By Tom Many, EdD

“Collaborative cultures, ones that focus on building the capacity of schools and the people within them for continuous improvement, are meant to be new ways of working and learning.”
– Michael Fullan, 2006

Perhaps you grew up watching a Zenith television. For years, Zenith (and other manufacturers) dominated the domestic market with the big, round tube televisions that were considered the industry’s standard of excellence. Eventually, Japanese manufacturers like Sony introduced solid state technology and the traditional vacuum-tube-based television—long considered to be ‘best practice’—was replaced with the next generation of televisions.

Similar cycles have been observed in auto manufacturing, mobile telephones, and a host of other industries. Experts argue about why companies lose their edge; is it complacency, a lack of investment in research and development, or simply bad management. Whatever the reason, the domestic television manufacturers did not (or could not) respond to new ways of doing things and their version of ‘best practice’ quickly became outdated. The moral of the story is in a rapidly changing environment, organizations must commit to continuous improvement or risk becoming obsolete.

Certainly, today’s educators work in a rapidly changing environment, and while teachers strive every day to engage in best practice, ours is a learning profession and thus, the definition of “best practice” continues to evolve. Keeping up with everything may seem daunting at times but the continuous improvement process that is positioned at the very core of professional learning communities enables teachers to respond to new ideas or new ways of doing things.

“A resilient, evolved PLC culture that includes the practice of continuous improvement is precisely the foundation upon which our Next Practice will rely and thrive.” – Kelly Ott, Blue Valley School District, 2016

We have all heard the old adage that goes something like, “We are doing the best we can with what we know right now, but when we know better, we have an obligation to do better.” This phrase is an apt description of the process of continuous improvement. In a PLC, collaborative teams embrace the notion of continuous improvement. As teachers work together to discover new ways of doing things, practices that were once considered “best practice” naturally evolve into “next practice” (the next generation of best practice). It’s helpful to view the different levels of professional practice along a continuum from malpractice to next practice.
Malpractice: When teachers implement practices or support policies and procedures that have been disproven or replaced by more effective and efficient ways of doing things they are engaging in a form of educational malpractice. For example, in 2018 there are still schools where attitude, effort, and behavior are all mixed into the grade; grading criteria are unclear to students; and zeros are averaged into a series of summative assessments. All of these practices have been discredited over the last 20 years, yet some schools continue to hang onto their toxic grading traditions.

Safe practice: Teams engage in safe practice when they support policies, practices, and procedures that protect the status quo. Safe practices are not controversial, often built around a sense of comfort or predictability, and justified as, “just the way things are done around here.” Examples of safe grading practice might include averaging scores from a series of different assessments; grading everything regardless of when or why it was completed; and while attitude, effort and behavior are all mixed into the grade, separate feedback structures are used during the reporting process.

Best practice: Best practices are those practices, policies and procedures that reflect current thinking, have been proven in literature, and are supported by evidence. Examples of best practice in grading would incorporate grading criteria that are clear to all, reflect a blend of learning goals and performance standards, combine evidence from a variety of formative and summative assessments, and emphasize the most recent level of student learning when calculating the grade.

Next practice: Next practice—or the next generation of best practice—are those ideas we may not yet fully understand but recognize as opportunities to push the boundaries of teaching and learning. Next practice in grading would use evidence of learning—as opposed to the exclusive reliance on assessment results—aligned to standards and targets that are criterion referenced, proficiency based, and reflect a student’s current level of learning.

According to Todd White, “best practice allows the system to do what it does efficiently and effectively. Next practice increases an organization’s capability to do the things it has never done before.” (2016) The most effective schools understand that if they do not continue improving, their current levels of professional practice will eventually become out-of-date and ineffective and they may never reach the next level of best practice.

“In highly successful schools, best practice is the norm; next practice is the goal.” – Todd White, Overland, Kansas, (2016)

Continuous Improvement is defined as, “the ongoing cycle of planning, doing, checking, and acting designed to improve results—constantly.” (DuFour et. al. 2016) It is one of the most effective ways to maintain high levels of professional practice and is a hallmark of a highly effective collaborative teams.

Teachers who embrace the process of continuous improvement reject the notion their professional practice is ever a finished product. Instead, they make a commitment to continuous improvement and routinely reflect on their practice. The most effective teachers are relentlessly restless about their practice and constantly seek out opportunities to learn and grow.

It is this daily commitment to the pursuit of the next generation of best practice that is one of the characteristics of schools moving from PLC light to PLC right. Next practice schools value and celebrate the idea of continuous improvement and embrace the process which allows teacher teams to discover the next generation of best practice.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.

TEPSA News, August 2018, Vol 75, No 4

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