What’s Bad about Good Practices?

The Socratic questioning strategy described in the article appealed to me. I could see how it would cut down on quizzes, grading, and the whole sad enterprise of writing multiple- guess questions that dulled students’ thinking. I made some adaptations and expectantly implemented it in my introduction to political theory course.

Those expectations quickly dissolved. At her desk, one of my best students stood fighting back tears. She couldn’t look at me and wouldn’t answer my questions. An uncomfortable quiet had settled over the class. I had a disaster on my hands. I asked the distressed student to sit down as I paced across the front of the room. Then I announced that was the end of Socratic questioning. Relief spread like a long-held breath released. “That wasn’t such a good idea,” I admitted, thinking desperately of some way to get the class on my side. “It seemed like something that might work when I read it. I think we might do better just discussing the study questions I assigned.”

Slowly the discussion built and normalcy returned. The students liked discussing the questions. After class I stopped Julia and apologized for her Socratic ordeal. She still wouldn’t look at me and she dropped the course that afternoon.

I wish I could report that this was the first disaster I’ve faced when trying out recommended instructional practices—some called best practices and touted by experts. Truth be known, I’ve had about as much luck picking race horses as I have new techniques and strategies. A few became successful additions to my teaching repertoire, but only after much tinkering and adjustment. Why the lousy track record? In the face of authoritative endorsement, it took me time to discover that the problems weren’t all mine.

Highly touted practices that work for other instructors, in other subjects, with other students, in other curricula often disappoint because they don’t work when the context changes. To recommend a practice requires stripping away the myriad details that contribute to its achievement or failure. Those details can trip and derail the best ideas. To employ such practices requires so much trial and error that what started out as a shortcut ends up being an extensive revision project.

The principles that form the bases of best practices are even more abstract. They are really proverbs. They don’t state any causal relationships in forms that can be tested. Indeed, most can’t be wrong under any circumstances. They just aren’t specific enough to fail. That’s their seduction and their risk. If the practice can’t fail, then its truth is merely formal.

Let me see if I can use an example to make the point. The sixth principle of the famous Seven Principles of Good Practice in Teaching and Learning states that a competent teacher communicates high expectations. It reads:

“Expect more and you will get more. High expectations are important for everyone—for the poorly prepared, for those unwilling to exert themselves, and for the bright and well motivated. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations for themselves and make extra efforts.”

If I raise my expectations and students still memorize and barf back, what has gone wrong? Since the principle doesn’t say how high to raise expectations or from what baseline and since it doesn’t state how much performance will improve, then I can’t know. How much extra effort does it take? These proverbs are shackles of unlimited demands. Maybe I haven’t worked on weekends or my students have remained unwilling to exert themselves. How can I tell? The principle won’t translate into specific design practices that would help us find out.

More fatal is a second problem. To try to improve a process by applying best practices is to run a race backwards. If we examine only what works, we see only a small sample of the educational practices that we might explore. We know from the works of Larry Cuban that bureaucracy, architecture, and tradition determine standard instructional practices. Thus best practices reflect the limitations of those structures and obscure the possibilities of novel approaches. They are the cream of the crap.

In contrast, if we think about possible practices based on what we have discovered about brains, learning, and cognitive development, we can think beyond the manacles of the past to propose innovations worth testing. Such innovations would make far better use of new technologies; most of the proverbs rule out technology. I think it makes much more sense to try the most novel and challenging ideas to make some real improvements and let the proverbs of the past rest in peace.

Why didn’t the Socratic questioning work in my class? I could blame it on the confounding variables, but it failed because I substituted bad mimicry for the work of finding out what students needed in order to learn.