Best Practices Not Always Best: Real Goods, Ideal Bests, and 3 Potential Problems

Harvard Business Review, whose enticing, bite-sized articles I get referred to through my Twitter feed, published a post yesterday which my recent experience compelled me to read:  Why Best Practices Are Hard To Practice.  Lately, I have been struck by how often we invoke that jargon  of "best practices" in higher education, particularly at conferences, during workshops, and in education theory literature.

We also throw about other similarly popular buzz-words:  Take "high-impact practices." As part of an FSU team detailed to study and gather information on these last Spring, I traveled to the Association of American Colleges and Universities conference on Faculty Roles in High-Impact Practices (HIPs)  It was eye-opening, to say the least, for a philosopher who, focused on scholarship and teaching within my discipline admittedly devoted little attention  to scholarship of teaching and learning until immersing myself in it at FSU.

As it turned out, many of the educational strategies we were already doing some work with fell into that category of HIPs.  We involve our first year students in Learning Communities.  We have brought in guest speakers to provide workshops on Inquiry-Guided Learning and the closely related Problem-Based Learning. We have invested heavily in CLA in the Classroom.  Through Title III, we've established excellent programs in Writing Across the Curriculum, Reading Across the Curriculum, and the Chesnutt Library Fellowships which focus on Information Literacy. Once Service Learning became a priority, our Center For Community Justice took on three new words and a new role, becoming the CCJSL.  We have a Chancellor's Reading Club, which has all of the incoming Freshmen read and discuss a common book.  A program was even established linking faculty mentors with budding student scholars, the objects of which were to produce a work of undergraduate-level scholarship and to introduce the student to how real scholarship is done in the field.  With the exception of RAC, I've been involved in every one of these, with notably mixed successes and failures, whose narratives I'll defer to later posts.

Success. . .  That is what "High Impact Practices" are ultimately about, aimed at, and judged by -- or at least they should be.  Likewise for the broader, fuzzier set of "Best Practices."  Interestingly -- and really not surprisingly -- the main criteria for success also end up being components of the path or means to that success as well.  For educational practices, two main measures are:

Engagement:  are you "reaching" the students?  are the students actively involved?  do they feel they have a stake in the learning?  do they want to be involved in and continue their learning in the subject and the field?

Student Learning:  are the students actually learning?  is their performance meeting the student learning outcomes for the class?  are they acquiring and developing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need not only in this class, but as they progress through and continue their education, and then transition to the workplace?

The Best and the Good
There is an old (and for some people counter-intuitive) maxim (cited by Voltaire, as coming from "un sage Italien"):  "The best is the enemy of the good."  That can become the case in the pursuit and implementation of "best practices."  And, now, I'm going to get all Aristotelian on your . . .  (as well as trademarking that philosogeeky homage to the famous Pulp Fiction line). . . well, here, minds.

One key occupation of ancient and medieval philosophy was thinking long and deeply about the myriad sorts of good and bad things experienced and desirable, produced and electable, in human existence.  The goal was not only to get oneself clear about various goods and their respective valuations in relation to each other, but also -- among many other things -- four other matters.

One is grasping which goods are merely instrumental means, but necessary means, for other more desirable good.

A second is discerning how and accepting the fact that genuine goods may come into real conflict, excluding each other as realizable possibilities in actuality.

The third is understanding not only what the right ordering and understanding of goods relative to each other is, but also the variety of mistaken, mixed-up, imagination- or desire-seduced, blindered and broken, too-simple or so-unduly-complex-as-to-preclude-decisions alternative perspectives on the good.

The fourth, the keystone to the whole edifice, is being able to see what goods are actually present, preservable, producible, pursueable, realizable, in a given determinate situation.  This is what the Greeks called phronesis, the Latins prudentia, and which we translate sometimes as "practical wisdom," "prudence," or "good judgement"

All of these considerations come to bear in understanding how the best can actually -- and often -- be the enemy of the good.  As it generally turns out, the "best" is sometimes not actually the best, but only what appears so to people pushing it.  Or, they fail to see that implementing the genuine "best" in a given real and problematic situation demands sacrificing valuable goods already possessed.  Sometimes, this demand for the best even undermines goods that must be in place, supporting the best as a necessary condition for its existence. Interestingly, it is when one is far from the best that the best can most exert its dangerous allure, and when hardheaded attention to the real goods at stake is most required.

3 Potential Problems
How does the best become the enemy of the good in determinate situations?

1) Best Practices in Real Situations Require Good Judgment:
The HBR blog post cautioned about two potential problems, summarizing them as "lack of adaptation" and "lack of adoption."  When adapting best practices -- which come from elsewhere -- one has to consider the differences between the initial situation and the situation into which one aims to import a new or modified practice. Best educational practices often come from successful institutions, often possessed of more resources, less instititional roadblocks to innovation, students more capable of the work required or readier to be engaged, and faculty with less or at least better managed demands on their available time.  Failing to take account of such situational differences often translates into unrealistic (i.e. purely imaginary) expectations about the impact the new "best practice" (which may indeed not be best for the situation) will -- or even can -- have.  A closely related danger is underrating the amount of work, effort, thought and innovation that adaptation of a best practice may turn out to require

Adaptation is a matter of the professor-practitioner exercising well-developed good judgment about the realistic prospects, demands, and criteria for success of the best practice and the goods at stake or required. Adoption, as the blog post discusses it, is a matter of the higher-ups fully recognizing and supporting adaptation of best practices.  I would argue that it is not just a matter of administration encouraging and supporting faculty to adopt educational strategies, because this positive stance itself can be taken poorly or well, thoughtlessly or thoughtfully, with overly idealistic hopes and no real accountability measures or with deliberate and consistently maintained focus.  Instead of -- or at least in addition to -- being cheerleaders for HIPs as innovations within the university, administrators (who wield considerable influence in the culture of the institution) ought to critically assess and communicate their judgment whether these "best practices" really are best in the context of their institution. 

2) Many Good Practices are Required for Best Practices.
It is all too often forgotten that in order for best practices to be introduced and have any prospect of working, a whole host of good practices, supportive but often taken for granted, need to be in place.  Lacking those lesser instrumentally necessary goods -- i.e. not as good as the "best" -- the promise of the best cannot be realized in practice, however much it may be already in imagination. The thorny (and much larger -- so I'm going to oversimplify) issue of student engagement provides an excellent example.

One of the criteria for whether some educational strategy is a HIP is whether it is "engaging" for the students. This is precisely why they are advocated and eagerly adopted as best educational practices.  Engagement on students' part is an avowed good, needed in order for full potentialities of education to be unlocked in and out of the classroom through one's courses, so incorporation of best, i.e. HIP should bring this about.  Well, not exactly, because as it turns out, for students to become engaged in these practices, which do make demands on the students, several other good things are required, as I've found out through experiments attempting  to incorporate them into my entry-level, required Critical Thinking class.

First of all, students have to possess certain habits that are so basic and fundamental that the term "skill" seems out of place for them.  Lacking these, the entire "engagement" and "best practices" game is up.  Showing up on time, at least minimally prepared, handing in work on time, actually done according to all of the instructions, managing one's time well enough to devote some time to at least passing one's eyes over the textbook pages assigned -- I exhort my students to do these, but many of them simply don't do them, and worse don't see anything really wrong or even counterproductive to not doing them.  Given these deficits, best educational practices risk degenerating into just another set of tasks to muddle through partway.  The equivalent in the business workplace is the "work ethic" which employers place at the top of their desire lists (along with Critical Thinking).

Second, before students can do much of anything in a class they have to develop the basic knowledge, skills, and dispositions germane to and traditionally focused on in that class.  With very few exceptions, students come to college with almost no thematic treatment of Critical Thinking concepts, distinctions, or skills from their secondary education.  In order to do well in college, they need those skills.  But, adapting HIPs in a CT class is risky. Even with careful planning adapted to the real levels of our students, taking into account the lesser, limited, but instrumentally necessary goods they bring to the table when they enter the class and those which adequately prepared and working students ought to be acquiring in the course of the class, these may not be enough for the innovative, on its surface seemingly more engaging, educational strategy to work.

The real test whether an educational practice worked is not whether the students enjoyed it more than the traditional class structure and activities.  It is not whether the students seemed more engaged.  It is not even the rather limited though still meaningful data we do collect and provide about the application of the HIPs.  The true test of the effectiveness of these HIPS, whether they are "best practices" in name, in imagination, in institutional reports alone, or whether they are so in reality is whether students emerge from the class with a significantly improved, lastingly durable basis of core knowledge, skills, and dispositions which equip them for higher-order and even more intense application of those acquisitions in their major disciplines, in the workplace, or in within the wider ambits of their lives, relationships, and communities.

One might make the strong case -- which I'm not doing here, but only suggesting -- that in lower-level foundational classes, perhaps only a few best educational practices should be brought in.  Or perhaps even none. Perhaps the focus should be on developing all those lesser, realizable goods which will be demanded by other, later, higher-level classes implementing educational best practices.  If it didn't risk linguistic confusion, we might even call that a "best practice," the practice of deferring the best until all of the necessary instrumental goods have been attained.

3) Best Practices can Displace Good Practices.
Given the length of this post so far, I'm going to cut this short, and eschew any argument or explanation in favor of short, punchy, perhaps provocative assertions. 

Practices never exist in a vacuum.  Advocating and adding new practices, particularly if it is not done in a thoughtful way careful to integrate new practices into the matrix of older ones, can be damaging to or displace the older ones which turn out in retrospect, while not to be the best, to have been quite good. Consistently good practices have to be continually recognized, rather than relegated to what is merely expected, or even worse disparagingly written off.

As examples I'd point to the near constant chorus of dogmatic assertions that traditional lecture and discussion ("chalk and talk") has no merits in comparison to HIPs. If good lecture and discussion -- an actuality and a key arrow in many great educators' quivers --  supplemented by judicious incorporation of HIP "best practices" turns out to be more appropriate for our beginning students -- or if it turns out that high-stakes comprehensive tests (with study guides provided) turn out to better motivate our entering freshmen to study and practice the material than does Integrated Course Design, then demanding "best practices" replace good ones turns out to be a quixotic stance.

One might respond by saying that this is a false dilemma.  We can have it all. Its just a matter of carefully integrating all of these together.  No.  Not here, we can't -- and in most schools and workplaces one can't--  because there is one last factor which I have not even started to address:  Time.