Thursday, March 25, 2010

Working Definition

What Does it Mean?

Have you ever wondered about the title of this column? How would you characterize a “best practice” in the classroom? Every now and again, someone will ask for an explanation of the phrase. While there are many possible definitions, the examples that are highlighted in this space usually incorporate three essential elements: content, critical thinking, and essential skills. Typically when teachers prepare lessons, they begin from one of these three vantage points. Students need to learn important information, they need to learn strategies and analytical approaches to thinking about that information, and they need to have basic skills in order to work with the information.

All of these components are necessary to good teaching, but any one of them is not usually sufficient to form a strong learning experience. A lesson focused entirely on content would most likely involve the teacher telling the students a list of facts. A lesson aimed only at teaching critical thinking skills might be too abstract to be relevant for the students, and a lesson grounded solely in fundamental skills would run the risk of being an exercise in rote memorization or repetition. While there are certainly situations in which students need basic practice or they need to learn terminology or thinking strategies, a good lesson usually combines at least two elements, and the most powerful lessons include aspects of all of these goals. In January, we highlighted a 6th grade lesson in which Mr. Spencer introduced the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, a significant event in American history (content). The lesson included a list of important legal vocabulary words that the students needed to know (basic skills). The students also engaged in a spirited interpretation of these terms in the context of the case (critical thinking). Lessons like this are examples of “best practices.”

Often, our teachers integrate the layers intuitively. They notice that the students need practice in a certain skill, and they find multiple ways of blending that skill into the curriculum, or they begin a new unit of study and discover that a particular analytical approach will raise the students’ understanding of the topic. Sometimes a “best practice” lesson emerges from a cross-disciplinary effort, such as the recent state reports in third grade, in which a project that had traditionally been grounded in social studies was enhanced when the teachers added an environmental science component to the students’ research.

The lessons described in this column do not achieve the label “best” due to the use of specialized equipment, flashy demonstrations, or large displays in the hallways and classrooms. Their superlative status is the result of deep thought, attention to the needs and interests of the students, and a consistent focus on excellence.

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