IN:SIGHT Best Practices and Deep Practices

November 16, 2016 – The profession of teaching and teacher education seems overly preoccupied with the external qualities and characteristics of effective teaching.  A quick search of an online book seller lists 500 books under the search term “teaching best practices” with several of the titles in 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions.  A similar search for “teacher inner life” yields just over 100 books with only a handful directly related to the daily craft of teaching, instead, themes like meditation, mindfulness, prayer and spiritual awakening dominate the list.  The emphasis on the external and technical domain of teaching makes sense given the increased attention teaching has experienced since A Nation at Risk (1983) arguably spurred the modern day accountability, teaching standards and pay for performance movement. I don’t want to suggest that the technical skills of teaching are unimportant.  They are actually essential to good teaching in the same way that any profession is defined by a discreet set of skills that require regular training, research and professional development to improve and enhance practice.  I wouldn’t go to a surgeon who never learned to handle to scrapple or trust my car to a mechanic who was unaware of the difference between a crescent wrench and a box-end wrench.

To paraphrase the author and educational reformer, Parker Palmer, “technical problems require technical solutions and non-technical problems require non-technical solutions.”  What I hear in Palmer’s analysis is a call to pay attention to the root cause or source of teaching dysfunction or deformation.  Sometimes teachers struggle with external best practices such as lesson planning, culturally responsive pedagogy, seating arrangements or assessing student performance.  But at times the root cause of ineffective performance lies in a different direction, which Palmer variously describes as heart, courage, identity, integrity or calling.  Although speaking from the technical and standards side of the educator effectiveness coin, the Council for the Accreditation of Education Programs (CAEP) also calls for a recognition of and accounting for the “non-academic” aspects of teaching (Standard 3).

What might these non-technical, non-academic, heart-centered elements of teaching look like in practice and how might we recognize them when we see them?  First, let me argue that since teaching as a profession has adopted the language of “best-practices” to define the technical that educators should begin using the term of “deep-practices” to refer to the inner qualities of teaching.  This will perhaps help with placing these attributes on a similar plain of importance while elevating the shared language of practice which differs from the outer to the inner elements of teaching. What might deep-practices look like in teaching?  Based on my reading and synthesis of the literature I would propose the following categories as a way to get the conversation rolling: calling, presence, authenticity, wholeheartedness, and imagination.

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