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Colleges Purchase Second-Best Practices

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by Diana Senechal

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 3.06.40 PMIn the general scramble to adopt “best practices” across the curriculum, colleges around the U.S. have experienced loud rumbles of discontent. Professors have complained that these “best practices” are “icky at best, idiotic at worst” and that “the very concept induces a squirm.” Thus a market has arisen for second-best practices, which leave a great deal of discretion to the instructor. Recognizing a profit opportunity, the education venture fund New Aims has begun packaging second-best practices and selling them to hundreds of thousands of eager buyers.

According to Percy Nograj, CEO of New Aims, second-best practices are like best practices, only better. “You have a best practice that states that a professor should always write the aim of the lesson on the board,” he said. “Now, you’ve got a lot of professors who say that the students should already know the aim, or that it’s implicit in the lesson, or that it’s better to figure it out, or even that there’s more than just one. So, one of our hottest-selling second-best practices is to use your judgment about what to write on the board.”

Another “best practice” is the formation of “data inquiry teams” to analyze the numbers from the assessments. “We offer a second-best practice of looking carefully at student work,” said Nograj, “and boy has that been a hit, relatively speaking.”

Yet another “best practice” is the “turn-and-talk” activity. Professors are supposed to have students turn to their partners and talk about a question, thereby generating mayhem in the room. A second-best practice is to have a thoughtful whole-class discussion; those not speaking at the moment have a chance to listen and think. “It’s kind of great not to have to talk all the time,” said Mokykla Stewart, a sophomore at Bruit College in Apple Hill, Wisconsin. “Also, that way I can actually hear what’s being said and process the information.”

Still another best practice is to use technology whenever possible. New Aims received a bulk order of 1,000 copies of the second-best practice, which is to use technology when it makes sense to do so. Despite protests from technology firms, sales of this second-best practice continue to grow.

Given how much sense the second-best practices make, why aren’t they called “best practices”? Nograj lit up at this question and turned on the projector. “First of all, they have indie appeal,” he said, displaying a photo of a sophisticated-looking professor gesticulating at a portrait of Wittgenstein as she spoke. “There’s the sense of a well-kept secret. Once something becomes a ‘best practice,’ it’s likely to get bland. Also, all these second-best practices require you to use your judgment, and the accountability folks don’t like that very much. A best practice is something you do exactly the same way as everyone else, something with a predictable outcome. A second-best practice is iffier because you use your own head.”

We walked into a literature class where second-best practices were taking place. We heard a lively discussion of Robert Frost’s poem “Come In”; students were puzzling over the meaning of the final stanza. Often there was silence in the room—and no rush to fill it up with noise. There was no aim on the board or Venn diagram on the wall. The desks were not arranged in pods. The lesson did not focus on a reading strategy. “I love this class,” a student told us, “because it’s all about the poetry.” Professor Nadia Emet confessed to us that she had purchased the second-best practice of “focus on subject matter.”

What will happen if people realize they don’t have to purchase these second-best practices—that they come directly from the mind? “Of course, that’s a danger to our business,” conceded Nograj, “but it isn’t happening any time soon. They know that when they buy one of these things, they officially have it. They get a certificate of purchase. So if anyone comes around asking for their best practices, they’ve got something to show. As the exchange rate stands now, one second-best practice is worth two best practices, so you can see the advantage in buying them.”

Will “third-best” practices ever threaten sales? “I doubt it,” said Nograj, “but we’ve got a patent on them, just in case.”