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Over the years researchers have documented a long and growing list of what often are called “best practices” in instruction and learning activities. The goal has been to sort and sift what educators typically do to stimulate learning and determine which practices generate the most learning. For example, researcher John Hattie has compiled an extensive list of practices that have been evaluated for learning effect or impact using meta-analysis. Robert Marzano and others have developed similar lists from which educators can select and apply in their work with students.

While these lists and accompanying research can be helpful, not all “best practices” work in every circumstance and with every student. In fact, so called “best practices” can fall short in their impact when misapplied. Some practices are more appropriate for younger students. Other practices work best with highly motivated students. Still others may be appropriate for introducing content or honing key skills. Some practices also may rely on adequate background knowledge and skill levels for students to find success. Other practices depend on high levels of teacher experience and expertise.

The fact is that “best practices” aren’t necessarily effective practices unless they match the learning readiness of students, are consistent with and build on previous and planned instruction, can be facilitated with our level of knowledge and skill, as well as tie into other related factors. Best practices become effective practices only when they’re thoughtfully applied in ways and under circumstances that match their design. Unless we understand the context, connections, and current capacity of learners, we can’t have confidence in the effectiveness or appropriateness of a given practice or strategy.

When considering what instructional and learning support strategies to employ, there are several questions we can ask ourselves to ensure that “best practice” will be effective practice with our students:

What’s the goal of our instruction? Any decision regarding instructional and learning support activities must start with a clear goal. We need to consider whether the strategy or practice we’re considering matches and supports our intentions.

What role will students play in this activity? Some practices and activities require students to be actively engaged while others depend on students listening to and absorbing information. Obviously, the age, maturity, and personalities of our students need to play a role in the choices we make.

How impactful is this practice likely to be with my students? We can consult available research to gain a general understanding of how well the practice we’re considering is likely to generate significant learning. Of course, we also need to consider what we know about our students and how they’ve responded to similar activities in the past.

Do our students possess necessary background knowledge to be successful? Strategies that may be highly successful with students who are experienced with the content and possess background experience may not be as impactful with students who lack the context and knowledge necessary to engage successfully in the activity.

How will this instruction or learning activity fit with and build on previous instruction? An instructional and learning support activity may sound interesting, exciting, and engaging, but it won’t fit well with the learning paths on which our students are traveling. It may be that we need to delay implementation until our students are ready, or we may need to modify the activity to fit the context where we want to use it.

Do students possess the skills to engage productively in the learning? Some best practices require students to work independently, manage their time and focus, and employ specific techniques and tools to be successful. When presented with learning expectations that surpass our students’ current capacity, they’re likely to struggle and may fail. We may need to delay the activity or take the time necessary to build student skills before moving forward.

What level of interest or commitment will students have in the activity? The better we know our students, the better able we’ll be to answer this question. In some cases, students will naturally be drawn to the learning and content we consider. At other times, we may need to build curiosity and establish a compelling purpose before introducing the activity. The bottom line is that if students fail to see purpose, value, or aren’t interested, the impact of an otherwise “best practice” will likely fall short.

We have available to us a wide array of instructional practices and learning support activities. Our challenge is to match their application with what’s most likely to be effective considering what we know about our students, what we know about the concept or skill, and the timing and context within which the activity will be introduced.

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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