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Table of Contents

The Writing Teacher's


Strategy Guide (PDF)

The Sound of Silence

Prompted Writing (PDF)


Student Writing Samples
Grades K-12 (PDF)
An Introduction to the
Writing Process (PDF)
Welcome to Writer's
Workshop (PDF)
Writing Across the
Curriculum (PDF)
All's Well That Spells Well
(PDF)
Writing Assessment (PDF)
The Five Facts of Fiction
(PDF)
Read Like a Reader; Read
Like a Writer (PDF)
What Can You Say About a
Book? (PDF)
What is Good Writing?
(PDF)

Theres No Practice
Like Best Practice
Making Sense of the Research, Recommendations,
and Rhetoric of Professional Teaching

The Organizers (PDF)


The Posters (PDF)

by Steve Peha
________________________________________________

The Sound of Silence


When I first started doing professional development workshops, I always opened them up
the same way: "So what kinds of things are you doing now?" And I always got the same
reply: silence. If it isn't polite to ask a group of dinner guests about their religion, it's even
worse to ask a group of teachers about their teaching. So, as it turned out, the first lesson
about best practice was mine to learn, and I hope I've learned it well: I now start all my
workshops by giving away Hawaiian vacations.
For a variety of reasons, teaching is a very personal matter that seems best explored behind
a closed classroom door with no other adults present. And yet, there's been a lot of talk in
the last few years about so-called "best practice" or, as it is also termed, "research-based
best practice." For the first time in American history we are engaged in a national dialog
about the quality of teaching. It now matters, in a way that it never has before, how
individual teachers teach.

I'm not going to say here that best practice is easy to pursue; most of the time, most of us
can't even figure out what it is. I'm not even going to say that anyone has to use it. That's
up to you, your school, and your community. But I am going to say that it exists and that it's
better to be looking for it than to pretend that it doesn't.
In my own pursuit of best practice teaching, I've probably experienced as much frustration
as the next person: notions are numerous, confusing, and at times contradictory; research is
hard to find, laborious to review, and impossible to verify; all claims seem tinged with selfinterest. And yet I have also found that some things are true, useful, and enduring, and
these are the things that guide me.
Teaching practice can be defined. As someone who attempts to make a living by
communicating practice to others, I would definitely concede that teaching is not easy to
quantify, define, or explain. And yet I do find that it is possible and that some people do it
quite well. Despite being an intensely personal and subjective undertaking, teaching can be
discussed and analyzed in a rational way that illuminates more than it obfuscates.
Some practices are better than others. It just stands to reason that of all the different
ways to do something in teaching, some ways might be more effective than others. If it's
true that some practices are better than others, then others are probably even better than
those, and so on. It is simply a statistical impossibility that all practices are equally effective,
that differences in practice are neither meaningful nor significant, or that these differences
can be rationalized away because everything can be said to work for at least some teachers
and some kids to some degree at some time. The point is this: there are not only best
practices but worst practices, too, and the differences between them, in terms of student
success, can be quite dramatic.
Practice cannot be separated from theory. In my experience, the only thing teachers
hate more than talking about teaching is talking about theories of teaching. "Just tell us what
to do!" is the common cry. But if we don't understand the theory behind something, it's hard
to know if we're doing it well or if it is working. What's even worse, we can't modify the
practice successfully to account for situational differences. Theory is the "why" of teaching.
When we ignore it, we can't make good use of the "what" or improve on the "how."
Best practice is always getting better. Best practice wouldn't be best practice if it wasn't
always better than something else. Somewhere, someone is doing something different and
getting a different result that is better. The best teaching, just like the best science and the
best medicine, is a moving target. And so the process of pursuing best practice is just that: a
process, something fluid and dynamic that we should all try to stay actively involved with as
much as we possibly can.

The Pit and the Pendulum


When I started exploring a career in education, one question was always on my mind:
Whats the best way to teach? I knew that other professionals, like doctors and
psychiatrists, kept up with current research and contemporary trends in practice in order to
offer the best possible service to their patients, so I assumed that my first job would be to
familiarize myself on the latest equivalent information about teaching.
I talked to and observed experienced teachers, and I followed up on their recommended
books. I read the newest texts from the most respected educational publishers. I also dove
into the many available magazines and journals.

For a couple of years I was both enthused and confused. There was certainly no shortage of
interesting ideas out there, but everyone seemed to have a different take on what good
teaching was. Most of the teachers I asked didnt even believe that my question about the
best way to teach had an answer at all. Education swings like a pendulum, they would say.
But this never made any sense to me. Every discipline I'd ever studied had easily identifiable
features of progress. Why would teaching be any different? And, as I eventually discovered,
it isn't. But many people seem to wish that it was.
Over the years, I have come to believe that the pendulum theory of educational practice is
a convenient and self-serving myth. The more I've read of educational history, the more I
can see a recognizable arc of progress. But progress stands at odds with tradition, and
tradition with change, so holding fast to the pendulum theory provides a solid and seemingly
responsible approach to justifying complacency. If the pendulum theory was the dominating
trend in teaching, it would dominate in other professional disciplines as well, and every
decade or so we'd be sucking down ether or biting on a bullet whenever we went in for
surgery, and lawyers would be wearing those big funny white wigs.
What got me off the pendulum and out of the pit was a book I came across called, not
surprisingly, Best Practice: New Standards For Teaching and Learning in Americas
Schools. There it was in a single paperback volume: a concise and insightful overview of
contemporary educational research along with detailed recommendations for the best ways
to teach in reading, writing, math, social studies, science, and the arts.
Discovering a single resource for information about best practice was a turning point for me.
For the first time, I could begin to make sense of all the knowledge I had accumulated.
Teaching has always seemed to me an awesome responsibility. Having the knowledge of
research-based best practice to guide me not only made me more competent, it made me
more confident as well.
Now, just because it's called "Best Practice" doesn't mean it is best practice. But at least I
had something concrete to begin working with.

What Does This Kind of Best Practice Look Like?


I realize now that one of the reasons I had such a hard time getting information about good
practice is that it's so hard to translate from one person's experience of teaching to that of
another. Every teacher is unique, every subject has its subtleties, every grade its nuances,
every classroom its exceptions that break all the rules.
Thats why I appreciated the way the authors of Best Practice described good teaching.
Rather than offering a set of black and white pronouncements, they expressed good
teaching in terms of a continuum of improvement that involves doing less of harmful or
ineffective practices while doing more of the research-based best practices. For example,
here's a sample of the book's "best practice" recommendations for reading:
Best Practice in Reading
INCREASE childrens choice of their own
reading materials.

DECREASE teacher selection of all reading


materials for individuals and groups.

INCREASE exposure of children to a wide and


rich range of literature.

DECREASE reliance on selections in a basal


reader.

INCREASE teacher modeling and discussing


his/her own reading processes.

DECREASE teacher keeping his/her own


reading tastes private.

And so on...

And a sample of "best practice" recommendations in writing:


Best Practice in Writing
INCREASE class time spent on writing whole,
original pieces by establishing real purposes
for writing and student involvement in the
task.

DECREASE time spent on isolated drills on


subskills of grammar, vocabulary, spelling,
paragraphing, penmanship, etc.

INCREASE teacher modeling writing as a


fellow author and as a demonstration of
processes.

DECREASE teacher talking about writing but


never writing or sharing his or her own work.

INCREASE study of grammar and mechanics


in context, at the editing stage, and as items
are needed.

DECREASE isolated grammar lessons, given


in order determined by textbook, before
writing is begun.

And so on...

On one end, we have well known teaching practices that we now recognize are not successful
in and of themselves. At the other end, we have practices that have been shown through
research to be significantly more effective.
Looking at good teaching this way helped me realize that best practice is best described as a
continuum. Instead of throwing out the old and replacing it with the new, we simply change
the emphasis, replacing things that dont work with things that do.

Getting Started
The best way to get started is to get the book. Two other books written by the same authors
on the same subject include Methods That Matter: Six Structures for Best Practice
Classrooms and Rethinking High School: Best Practice in Teaching, Learning, and
Leadership. All three books are published by Heinemann.

Copyright 1995 - 2003 by Steve Peha and Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc. All rights reserved.

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