“Best Practices” Aren’t, Necessarily

I suppose today’s thoughts could go in the category “things Americans never tire of doing.” The newest business preoccupation to creep into the mainstream (like into your poor child’s school) is “best practices.” Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about “best practices” because my wife, the professor, and my son, the teacher, have been invaded by the fear of not performing according to these practices by their colleagues.

early best practices

A world of efficiency experts

The whole discussion reminds me of the 1950 movie (even more the book that spawned it) called Cheaper by the Dozen. It is a humorous look at the family of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy) who are time/motion study and efficiency experts. The comedy comes from watching them try to run their children according to their theories, and the drama comes when father’s body proves to be all-too inefficient. The title comes from one of Dad’s favorite jokes. In the movie, the family is out in the car, stopped at a red light. A pedestrian asks, “Hey, Mister! How come you got so many kids?” Dad pretends to ponder the question carefully, and then, just as the light turns green, he says, “Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know.”

Now they want to produce our children cheaper by the dozen. What was most useful in developing software has leaked into developing people and we are just foolish enough to go with that as if it makes sense. “Best practices” are techniques that are believed to be more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer complications. For years we have been tormented with “outcome-based” everything. God save us from the people who believe that data is law and then decide the outcomes accordingly!

Slaves to the data

It seems to me that Americans (maybe humans) repeatedly have the same arguments. I don’t want to use the most hysterical example just for show, but it comes to mind that slaveowners made the argument in the 1850s that the most efficient way of farming for them included slavery. It had shown itself to be the most profitable way of accomplishing the production of cotton, in particular, with repeatable procedures that had proven effective for a large number of planters over generations. It took brave Christians, in particular, to demand an end to that “best practice.”

But Christians don’t seem to be as vocal as they used to be. They seem to be as subject as anybody else to the tyranny of “best practices.” The Bible repeatedly says (in the face of former outbreaks of human-reliance) that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But these days we seem to be in step with everyone else in fear of the taliban of “scientists” overwhelming us with inscrutable data about the best way to do everything (until they change their mind again). “Best practices” should be suggestions from well-meaning people. Instead they become rules from “science” ayatollahs who make it plain that not following the practices is, essentially, immoral if they can’t make it illegal. And many Christians go with that.

Courage to cure the headache

For educators, therapists and social workers (for many of my family and friends!) this outcomes-based mentality is a real headache. The data is not so bad if it is suggestive (since figures lie and liars figure); but life becomes untenable when you end up “teaching to the test” and lobbyists get regulations passed that force you to conform to their interpretation of the “best practices.” For a Christian, who has little faith in hyper-rational world views, it is a particularly oppressive moment when fellow believers have bent the knee to the baal of “best practices” and one’s tenuous grip on viability within the system is stretched to a breaking point. For instance,  CACREP (the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) has a line in their core values statement  that says the board of directors believes in “creating and strengthening standards that … encourage program improvement and best practices.” So when these wannabe accreditors get your legislature to adopt their standards of accreditation, pretty soon you’re subject to their idea of “best practices” for your counseling. It is a surprisingly small degree of separation between efficiently producing mother boards and thinking one could mother children with mothering “best practices.”

I hope in that by 2050 (when I will only be 96, after all) I will get to see the fruit of brave Christians showing up the ludicrous nature of wisdom that does not begin with the fear of the Lord. One does not need to be anti-science to see its limitations. One does not need to be very loving to see that people are often driven by fear, not wisdom. One does not need to be very observant to notice that movies keep prophesying the horrendous effects of the rational-extension machines. But one does need to be faithful and courageous to work, plot and persevere in the institutions that can be devoured by the latest version of the same old arguments. Even more, one must be downright creative to live in an alternative to the latest attempt to enslave us to what the antichrist powers deem best.

4 thoughts on ““Best Practices” Aren’t, Necessarily

  1. For me, it come back to St. Paul’s prayer to the church at Philippi: “that your love may abound with the knowledge and clear insight to determine what is best.” I think that’s a pretty clear call to, in some sense, develop a set of best practices: determining what is best is a process which involves thought, the exercise of God’s universal gift of reason.

    The love comes from Christ and the Spirit. The knowledge and clear insight come from God, too, of course, but through the medium of the secular world.

    Now, of course, saying that wisdom needs to begin with the fear of the Lord doesn’t necessarily invalidate that. It all depends on what one means by fear of the Lord. Fear of the Lord could mean slavish devotion to the claims of Scripture. Or it could be something which is available to everyone–Christians, Jews, pagans, and atheists alike–a certain type of humility, perhaps, similar to what Kathryn describes above. In the former case, St. Paul’s call for our love to abound with knowledge and clear insight seems completely negated. In the latter case, an account of just how it is the mechanisms of knowledge and clear insight which are operating in our secular society today fall short seems required.

  2. As an educator, I applaud you for bringing this up! I agree that Christians should be more aware of the harm that these ever changing “best practices” do and more proactive in encouraging the idea that process is more important than outcome because people are more important than results.

    As a scientist, I have a quibble- I think that the “science” that you are attacking here is not “real science”. I spend the school year trying to undo years of the idea that science is about getting the right answers on multiple-choice tests and get my children to realize that real science is about asking questions and being prepared to not get answers- or get totally unexpected answers. Real scientists are loathe to give a firm answer about anything because they know that the answers are constantly under revision as new discoveries are made. Real scientists can spend a lifetime studying a problem, never answer it, and yet make phenomenal contributions by what they learn along the way.

    Media and politicians, however, like soundbites, black-and-white, and quick solutions. As a result, they take and twist a lot of science to fit their intentions, or pay “scientists” to design and release shady studies that support their ideas. In both chemistry and education, I have been able to compare original papers to the articles and discussions that they engender, and there are usually huge gaps in the translation. Rather than encouraging people to ignore science, I would encourage people to understand and embrace the field so that they can understand how absurd and full of lies a lot of the current outcomes-based fad is.

    The whole “science OR religion” dichotomy is a pet peeve of mine- I think a lot of it comes from misunderstanding and fear on both sides- and as someone who embraces both science and Jesus I am always eager to talk about it :).

  3. Hi Rod,

    Well stated…best practices is the current rage in education. In fact, we have to identify a handful of these practices that we will implement, as a grade level, in our classrooms. When administrators roll through for their 2 minute classroom walk-through (Yes, I said 2 minutes…and there’s even a feedback form they have to fill out and leave behind for us.) they are looking for evidence of the use of the aforementioned practices. The nice thing about all of this is that each year they’re looking for something different, so the current practice of best practices keeps one’s teaching from becoming stale!

    God Bless,
    Dave Watring

    PS. I know, first hand, that kids are NOT cheaper by the dozen.

Leave a Reply