Education

Best Practices vs Enacted Values

This is a special “guest post” from Dr Kevin Talbert, an Assistant Professor of Education at The College of Idaho in Caldwell, ID, USA. In this post, Kevin critically analyses the “best practices” discourse prevalent in today’s schools and argues for an approach for teacher education that empowers teachers to embrace “the call” to teach.

“Education is suffering from narration sickness”

Paulo Freire,
Pedagogy of the Oppressed

In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire decried how the dominant language of education reinforced what he called “the banking concept of education” (p. 72) in which “education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor” (p. 72). Currently in the United States,  dominant discourses about education and, particularly teachers’ work, suggest teaching is primarily about mastery of good technique that will help transfer knowledge to students; the “good” teacher is good at doing what the “research” says ought to be done.

A new narrative is needed. “The way we speak about our teaching influences and determines what we do when we teach” (Harris, 1987, p. 41). As a teacher of future teachers, I know my own teaching will have made an impact when I hear my teachers talk about “enacting educational values” rather than “implementing best practices.”

Education is, fundamentally, a project of enacting particular values in/through a given socio-cultural context. Whether one believes education should preserve existing cultural values and transpose them into new members of society (the young or the newly arrived) or that education should transcend and transform (and, one might suppose, “improve”) an individual’s (or society’s) existing values, there’s a clear consensus that education is fundamentally about putting a set of values into practice. Even with this acknowledgement, two interrelated issues remain.

  • First: Which or whose values get enacted? Which values are worthy of emphasis and which would we prefer are avoided? Who has the power to decide? Who bears the primary burden of the choice
  • Second: Can one ever be “objective?” Or perhaps more accurately, given the first issue, what do we make of those who claim to be enacting projects that are “value-free?”

Our answers to the first question might make us particularly skeptical of the second. If we accept a claim that all education is about enacting values, then a claim of “objectivity” is, in itself, a value position, though one that seeks to foreclose the issue. An objective stance suggests there are a set of “givens” that stand outside of questions of value and simply “are:”

Just the facts, man.

One of the most clear contemporary examples of this objective stance manifests in the language of “best practices” that dominates educational discourse in the United States and, especially, language about what teachers (should) do. Ironically, the very use of the adjective “best” indicates a values orientation even while these so-called best practices are assumed to be undeniable (i.e. “the facts”). In reality, the best practices discourse is rooted in a particular way of assigning value rooted in scientistic logic.

Scientism presents a veiled scientific rationalism. Whereas science acknowledges the contingency of all knowledge dependent on new questions and new evidence, scientism treats knowledge as settled and unquestioned. Thus, best practices are assumed to be the end of the conversation, the end of all quest for understanding and thus the source of all authority.

Best practices vs Enact educational values

The preparation of teachers, beyond mere technical excellence, must focus on developing teachers’ wisdom, ability and inclination to think critically, to reflect on their own world and that of their students — the epitome of praxis. It must cultivate a spirit of reflective inquiry, not just into one’s own teaching practice, but into larger issues of what it means to be educated, the role of education in society, and how best to enact that educational vision.

My thesis is that, rather than empowering teachers when we claim to offer them “best practices” for the 21st century classroom, we are, in fact, disempowering them. First, it makes them “objects” of other specialists’ research and reduces them to mere consumers of pre-packaged products that someone else in the edutocracy created and will profit from. This perpetuates a cycle of consumerist desire, a constant and regenerating market for education consumption. Second, it also fails to equip teachers to live fully into their calling and, especially, to do the very things we so often say we value, namely to improve the lives of the young people in our charge. Indeed, too often it means exactly the opposite—teachers impelled to comply with practices that directly counter the call and thus empties their spirit and neuters their moral response to/in the world.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What sorts of values are implicated in the dominant practices and techniques expected of teachers?
  2. How might we make our desired educational values more transparent in our teaching?

References:

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition). New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc.

Harris, M. (1987). Teaching and religious imagination (1st ed.). San Francisco: Harper & Row.