June 21, 2012 by

Defining Your Own Best Practices

In his session, “Bringing Best Practice to Life in Every Classroom at ASCD’s Virtual Conference, Pete Hall shares his steps for creating a common understanding of what a best practice is:

(Slides from Hall’s presentation available, here.)

I particularly like Step 5. As a teacher I’ve gotten better at defining expectations, and what achieving those expectations looks like, for my students. For example, for behavior expectations I tell my students that when they’re working together, one way I can tell they’re engaged is that they’re all leaning forward.

For academic expectations, moving to standards-based grading went a long way toward creating a shared vision of what understanding something really looks like.

Although I’ve been good at helping students get a clear picture of what my expectations look like, I am guilty of not defining for myself what I should be doing. What do I look like and sound like when I’m teaching well? I like Pete Hall’s charge to “Describe it in meticulous detail.”

I’ve written before that argument, along with content knowledge, and inquiry, are the pillars of science education. I would stand by that statement even with the word “science” taken out of it.  Although most people don’t consider argument a traditional best practice, if something is fundamental to my classroom, I should take the time to decide what I will look like and sound like when I’ve helped my students engage in argument.

To try this out, I focused on my own best practice behaviors for when my students are presenting and evaluating each other’s arguments in small groups (rather than to the whole class).

Observable Descriptions

  • Teacher is on the side. Students are facing one another.
  • Teacher helps point out contradictions.
  • “How is your argument the same as….?”
  • “How is your argument different from….?”
  • “Can you think of how you both might be correct/incorrect?”
  • “How does this piece of evidence support…?”
  • “What would make the argument more persuasive?”
  • Teacher helps summarize the arguments of the class.
  • “Do you have a rebuttal to….?”
  • “What evidence would you need to respond to….?”
  • Teacher is ready to add important alternate explanations and competing claims.
  • Teacher provides opportunities for students to revise their claim.
  • Teacher provides opportunities for students to test their revised claim.

This is a rough draft of a rough draft, and by the time school rolls around, I’m sure this list will look much different, but I found the experience to be valuable. I even had a breakthrough while coming up with this list:

I realized that my vision of a classroom engaged in productive argument looked less like a courtroom drama and more like improv.

One of the rules of improv—”My idea is good and I like yours better“—neatly illustrates how I want my students to build off each other’s arguments rather than just tear them down. Next year I will need to fully communicate this vision to my students—in meticulous detail, of course.

Hall’s session available as part of ASCD’s 2012 Virtual Conference—free to all who attended ASCD’s 2012 Annual Conference—and available for purchase for those who did not.