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We hear a lot about the practices we should use to ensure learning for our students. Of course, we want our students to be successful and our instruction to make a positive impact. However, 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.  

Experienced educators know that generic approaches and widely hailed strategies do not necessarily work with all students, including ours. We often need a guide or process to sort among potential approaches and practices to find the learning experience we can design that will have the greatest positive impact on our students’ learning.  

Fortunately, we can follow a path to survey possibilities, evaluate options, and ultimately settle on the instructional practices that hold the greatest potential for our students. We might start broadly, then narrow our consideration based on our context, and finally, match the strategy or practice we consider with the specific needs and readiness of a group of students or even a single student.   

We can begin with a set of practices commonly known as best practices. Best practices are typically widely employed. They have been found to be effective by one or more credible research studies. They are considered consistent with dominant thought about learning and teaching, and they have generally been shown to work with many students in a variety of circumstances. However, student needs and learning readiness vary. A single best practice will not work with every student or in every context. For example, applying a best practice that has been shown to be effective with students who possess extensive background knowledge may not be even remotely effective with students who are unfamiliar with the content and concepts involved. Highly motivated students might respond to a certain best practice while more reluctant and distracted learners will not. We might think of best practices as a menu of options to consider, but we need to be cautious about blindly adopting a practice just because a specific research study, or even multiple studies, found them to be useful, or just because other educators are using it. 

A second set of practices and level of consideration might be thought of as promising practices. We can filter promising practices from best practices for the types of learners, learning challenges, and learning contexts within which they will work. Promising practices are good options when they have a solid base of credibility with the type of students we are teaching. However, even promising practices require our careful examination. They are more tailored than best practices, but they often still lack a key feature, in that they may not match the learning specific needs and readiness of our learners. Their utility still depends on matching what we know about our learners and our instructional and learning goals.  

This second level of sifting takes us to a third and even more powerful set of practices: effective practices. Effective practices go one step further to consider the learner. Best practices and promising practices become effective practices when they are matched to the learning readiness of the student or students with whom we are working. The nexus of learner and practice determines what will generate high-leverage learning.  

Of course, there are times when what has been considered best practice and even promising practice will not be what our students need and will not generate the learning we seek. These are times when we may need to reverse the process and ask ourselves—and even our students—what may work in this circumstance and then match, modify, or invent the approach that will create the most successful learning experience. We can still benefit from reviewing best practices and promising practices to ensure that we have considered a broad array of options, of course, but customization may be the key to finding success.   

Without question, best practices and promising practices deserve a place in our instructional design considerations. However, neither will guarantee success unless they match the needs and learning readiness of our unique students.  

Thought for the Week

AI can teach and share knowledge, sure, but it lacks the key elements of human modeling, nurturing, and connecting that are essential components of a comprehensive learning process.

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