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Document Type

Article in Response to Controversy

Abstract

It’s a commonplace to decry the folly of “best practices” in education. They make many practitioners and researchers twitch, fearing that the good-- or even just decent--practice will soon be setting the tempo in the steady march toward standardization. The argument against best practices, then, is the argument against one-size-fits-all pedagogy. Instructional practices must come with a necessary humility, based on situating students within the picture, with particular attention to with histories of institutional and societal othering and marginalization. Good practices cannot be delivered or imposed, and therefore, if successful, they become suggestions or starting points carried out with greater and lesser “fidelity,” and informed by the cultures of school, teacher, and students. This study of a middle school science classroom in a racially and economically diverse urban charter school looks at how the laudable practices of dialogic, inquiry-based STEM instruction and the concomitant agenda of collaboration and inclusion were exceeded and transformed by students in moment-to-moment interactions. The focal students engaged in talk that carried them beyond disciplinary boundaries to explore stereotypes and create new narratives around racial identities, all while asserting their own positions within the power dynamics of the classroom and small group. As activity systems analysis and narrative discourse analysis revealed, the larger classroom culture permitted this kind of extra-disciplinary knowledge construction; the teacher’s practices gave rise to the emergence of alternative, student-made practices, resulting in unintended consequences that remained largely unmonitored and unsung. We have much to learn from such creative and engaged acts as examples of student work that constitute a worthy academic discourse, a deviation from the imagined best path to a different route that was unpredicted by the teacher, and only owned in the moment by students, as makers and users, and primary practitioners.