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Terms I’ve come to despise: Best Practices

In the past, when I’ve seen the term best practices, I’ve generally assumed that it means something like Understand the things that successful individuals or institutions do and the rationale for those things, and use those to guide what you do. For example, when I think about best practices in CS education, I might reflect on how active learning can be used to support a broader variety of students and to help students better master the processes of algorithm design. I would also explore what others are doing and think about how those practices can be adapted to my classes and my students.

However, I’m increasingly finding that best practices seems to mean something very different. And so I’ve come to treat the term as a warning, rather than a positive. In particular, in my most recent encounters with the term, it has usually been used to mean some combination of (a) making an assessment using a very narrow set of criteria, (b) hiring consultants to make decisions for you [1], and/or (c) blindly mimicking what others do, without considering your own special circumstances.

For example, we have been talking with consultants to find one that might help us think about how to make MathLAN better. One of the consultants said something like We look to best practices as we make suggestions for changes in your network. We responded enthusiastically with So, who do you look at for better ways to help students learn using Linux networks? Their response: Um, we were thinking more about things like best security practices. Fortunately, in that case, they were actually enthusiastic about thinking about the role of Linux in teaching. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

In another example, I found that the use of the term best practices for a department at the College meant only Whatever makes most financial sense, based on what other institutions seem to do? It didn’t mean What helps uphold the values and practices of the College? It didn’t mean What helps us provide the best possible services to the College community and to our town? I’m not even sure it included an analysis of what might be different at Grinnell.

What, from my perspective, are best practices? I think across issues, there are some clear common best practices. I’ve implied some things in the paragraphs above. It’s a best practice to consult, and to incorporate the voices of all the groups a decision affects. It’s a best practices to deliberate, whenever possible. It’s a best practice to consider ethical issues as part of the deliberation, such as the impact of your decisions on individuals.

But what do I know? We’ve clearly lost the term best practices to the bean counters. I hope we don’t lose anything else.

Yeah, I know that this is not close to my best essay. I’m angry. I’m frustrated that I can’t make a difference. I don’t think I can say more about some things that inspired this essay.

In spite of all that, a fundamental thesis of the essay is accurate: The term best practices doesn’t mean what it should.

[1] I don’t object to consultants, per se. Good consultants can help you think about issues from new perspectives. But good consultants also try to understand what is special about the local situation. And good clients listen to advice, but also reflect upon it.

Version 1.0.2 of 2016-10-14.