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Use Model and Design Thinking to Avoid the Trap of “Best Practices”

From Education Design Lab’s Higher Ed Fellow, Michael Meotti

In a very rare occurrence last month, the same news story flashed across the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times and the Washington Post last month.  A group of researchers reported that they could replicate only 39 of 100 studies published in three leading psychology journals.

Some of the stories and comments responding suggested that this problem is restricted to the field of psychology, or at least to the “squishy” social sciences.  Unfortunately, the leading figure in the debate over reproducibility has also published plenty of research results in the “unsquishy” worlds of medical and biological research.

Years ago, my work in community and neighborhood development turned me into a skeptic of best practices.  Everyone seemed to be searching for the magic bullet – proven to work elsewhere – that would solve our problems if only we could faithfully replicate the practice.  Somehow, it never seemed to work that way.

While teaching a graduate course on public policy analysis, I came across a University of Colorado study funded by the federal government that tried to identify the markers of a “best practice” for replication purposes in juvenile justice programs.  The authors developed a rigorous set of standards to identify interventions that qualified as best practices.

The standards they developed seem quite sound – but they rule out most programs touted as best practices.  But even the small number of programs that met the best practice standards must also face the reproducibility question: could the research or evaluation that found them effective in the first place be replicated?

I coined the term “interesting practice” to help my students understand that learning what worked elsewhere could be valuable, but one cannot assume that success elsewhere can be applied everywhere.  You must figure out how to turn high level insights from work in other places into innovation that can succeed in your environment.

The challenge in best practices replication is a serious issue for colleges and universities hoping that innovation will help solve their pressing educational and financial problems.  Institutions cannot research their way to answers that just need to be rolled out for success.

So what can a higher education leader do?  Colleges and universities can use principles of design thinking and modeling to draw on interesting practices and enable front line faculty and staff to develop innovative approaches that can be aligned to their environment.

Using models to understand complex processes and organizations comes right out of the halls of academia.  Yet one rarely finds institutions using this analytical approach to better understand themselves at a strategic level and inform their innovation efforts.  Design thinking is a more contemporary approach to problem solving that would emphasize both student experience and faculty involvement in the change process.   My framework for blending model and design thinking is discussed in more detail on Education Policy Group’s website.

There is a great deal of interest in design thinking in higher education circles right now.  The Education Design Lab works with a growing number of colleges and universities on a range of initiatives including badging, innovation and apprenticeship.  These new approaches to change management offer a framework to guide change in a participatory process that engages all important campus constituents.

Colleges and universities are facing a fast changing environment posing financial, demographic and competitive challenges unlike any other in the past 70 years.  The status quo may not work any longer and that holds equally true for traditional strategic planning and innovation techniques such as best practices replication.  Model and design thinking may be the new change management tools that can help campuses adapt and succeed.

-Michael Meotti