What, forget about best practices?

I was surprised when I read the article entitled: “Forget About Blended Learning Best Practices” written by Michael Horn and Heather Staker from the Innosight Institute.  No doubt that the use of blended and online teaching and learning is increasing in both K-12 and higher education but I don’t think we should forget about the importance of “best practices.”  They wrote:

Simply following the guidance of best practices won’t help schools get the best results for their students. The reason is simple.

Best practices take the attributes of what good organizations do and assume that they are the causal reason for their success. But what works well in one circumstance might not work in another. For example, centuries ago, would-be aviators observed that most animals that flew well had wings and feathers. But when humans made wings with feathers for themselves, the results were dire.

I think that best practices develop before theories, and that research causes best practices to be refined. Once research and reports are written that identify these best practices, then the practitioner applies these, which, in turn, leads to better understanding and practice.  Throughout history, people in all walks of life and in all professions have tested out theories and ideas gleaned from others – often called “best practices.”  Any new idea or innovation has to be tested out in the process of development to allow the best practices to emerge.  This especially takes place in teaching – from preschool through college – to test out and try different strategies, concepts, tools, or practices that improve the craft of teaching.  Even in the analogy of humans learning to fly, there were humans that had to create wings and try out the idea of flying like birds before theories were developed and airplanes were invented. And teaching is a lot more complicated and challenging than learning to fly.   The authors then suggested:

Perhaps the best advice for educators is to take best practices with a grain of salt. Keep innovating to serve students, and do what works best for your specific circumstance.

Doesn’t “innovating to serve students” mean to identify best practices, customize them and put them into action?  I think we do want all teachers to learn from best practices and to apply those best practices that have been tested by others.  In  the world of online/blended teaching, these would be strategies that have developed around the effective use of online discussion boards, the importance of communication, how course design impacts online course success and many other components.  In addition, it is from best practices that standards emerge such as iNacol’s standards for the teaching profession.

The authors seem to suggest in this article that what is important is to identify one type of blended learning model and that by implementing this model, that it will move effective blended learning forward and increase the chances for success.  However, it is important to remember that in every case, it is the teacher who makes the difference.  For face-to-face teachers to transform to outstanding blended or online teachers they need not just models, but also scaffolds, guidance and best practices to test and use in refining their craft.  For blended and online learning to be effective, there is so much more than simply putting students on computers for 1/3 of a day or rotating through stations that include the use of technology.  And, it all starts with teacher knowledge, teacher learning, teacher passion, and teachers connecting with students.

3 Responses to “What, forget about best practices?”


  1. 1 Brian Bridges March 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Sure, pick a fight with my heros.

    Michael and Heather weren’t saying that best practices are bad, but that every case is different. I agree that, especially in the beginning of any revolution, we must look for exemplary models (best practices) to copy. No one wants to stumble as they try new things, so copying a successful model is nice way to start. Unfortunately, too many districts jump before they look and end up at the bottom of a cliff. I like the security of knowing someone else succeeded doing model “x”, so why not begin with that.

    The problem, as Michael tries to say, is that every case is different, that your situation and your students’ needs may be quite different, so as they say, “Your mileage may vary.” Of course, the major danger of relying on a best practice is copying part of it, but not doing the systemic things the original school/district undertook. Change is a funny thing.

    As always, keep picking fights and keeping us thinking.

    • 2 mkbnl March 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm

      Another problem is that so-called “best practices” often bear little relationship to what we know from existing research. They also often have no basis of data or research to be based on. Often it is this is what we do, we get results, so what we do must be best practices.

      And don’t get me started on what practitioners in our field have decided to call standards and how that flies in the face of everything that we know about research-based standards development…

  2. 3 Rob Darrow, Ed.D. March 3, 2012 at 9:52 am

    I admire all the work that you are doing, Michael and Heather are doing and many others. But it doesn’t mean we should not challenge one another to clarify what is truly meant. I just think that research and best practices lead to the best models vs. the models leading to research and best practices – actually, it probably is a little bit of both. But, you are right, it really is about systemic change…and how to accomplish systemic change.


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