Do ‘Best Practices Presentations’ do more harm than good?

In Malaysian schools, the compulsion to invite speakers from other schools, districts or states, to speak and blow everyone away with their best practices is not uncommon. Even if what is being shared has got little to do with the context, and is irrelevant to the needs of the students, teachers, and the community.

Imagine an elaborate magic show, with an extravagant presentation and fireworks as the audience gasps in amazement. As soon as the adoration wears off, I invite you to probe how many of these best practices have been replicated or significantly improved practice, and ask yourselves why.

Did it aspire teachers to examine their context and needs, and work on interventions based on reading the environment of practice? Or were teachers instructed to just do it based on what he or she says so, just because the individual said it works?

From the perspective of someone who has been on the receiving end and a presenter/trainer, I often mull over and critically view how presenters/trainers (myself included) represent their ideals. In many instances I noticed two main notions that are often neglected in BPPs, that may incur more harm than the good it intended.

The disregard of an evidence-based management framework.

What is evidence-based management?

 “Evidence-based management is about making decisions through the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence from multiple sources by asking, acquiring, appraising, aggregating, applying, and assessing to increase the likelihood of a favourable outcome.” (David Sackett, 1996) 

Facts, supportive and contradictory evidence of claims, and assumptions from a hypothesis are all data. In addition, besides scientific inquisitions, experiences, narratives, and everyday classroom occurrences can also be reckoned as evidence. Therefore, it’s not just the analysis of exam results that is often the focus in schools.

Sharing about the process of gathering evidence and emphasizing its importance is something missing from BPPs. This is because the focus is often on the “what” instead of the “why”, “how” and crucially, the failures. Thus, not laying emphasis on the process that brought forth the idea.

Highlighting this evidence based process accompanied by the idea of the Best Practice will encourage teachers to relate to their own problems of practice, their strengths, and their limitations. Using the findings from investigations will allow teachers to make more informed and problem specific decisions. Not placing importance on being evidence-based in a BPP deviates the attention of teachers from solving the problems they face.

We cannot improve at scale what cannot be measured as measurement provides us with a starting point, a reflective juxtaposition for critical conduct. Contrary to popular belief and practice, being evidence based is not just at the beginning of an intervention. It should be continuous, using the data as an important resource to improve or change. The notion of what substitutes as evidence also needs to be constantly reviewed.

The presentation does not foster adaptiveness to variation.

BPPs often imply that because it has worked for them, it will definitely work for everyone else. Unknowingly, it endorses the “cookie-cutter” mentality, indicating that each one is the same. The notion presents a guaranteed formula for something that works, and all a teacher must do is to ‘go by the book’.

This idea appeals to teachers who view problems as resolvable through a single method or approach, shunning a personalized and distinctive approach.In addition, adapting and implementing methods such as this insinuates convenience, a ready to go solution. If things turn sour, it would be much easier to blame the method and the person behind the BPP.

“I do the exact same thing, but my kids never respond the same way!!
It’s not my fault!”

“My school is not like your school!!…”

“Come here teach for a month then you’ll know how it’s like…”

Not fostering adaptiveness implies ignorance to context and culture. BPPs that imply this would trigger teachers to respond like the above, coming to the conclusion that their problems are unsolvable, and eventually dismissing the notion presented in the BPP as absurd.

Immune rejection Response

With the two notions above missing, it encourages an Immune rejection Response from teachers, schools, and even the students. This medical term implies that when a donor organ is viewed as foreign like bacteria or a virus, the body attempts to eliminate it. When teachers and an education organization view Best Practices in this light, there is no turning back.

School leaders must refrain from threatening teachers by saying “If teacher ‘A’ from that school could do it, you must do it too!!”. Instead, teachers and schools should realign their expectations together, not focusing on wanting instant solutions. Describing and outlining the problem of practice together can be the first step to making evidence-based decisions. 

To presenters/trainers, instead of saying “I did this, I did that, I won all these awards!!” emphasize on the why, the how, and lead your listeners through a process of discovery while accentuating adaptiveness to variation. 

Read more on evidence based management here:
Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. I. (2006). Evidence-based management. Harvard business review, 84(1), 62.

The example of using Evidence Management is just one method to encourage evidence-based educational practices. 

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