The SAIL Teaching Framework

This is a condensed version of the complete chart, but it's a good place to start. Click for a larger view (and to download).

December 23, 2012

Best Practices

No phrase strikes more fear in my heart than "best practices."  It's not the graceless language that gets me, or the mindless use of the phrase as a magical totem, but the underlying implications.

The phrase is fundamentally arrogant, pretending authority and omniscience.  But why am I being so harsh?  Are there not teaching practices that are better than others?  Well, of course.  But that's never how the phrase is used.  The phrase is always used to mean this: "because it is established beyond any doubt which practices are best, and because we all know (or should know) the full and complete list of best practices, then we are in perfect agreement."

It really gets my hackles up, even when someone uses the phrase lazily as short-hand for "good teaching" or maybe even "consciously-aware-and-striving-to-improve teaching."  "Best practices" is always a conversation-stopper, an appeal to higher authority, slightly scolding in that schoolmarm way.  Who are we to question what people wiser and more powerful than us have established?

I have experience performing on stage as a professional musician.  It looks like fun, but, believe me, it is very hard work.  You never really know how the audience will respond, or what will happen.  No amount of rehearsal, by definition, can prepare you for the unexpected.  You have to be quick on your feet, ready to improvise, because there isn't a ready-made answer for every situation.

There are definitely some things you should avoid doing on stage, and there are some general principles you should bear in mind about performing.  But if a fellow musician had a rough night, and came to me for advice, and I suggested that he rely on "best practices" of performance, I would deserve the punch in the nose I'd get.

So it is with teaching.  There are definite principles and concepts worth following, habits worth building, and you can always learn from both the published research and the old hands.  You need to have a clear and conscious picture of what you are trying to accomplish, and it helps to be able to articulate your vision.  Then we can have a conversation about that vision.  Every teacher has a unique vision, our dignity as teachers rests on that vision.  We can agree and disagree.  And we can point out to comrades, or realize personally, that a particular practice or technique does not effectively advance that vision, and replace it with one that does.  There is no omniscience, no "best practices," just good practice.


  1. Bill, this is just BEAUTIFUL. Great use of Best Magic with downloadable SAIL chart, PDF, etc. (Pretty colors, too) xo cg

  2. Bill: HOO-HAA! as Pacino said somewhere (okay it was Scent of a Woman). Or should I say, Bravo! This is a an eloquent essay, a convincing indictment of a power structure that needs to get out of the way and - as you suggest, allow good teachers to practice good teaching.
    I am glad you are out there doing good work and bringing joy and enlightenment to so many.
    -Jim Kent