By Jim Shimabukuro
Jack Grove’s article begins with the phrase “Standardized teacher training,” and it goes on to say that 70% of British academics have rejected this proposal by the Higher Education Academy. The issue isn’t with teacher training per se. It’s with the whole notion of standardization. Grove cites Julie Hall, co-chair of the Staff and Educational Development Association, who defends the rejection: “Universities have designed their own programs over the past 20 years in this area, so this sounded like the HEA was telling institutions what to do. We are glad it has listened to us – a one-size-fits-all approach will not work” (“British Academics Reject Training,” Times Higher Education, 11.3.11).
Hall’s comment makes sense, until we realize that this may just be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. She is a staff development leader, and we have to wonder if the one-size-doesn’t-fit-all argument also applies to her work at her own institution. I don’t know the answer and can only hope that it does. However, my personal experience tells me that the vast majority of staff development programs are guilty of the same kind of top-down siloing. Under the guise of “best practice,” they relentlessly champion one approach or another, usually a FOTM with a catchy title. Convinced that they have the one answer for all pedagogical questions, they gather the weary classroom warriors on their parade fields and cheerfully attempt to get them to march in unison to their one-size cadence.
The problem is that “best practice” isn’t an answer. If it were, it would be static and old from the get-go. In other words, yesterday’s best would be today’s worst as a natural correlate of exponential change. The only viable take on “best practice” is that it’s a question, or more accurately, a set of questions. And the set would have to be open since tomorrow’s questions will be based on advances and conditions that we can’t begin to imagine today.
So, what kinds of questions would we use to continually update best practice? Broadly speaking, I’d assume that two would lead the list: What are the learning goals of the university or college? and What are the subgoals of the departments, programs, and courses? These would define the institution.
The next two would focus on students: Who are the students? and Where are they now in terms of the institution’s learning goals?
The last two would zero in on teachers: How does my course fit into the institution’s goals structure? and How can I facilitate my students’ achievement of the learning goals within the framework of my classes?
Best practice demands that we continually (1) return to these questions; (2) acknowledge that all answers are relative, tentative, temporary, and, ultimately, arbitrary; and (3) remain open to as wide a range of possible answers as possible. The answers will change with the winds of time, the accidents of disposition, and the whims of popularity – like the latest hit songs or fashion trends. Thus, to fix on one is impractical and unrealistic.
In this open and dynamic approach to best practice, diversity and freedom to experiment and explore are encouraged, not discouraged. In fact, the wider and more diverse the range of exploration, the greater the possibility for discovering better ways to learn.
Thus, the British academics are correct in their rejection of standardization. However, unless the assumptions underlying this rejection are turned inward to their own campuses, they are only partially correct, and partially correct is also partially wrong.
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