiliam – if they knew how to do it, they would have done it. Gaps exist because children haven’t learned something – their long term memory hasn’t adapted to accommodate and store that knowledge within the relevant schema. They need to learn it again. They need to see it modelled again. They need time to practise it again. And again. Writing the thing that hasn’t been learned on a card and handing it to the child just seems desperately unfair. It’s basically saying: ‘you’ve been taught this thing, but you haven’t learned it yet – it’s now your responsibility’.

Learning is hard and takes a lot longer than we either think it does or have time for under the current constraints of the national curriculum.  It’s folly to think we can teach and reliably assess deep learning of the curriculum content we deliver in any particular year group. We’re more likely to get some sort of reliable stab at assessing what’s been learned from the year(s) before. ‘But the gaps! Mind the gaps! We must analyse the gaps! For God’s sake, close the bloody gaps!’ The more I learn about how we learn – how we forget, how we remember – the more I know that even the most diligent, self-sacrificing, objective-tracking obsessive among us will never, ever close the gaps. Aiming for the majority of children to be working above average is simply a statistically illiterate goal.

With so many demands on a teacher’s time and so many choices to be made every moment of every day, how is a teacher supposed to hit on the choices deemed ‘best’? Because if there’s one thing I know for sure after 10 years teaching in three different schools, it’s that the rarest thing you’ll find in a school is a teacher who doesn’t want to do what’s ‘best’. It’s possibly the one thing we’ve got in common in the profession. We might not share the same pedagogy, philosophy or classroom management style, but we can be sure we’re all turning up day in day out hoping we’re going to do the best we can. In teaching, we are acutely aware that this lesson, this day is the one shot the children in front of us will get at it. That’s a huge responsibility and we take it on gladly because we are passionate about educating young people. But how can we know what is ‘best practice’?

Instead of the tedious lip service paid to the pursuit of this impossible goal, why don’t we spend some energy streamlining a shared vision of what we all agree ‘good practice’ in our context involves. This requires leadership to have a very clear understanding of what needs to be ‘tight’ in the school and what areas can be ‘loose’. Shared language, procedures and common approaches – where necessary – must be unambiguous and consistently and collectively reinforced. Leadership are responsible for ensuring no mixed messages are sent out. If the policy states that feedback is most effective in the moment, don’t then start highlighting one teacher’s rainbow-coloured comment-based marking. If the statutory requirements of the National Curriculum are your school’s stated offering, don’t impact learning time by encouraging whole days given up to tenuously –linked hook days and tweetable pinterest activities. Everyone needs to feel like their work is noticed and appreciated. If leadership only show up and recognise teachers’ efforts when something out of the ordinary is happening, then the ‘ordinary’ may well start slipping away.

It’s in the tedious, hum-drum, day-in day-out ordinary choices teachers make that good practice really develops. Choices like revisiting number bonds to 100 even though the other class has moved on to telling the time; sitting back down and lining up again because the first time wasn’t up to your expectations; holding them on the carpet for one more worked example; prioritising finishing the class novel by the end of term even though the timetable is pushing in from all sides. These are the choices that develop practice from novice to expert class teacher. These are the things that need to be highlighted and talked about as a staff – not because they’re ‘best practice’- but because they work. And that’s what will truly make the difference.  

Published by teachertaylors

Primary teacher in an international British curriculum school.

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