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MSPnet Blog: “Research&Practice: “Best practices””

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posted March 28, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

I have continued to read and think/worry about “competency-based education,” which is gaining a lot of rhetorical momentum, and also some actual policy momentum, as it is being adopted at least as a goal in several states, is advocated by the US Dept of Education (for example in the 2016 National Ed Tech Plan), ALEC  (see their model education bill here), and numerous other edu-voices, commercial (e.g. Pearson) and not (e.g.

Note:  By tracing many many links you can find that several key terms are linked, and serve as indicators that you are in Competency Country, for example, “personlized learning,” “anytime anywhere,” “mastery,” and (increasingly) “agency,” as in “learners should have the opportunity to develop a sense of agency in their learning and the belief that they are capable of succeeding in school.”  (here in the US ed tech plan).  Note that “agency” mostly means, in this rhetoric (I use the term technically),  that the student is moving along a progression, and gets to make some choices about the pace of learning, and the use of some tools or resources. It means agency in the same way that some young-adult books allow the reader to choose among a few possible narrative paths.

Well, while traveling through this realm of, well, not gold, perhaps brass (sorry, Keats!), I found myself at the National Center for Teacher Quality, a curious little area in Ed Land.  They have recently emitted a document, “Learning about learning.”  This work is based upon an examination of teacher training  (their preferred word) courses and texts.  They conclude:

The transfer of knowledge — from researchers to publishers to teacher educators to aspiring teachers — is not happening while the need to impart it has never been more urgent.

In practice, what does that mean for aspiring teachers?  First, they’re wasting a lot of money. Each teacher candidate likely will buy at least one often- pricey book for their ed psych course and another for their methods course, leading to upwards of $40 million in total spending by each year’s crop of new teachers.1But far more important, when teachers aren’t trained well, they try to learn on the job — by guessing in the classroom. Being unprepared can overwhelm and even defeat novice teachers at the moment they’re most vulnerable. Students are the losers.

The antidote, of course, is that teacher candidates should learn research-proven instructional strategies in their textbooks and practice them — again and again — during their training.

So they claim that there are 6 strategies that “work” with all learners, especially struggling students.  The magic 6 are:

1.Pairing graphics with words.
2. Linking abstract concepts with concrete presentations
3. Posing probing questions like “Why? What if?  How do you know?”
4. Repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions provided, and problems that students must solve.
5.  Distributing practice.  (they explain, “Students should practice material several times after learning it, with each practice or review separated by weeks and even months.”)
6. Assessing to boost retention.

If only this knowledge had been transferred to teachers during training! American education would have been excellent, and we would once again become Top Nation.   I had no idea the answer had been worked out so completely.  Other people have read this remarkable effusion as well, and critiqued it more rigorously than I care to;  I recommend the NEPC review here.

This may seem like a side-track, but one of the themes that keeps surfacing in the policy-advocacy world is claims about Best Practices.  It has gotten to the point that, when I read this phrase, I suspect someone is trying to sell me something.

Take, for example, this from Questar, a company that has been hired by  New York to develop and implement assessments.  They are eager to improve schools, and know just how to do it, by “reimagining the classroom experience.”  In order to explain their approach, they take the time-honored route of setting up the Sage on the State Straw-Teacher, in order to contrast it with 21st century pedagogy.  Well, not pedagogy, really…something.

Most educators agree that the current lecture-style approach to teaching is flawed. Almost all classrooms remain stuck in the same centuries-old paradigm of one-to-many instruction: a lone teacher lecturing to a classroom filled with 30 or more students. Admittedly, there are some benefits of the lecture paradigm…. In general, though, this approach limits the teacher’s ability to adapt his or her classroom to meet a number of 21st century teaching needs such as individualized and personalized instruction, personalized learning, competency-based grouping and progression, seamless blending of instruction and assessment, and timely impact of assessment results to affect instruction.

While all of these best practices are widely thought to enhance student learning, individually they each present their own set of implementation challenges…

Apparently, best practices require that every student have a tablet computer.  This will allow data to be collected continuously from all students, with the result that “real time data, when aggregated across an entire district, can also reduce or eliminate the need for district benchmark tests.”  Also end-of-chapter tests, or (I extrapolate) any classroom-centered evaluation by a teacher who knows the children. Children will be ability grouped, not grouped by age (in each subject, presumably).

All this fits in perfectly with the competency-based approach, which in turn seems nicely designed as an implementation of the Standards, with all their carefully numbered and lettered entries.  Aggregate the mastery nuggets (I mean, competencies), and you have a course of study.  Disaggregate them, and you have dozens of little learning objects to tackle, anytime, anywhere, at any pace.    Quester ends its overview with a little uplift, from,well, here:

To paraphrase Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, we must be “willing to lose sight of the shore” and make uncomfortable changes to make a significant leap forward in education.

Why does all this feel like capitalistic differentiation?  This whole approach feels like “best practices” for some technics or other, but not for education as I recognize it.  The deep embeddedness of this thinking in policy and in various markets means that a coherent world view is taking shape, partly by design and partly by implicit shifts in attitudes and values.  Somehow, “best practices” and “research-driven” are key words of authority in this rhetoric.  High time for each of us to think carefully about what “best” means and how we discern it — and enter the debate.