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By on January 26, 2015

There is no “best practice”

Question Mark Dice As Symbol For InformationPrevention, as we all know, is complicated. The emphasis in the field on evidence-informed practice is really important. We want to learn what parts of our programming do and don’t work, and we want to learn about what has worked for other people. Using evidence to inform our programming helps the field collectively move forward, instead of repeating practices that aren’t effective, like 1-hour presentations.

But just because we can learn from our experience and from each other doesn’t mean that we have any absolute answers for what works. For example, it may sound like a great idea to base programs off of “best practice,” which is a term I hear thrown around a lot. But what does it mean for something to be a best practice? Who decides what criteria to use to determine what’s best?

Does the label “best practice” mean that something is the best practice everywhere, for all communities, at all times? Is this practice going to be better than any other practice that comes along in the future? The answer is simple: almost certainly, no.

There’s a great post on a professional evaluator’s blog about this. The author, Michael Quinn Patton, also has some advice for how to counter the idea of infallible best practices.

  1. Avoid either asking or entertaining the question “Which is best?”

As is so often the case, the problem begins with the wrong question. Ask a more nuanced question to guide your inquiry, a question that in its very framing undermines the notion of a best. Ask what works for whom in what ways with what results under what conditions and in what contexts over what period of time.

  1. Eschew the label “best practice.”

Don’t use it even casually, much less professionally.

  1. When you hear others use the term, inquire into the supporting evidence.

It will usually turn out to be flimsy, opinion masquerading as research. Where the findings are substantially credible, the findings will still not rise to the standard of certainty and universality required by the designation “best.” I then offer that the only best practice in which I have complete confidence is avoiding the label “best practice.”

  1. When there is credible evidence of effectiveness, use less hyperbolic terms

[These are things] like better practices, effective practices, or promising practices, which tend less toward overgeneralization…

  1. Instead of supporting the search for best-ness, foster dialogue about and deliberation on multiple interpretations and perspectives.

Qualitative data are especially useful in portraying and contextualizing diversity.

So instead of asking what’s best and how we can apply it, let’s ask questions and have dialogue and critical analysis about which “better” or “promising” practices might fit our circumstances.

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