Monday, February 09, 2009

The Myth of "Best Practices"

I get lots of requests for lists of "best practices" e-learning, in the virtual classroom, in instructional design, in classroom presentation. Here's the deal: there's no such thing. A "best practice" is best only in the precise, specific context in which it exists. I don't recall who first offered this analogy, but think of it this way: what works in my marriage won't necessarily work in -- and may even damage -- yours. Even if moved from one situation to another very close one, the odds of transfer being made with practice intact is nil.

In education they call this a problem with "fidelity": one teacher writes a fabulously effective lesson plan and shares it with her friends. They each decide to 'adapt' it in a slightly different way to suit some unique need of their students. It is no longer the practice that was supposedly "best". Of course then, when the end users don't get the desired outcome, they say it's isn't their fault...because after all, they were using "best practices".

So how do we address those who pressure us to produce a list of, or abide by, "best" practices?

[Update: I ran into a great visual example of the problem of fidelity in best practices. Check out the update.]


Anonymous said...

"Best practice" is an overused phrase, like "world-class," "war room," and "e-" in front of perfectly harmless nouns. Sadly, there isn't much mileage in trying to change people's terminology.

With peers and with clients who have some sense of humor, I prefer "better" practice, deliberately noting that our situation isn't the same as that at Amalgamated Flange and Berm.

One of the positive aspects of six sigma during my time at GE was that it encouraged the collection of data and the monitoring of results. So, you can avoid tomato/tomahto (or apple/orange) by spelling out what Allison Rossett calls the actuals and optimals, and how you think the proposed practice will make a difference.

And once you start the practice part, there's data.

"So after we tried streaming video, the time-in-course increased 200%, and the completion rate dropped to 25%?"

Don Bolen said...

Leading practice is a good term. Allows for trying approaches from other organizations. Before adapting a "leading" practice, be sure to list the caveats so the requester understands: mileage may vary, batteries not included...

Anonymous said...

I have used the term "best practice" as a level of evidence designation when speaking about evidence-based programs. 1. Strong evidence would be experimental evidence across multiple studies and settings, 2. weak evidence as experimental support with only one or two settings (Like many six sigma examples) and 3. best practice as empirical evidence from case studies or other inductive methods. Without a clear definition, however, it cou;d be confusing. By-the-way, even strong evidence does not mean you should accept another practice uncritically.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Jane

I agree with Dave on the use of the term 'best practice' and (@Don-) I would tend to avoid re-inventing another term to cover the same meaning - that only makes matters worse because even more people won't know what you're talking about.

But first, you must define what's meant by 'best practice'.

You have covered a range of different issues in your post, Jane. The 'what-works-for-one-teacher-doesn't-work-for-another' is what is identifiable through 'action research'. There is a falacious tendency to put action research results into 'best practice'. It simply doesn't work, for similar reasons as tactics for navigating a submarine would not work for someone navigating an aircraft.

A more useful way to look on 'best practice' is more to do with procedural aspects rather than specific pedagogical tactics or strategies. I think this is what Dave was describing.

For instance, it may be useful to define what is best practice in a procedure to embed a Youtube video in a BlackBoard page when appropriate, than it is to say, use this YouTube video when teaching that bit of the curriculum.

The fact that viewing a YouTube video doesn't always get the message across to all learners knocks out the usefulness of putting this into a 'best practice'.

In elearning especially, 'best practice' defined the way I'm attempting to draft it is more useful.

The thing that gets me, is the so-called best practice that has never been properly tried and yet is written into a so-called 'best practice', for whatever purpose.

Best Practice comes from experiences of putting action into practice that results in success. If it is found that even a pedagogical strategy seems to fit the majority of situations and works well, then it could become part of what's considered 'best practice'. But I'd still be wary of doing this.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth

Jane Bozarth said...

Interesting that this topic has generated so many comments. One phenomenon I've seen, and it's confirmed by some of the ideas here, is that the organization blames the 'best' practice for a failure: "Well, we used the best practices (but no they really didn't) and it didn't work so it's not our fault."

Kathy said...

Perhaps the definition of "best practice" needs refining. Best practice is never a "one size fits all" and should not be approached that way. What is "best practice" in one classroom (virtually or not) may not be best practice in another.

Teaching should have an ultimate goal of doing what is best (what works) for the student, not doing what is the popular or current teaching fad despite the effect on students.

Sreya Dutta said...

I agree Jane, best practices will exist only in more specific contexts and not at a level of elearning.



I was listening to a Finnish future researcher Jari Koskinen (Finland Futures Research Centre at the Turku School of Economics) at the end of last year in a conference, and he gave an interesting viewpoint for the 'best practices' issue. In his opinion, best practices represent something quite static and already outdated. When the rest are applying the best practices (something that the forerunners have invented a while ago), at that point of time the forerunners are already far away, looking to the future :)

Sreya Dutta said...

Hi Jane, i would request you to let me know your thoughts on my post on Best Practices and Design Patterns


. said...

Some tend to use the term "good practice", which does not give any guarantees and even prompts the adopter to look for ways of improving and adapting it, as well as avoiding the absolutism of "best".
The use of the term, due to its echo of the more familiar term "best practice", also tends to provoke useful conversations and reflection.

Anthony (Tony) V. Manzo said...

Of course there are Best Practices. What we have lacked are two developments fundamental to all science-engineering and operational terms: 1) time and energy in design of something of an algorithm for identifying Good, Better and Best Practices; and, 2) a dynamic & ongoing means of recording & recoding situational modifications and variants on such practices so as to keep them fresh and regulated, i.e., straying from their primary active ingredients. There can be no such thing as Teacher Education and therefore Professional Education without this step. Schools of Education could be charged with malpractice for failure to move the industry just this far. See an effort to this at:
Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D.
Cognitive Psychologist and Literacy Specialist

Jane Bozarth said...

Hi, Anthony, sorry, afraid I don't agree. See my original comments. A "best practice" may exist in one context, but it won't be "best" in another. I'd say this is particularly true for schools/teaching/instruction, notorious for lack of fidelity to any idea or practice, no matter how good, better, right, ok, best, mediocre, tame, wild...

Jason Willensky said...

I like the idea best practice when learners are encouraged help develop them, post-training.

Example: Tasked with developing an EMR curriculum with inadequate time, my team took an "identified practice" approach to initial training. The software, however, featured many different paths to achieve a desired result and touched many workloads. It was clear (in training) we had to provide a single way to simulate, but it was also clear learners would figure out better and more efficient ways to do things.

Learners were given a gently-moderated space on the hospital internet, and their follow up was discussed, practiced, and integrated into future training.

Joe Kirby said...

There seems to be some basic confusion on this topic. A "best practice" is a method or procedure, NOT a result.

A lesson plan is a result, so it will always be context sensitive and never be a practice. The method used to create the plan is the practice.

As an example, Cathy Moore did this cool graphic novel elearning for military personnel. She used good analysis and design to select this particular format. In other words she used best practices.

The result was elearning that worked for her audience in their situation. However the course was not the best practice, the method was the best practice.

Jane Bozarth said...

Isn't the whole idea that following the procedure will generate the result? Isn't that why people follow the practice? If not, you've just made one more excellent argument against trying to capture them.

Unknown said...

I think the point Joe makes is that if best practices define procedures, then you should expect the same result every time. If they define processes, however, then best practices can result in different - but equally good - results.

Imagine you and I are both looking for a new car. We follow the same process of researching safety, fuel economy and more, list our needs for the vehicle to ensure the one we buy matches them, negotiate price with dealers, etc. In the end, though, we each buy a different car.

We each followed the best practice to ensure the proper car was bought, but we attained a different result. This doesn't indicate that the practice failed or was useless, since we are both better off than they guy who wandered onto a lot and paid full asking price for the first car he saw.

Jane Bozarth said...

I didn't follow those practices when I bought either of my last 2 cars. (Pretty much I wanted a convertible with a back seat for the dog, so Miata etc was out.) Of the 2 cars the first ended up with over 200,000 miles on it. The current one seems to be fine. I bought it on the internet sight unseed except for a photo. So how is yours 'best'? Maybe mine's better.

Jane Bozarth said...

This is starting to sound like one of the million conversations about the myth of "learning styles". At least there's money in that one -- the bounty is up to $5000 now. See:

Joe Kirby said...

I don’t think you’re getting what I trying to say about best practices. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the terminology has be corrupted by popular use.
Here is a link about best practices.
My point is a best practice creates results that can be reproduced by others who follow the same practice. In the field of instructional design, ADDIE is a best practice because it produces good training.
Using Learning Styles to design training is not a best practice because it does NOT produce good training and is therefore bogus.
Joe Kirby

Charles Jennings said...

It is impossible to have 'best practices' in anything other than a simple system, ordered systems. Dave Snowden explains this clearly in his Cynefin framework (pronounced 'kenevin' - it's a Welsh word).

If you're interested, Snowden also applies the model's 3 systems - ordered, complex and chaotic - to organising a children's birthday party :)

Jane Bozarth said...

"Once you start the practice part, there's data." Nice!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Jane

It's been a long time but I stand by my original comment and I see that others seem to echo the principles contained in it. What amazes me about any attempt to define 'best practice' is that there seems to be an almost deliberate move to keep it open and as vague as possible so that it can be used in the context of whatever happens to be the flavour of the month. Frankly, I'd be happier to use the term 'the flavour of the month'. At least it would be honest.

Best wishes from Middle-earth