“Best practices” is a bad way of looking at teaching. How can we frame teaching practices more productively to encourage experimentation and innovation?

I’ve got a gripe I’d like to share. My hope is that my griping might help you consider your teaching practices in a new light. Here goes: I hate the phrase “best practices.” 

My background includes two industries – marketing and teaching – where this phrase is unavoidable. Best practices pop up in virtually every presentation, workshop, article, and more. Every time it happens, it feels intellectually lazy to me. “Best practices” ignores the complexity, nuance, and interconnectedness of ideas and practices in favor of a monolithic concept of what works and what doesn’t work.  

The reality is that “best practices” fail all the time. A “best practice” for holding a class discussion may work on one section and completely flop on another. These are not necessarily flaws with the practices, but flaws in the framing of the idea that there are “best” practices and that following them will lead you to a better place. 

Similarly, “worst practices” work all the time. When I managed social media ads for a living, we had one campaign with an image of a stick figure for the ad. It was, frankly, a terribly constructed image that I would never recommend anyone run as an ad. Over several years, it was our best-performing ad in the entire campaign, which included dozens of “better” ads. 

I have many gripes with “best practices,” so here are 5 reasons I dislike the phrase. Stick around, since I won’t just be griping – I’ll also share alternative ways to frame “best practices” and suggestions for what to do when you find yourself in yet another “best practices” presentation. 

5 Ways “Best Practices” Misses the Mark 

#1 – It Ignores Context 

Context is absolutely key to understanding whether or not something will work. Even the most ironclad “best practice” can easily be broken by transplanting it to a new context. Every context in teaching is aggressively different – the moment in time, the specific group of students, the landscape of higher ed, the social issues of the time, and so on. This is often contained in the old teaching adage that “every class has its own personality.” 

There’s a larger issue at play here in which research and scholarship is universalized out of its original context. A study of two psychology courses might find that a particular strategy increases student engagements, but when that strategy is discussed, the context of the original courses and students is lost. I engaged with this in my previous article, “There Is No Perfect Length for Instructional Videos,” in which I highlighted that much of the advice for video length comes from a single study from massive open online courses (MOOCs). 

#2 – It Presumes a Universal “Best” for Everyone 

The previous point may suggest shifting from “best practices” to “best practices for this specific audience and context.” This doesn’t work, though, because it presumes a single conception of what is best for everyone in an audience. 

One of the teachings of Universal Design for Learning is that every human being is a unique constellation of personality, motivation, social factors, prior learning, skills, knowledge, and much more. In other words, what works for one person may not work for another. This is why variability is central to the UDL framework and all 3 UDL principles begin with “Provide multiple means of…” 

On the other hand, “best practices” generally suggests that there are practices that work “overall.” This is far more true for overall approaches and philosophies than it is for specific practices. For example, UDL as an overall framework has a strong research base that transcends disciplinary contexts. Specific UDL practices, though, may not always work in a certain context and may need to be adapted for your specific context. 

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#3 – It’s Reductive, Evaluative, and Subjective 

By reducing the plurality and complexity of different practices to “best practices,” we lose a lot of the depth of the range of possible practices. In the process, we are also evaluating and sorting, saying that certain practices get to count as “best” and others do not. 

As with all evaluative processes, there is a lot of subjectivity here. What counts as best practice for one person or organization may not for another. In fact, purveyors of “best practice” often rely upon this – if there was a universally agreed upon set of “best practices,” how would they ever sell tickets to conferences to teach you about the latest and greatest best practices? 

#4 – It Can Mean Wildly Different Things 

One reason “best practices” is so frustrating is that it is used very differently by different people. For some, “best practices” means “I tried something, and it worked.” For others, it means “there are decades of solid research behind this practice showing that it works.” And of course, there’s everything in between, including emergent practices that have promising but tentative empirical backing. 

Which of these it means can also vary between the speaker and the audience. If I mean “I tried this, and it worked,” and you hear “this has strong empirical backing,” we have a disconnect that can lead to negative outcomes. That’s why I would suggest framing these empirically-backed practices as “research-based practices” or “evidence-based practices.” 

#5 – It Favors Similarity and the Status Quo 

One of the more insidious components of the phrase “best practices” is that it suggests we should all value doing things in similar ways. Best practices can easily favor stagnation and the status quo by suggesting that “this is what is best, so you should do it.” 

Social change only happens when people are willing to disrupt and challenge the status quo. This often means working counter to the currents of society, including how you should do things. 

A Better Way to Frame Practices 

What would I suggest as an alternative to “best practices”? I would favor honesty here, even though it often takes more words and energy to contextualize practices. Instead of saying something is “best practice,” we would benefit from saying that “This is a practice that has worked for me and others.” 

With some work, we can still share our excitement at a particular practice without valorizing that practice and holding it up as the “right way.” For example, you could say in a presentation, “I’m excited to share this practice and help you consider if and how you might incorporate it into your teaching.” 

This also has the benefit of focusing on the audience: What are they going to do with this practice? How could they use it to change their teaching? 

How to Engage with “Best Practices” Talk 

If you find yourself hearing about “best practices,” I suggest critically examining those practices. Do they make sense for you and your context? How might they change the dynamic of your teaching? What problems could they help you solve? What are the potential pitfalls for your teaching context? How might you incorporate certain practices alongside others? 

Teaching is an exercise in humility, and “best practices” often frames it as the opposite, as something that can be “figured out.” At the very least, when you hear “best practices,” just remove the “best” and consider whether this “practice” makes sense for you. 

How do you react to “best practices” talk? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

  • Eva Grouling Snider

    Eva joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in 2021. Previously, she taught professional writing courses in the English Department, including graphic design and web development. She launched Jacket Copy Creative (now known as Compass Creative), an immersive learning course in which students helped market the English Department (and now the entire College of Sciences and Humanities). She also served as a director of advertising at a social media advertising agency in Muncie. Her interests include UDL, digital accessibility, and design. She’s often busy “hacking” Canvas to do cool things.

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