Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Fallacy of Best Practices

In an education world obsessed with standardization, the pursuit of "best practices" reigns supreme. Countless systems and schools rely on pre-defined, one-size-fits-all approaches, promising guaranteed success. However, this rigid adherence to a single ideal can stifle innovation and hinder progress. We must shift our focus to effectiveness – achieving desired results in a way that adapts to unique situations. 

The allure of best practices lies in their simplicity. They offer a seemingly foolproof formula, eliminating the need for critical thinking and tailored solutions. This, however, ignores the dynamic nature of learning. Industries evolve, technologies change, and societal needs are constantly in flux—context matters.  A practice deemed "best" today might be obsolete tomorrow, especially in a disruptive world. Chasing an elusive ideal can leave schools stagnant, resulting in students who cannot adapt to new circumstances. The reality is that there is no such thing as a “best” practice.  If there were, every system, district, school, and educator would implement them with high fidelity and get amazing results. 

Effectiveness, on the other hand, prioritizes results. It encourages experimentation, research-based pedagogy, and data-enhanced decision-making. Schools that embrace effectiveness analyze their specific context, identify goals, and then explore diverse approaches to achieve them. This fosters a culture of innovation, where solutions are not copy-pasted but thoughtfully crafted. 

Imagine a marketing campaign: a "best practice" approach might dictate a specific social media strategy. However, focusing on effectiveness would analyze the intended audience and platform trends, potentially leading to a more innovative, targeted approach. Like a marketer analyzing their audience and platform trends to tailor their approach, educators should assess their students' individual and collective needs, key concepts, and the most recent pedagogical research. This could lead to more innovative, personalized, and effective teaching strategies that deviate from traditional practices but result in better learning outcomes.

Best practices often lack nuance. They are developed based on broad trends in education or a world that no longer exists, failing to account for unique strengths and weaknesses at the school or individual level. Effectiveness, however, thrives on understanding specificities. It empowers schools to leverage their unique assets – their culture, staff skillset, or niche expertise – to achieve their goals in a way that optimizes their strengths. This approach encourages autonomy, knowing what actually works in a given context, and innovation, allowing for the adoption of cutting-edge strategies that resonate with the current generation of students. It also fosters a more dynamic environment where feedback and data from actual classroom experiences can shape ongoing approaches, keeping learning relevant and impactful.

The shift towards effectiveness is a testament to the power of educators and schools. It requires a change in mindset, a move away from blind adherence to methodologies that some figureheads and organizations claim are the only way to get results, and instead, a move towards continuous learning and adaptation. Schools need to invest in ongoing support, evidence collection, and analysis, allowing them to track the success of their chosen strategies. They must cultivate a culture of open communication where educators feel empowered to challenge assumptions and propose alternative methods. 

Embracing effectiveness isn't about discarding all existing knowledge. Established practices can serve as valuable starting points. The key lies in using them as a springboard, not a rigid blueprint. Schools gain the agility and creativity needed to navigate an ever-changing world by prioritizing effectiveness, not clinging to the fallacy of best practices. Achieving real results in a dynamic world trumps a theoretical ideal. 

The time has come to break free from the shackles of "best practices" and embrace the power of effectiveness driven by the true experts in education—the schools and educators who implemented these strategies consistently and with a high degree of fidelity. It is these people who move an idea into action and determine its effectiveness.  


  1. Thank you for this wonderful post! I'm having a hard time truly identifying what "effectiveness" means. Can you give a definition or a "for example"? Thank you!

    1. A practice that leads to intended results that takes into account context.

  2. Years ago I worked for an organization that dropped the use of the phrase "best practices," and started talking about "promising practices." In order for the "best" to always be the best, the implementation of the practice would have to occur with all the variables of time, history, culture, relationships, etc. being identical to the situation where it was declared the best. People become very disheartened when their implementation of the "best" fails. When given a menu of "promising practices" people see the value of diversity, choice, and openness to looking at a challenge through a different lens.