Best Practice Simplified

At the EduCon 2.1 conference in Philadelphia, late this January, I came across the most profound, succinct, and employable explanation of “best practice” that I have ever seen.  I would like to make the argument that if all teachers in our schools employed this simple model, education would be revolutionized in this country.  On posters throughout one of Philadelphia’s top public schools, the Science Leadership Academy, were the following five core values, constituting what I see as the best roadmap to best practice that I have seen:  Inquiry; Research; Collaboration; Presentation; Reflection.

So often our courses focus too much on the acquisition of “important” facts” and  not enough on how to solve problems in an educated way.  I have met more than a few biology teachers who talk with pride about the way their students know all of the intermediate steps of glycolysis, and I would argue that this may not be the best use of either the teacher’s or the students’ time.  If you surveyed 100 successful adults, from custodians to theoretical physicists, and asked them whether, in the last month, they had to know any of the biochemical interactions of photosynthesis, I can not imagine one of them answering “yes”.  If you asked the same group of people whether, in the last month, they have had to collaborate, research, present, and/or solve a problem, I would be surprised if a single one of them said they had not.  If the second set of skills are the ones that successful people in all walks of life are using all of the time, would it not be best if our educational system was centered on applying those skills to our content areas, instead of trying to get as many students to understand as many facts about the content we teach?  We can argue all day about the “essential” facts within our content area, but how easily can we argue about whether students need to be able to generate their own questions, research the question, collaborate, present their understanding, and then reflect over what was learn and what else can be learned?  These are skills we use on a daily basis, and skills that can be greatly improved when they are made a daily part of the lives of our students.

Right or wrong, my litmus test for professional development is to ask whether what I have learned can be applied on Monday.  Too often with professional development, this is not the case.  With these five core values, though, it has been different.  When I returned to school from the conference on Monday, I was able to make immediate changes.  Instead of going over a homework assignment with me in the front of the class leading the review, I asked various students to go up to the whiteboard to show how to answer various questions.  Voila!  Presentation!  For work that I would typically have the students do alone, I have focused more on having students work on assignments in groups, which facilitates both collaboration and presentation for the students.  Now with various activities and tests, I ask the students to write a reflection over the experience.  “Were you satisfied with your results on the Mitosis/Meiosis Exam?  Why or why not.  Explain.”  In my Kansas Natural History class, my students have always conducted Land Use Interviews outside of class, concerning the way that people interact with land today versus 40 or 50 years ago.  This year, however, I decided to invite to our school several residents from a local retirement home to be interviewed by my students.  Perhaps I should not have been, but I was SHOCKED when I saw how enthralled my students were with the people they were interviewing.   The residents had a wonderful experience as well, and now I will be inviting these residents back so my students can present their new understandings from the interviews they conducted.  Adding this level of presentation made things so much more real for the students, and it also serves to make members of the community more aware of what we do.  We want taxpayers to collaborate with us in funding education, but we rarely bring them in and make them a part of what we do.  I argue that having students present to and/or collaborate with a wide variety of community members, on a regular basis and in a wide variety of content areas, would do more for education funding than any conceivably high set of standardized test scores that could be posted in the newspaper.  For me, this model has been proving itself no less than transformative, because it uses my content area as a means for my students to improve their proficiencies in valuable skills found in the core values, rather than an end in and of itself.  The best part from my side is that, to incorporate it, I only have to analyze my lessons through the lens of five simple core values.

One thing I am noticing with this model, however, is that students often do not like it.  They actually prefer to have facts spoon fed to them because they are a product of the system that is educating them.  It is harder to ask questions (inquiry) than it is for the questions to be assumed and the answers given to you.  All too often, we have taken kids from four-year-olds who are constantly asking “how” and “why”, to young adults who think that all of the interesting questions have already been asked and all of the important facts are already known.  There is not a knowledgeable researcher in any field who thinks this is the case.  When you ask students to ask questions about what is going on in a drop of pond water, they ask, “what do you want me to ask?”  When you ask students to reflect on their experience in the previous unit, they ask, “what do you want me to talk about?”  This frustrates teachers, but it should not because the students are only doing what they have been taught.  I believe there is a better way of educating students from kindergarten through high school by focusing heavily on these core values, a way that could make those types of questions the exception rather than the norm.

My last thought on these core values is that they should be used as a model for teacher professional development as well.  We, as teachers, know in which areas our students are weak, and professional development time should be used for teachers to bring to light these areas (inquiry); study ways they can be addressed (research); talk with each other, community members, and other experts about solving the problem(s) (collaboration); present our findings to each other, administrators, school boards, and legislators (presentation); and then evaluate the success of the plan (reflection).  I believe that coupling these core values with continued learning in our content areas (teacher knowledge of content being a key constituent in quality teaching) would be the most useful, beneficial, and enriching professional development that most of us will have ever experienced.

Thanks for allowing me this time to reflect.  If you would like to collaborate, I would love to delve further into this issue.  If we discover anything great, maybe our inquiry will lead us to new, exciting questions or maybe we could present something we discover at a conference someday.



2 thoughts on “Best Practice Simplified”

  1. I agree totally. We focus on “benchmarks” in my district. Chunks of facts. And of course we are working to incorporate inquiry but with 28 small exams in our semester long 90 minute per day class, it’s hard at times. I’ve begun to realize this year (my third year teaching) that labs teach so much more than I can. Group work, sometimes they pick their partner sometimes they don’t. Organization, awareness of others. Instant requirement to work on the social skills. Locating and understanding tools, cleaning up your mess, both skills any boss wants for a worker at their company. A chance to be physically engaged, in an otherwise endless day of sitting for 90 minute chunks. And each lab we do gives the students a memory that is stronger, that we can all recall together and relate to any current relevant content. Some kids resist, but generally they love it. I like to draw out the lab before we start, an idea I got from another teacher. There’s another life lesson. Planning! Breaking things down into steps!

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