A model or THE Model?

A Proposal for “Levels of Confidence” in the Best Practice Search

By Barry Sweeny, 2003


What I Have Found in MY Best Practice Search

As a part of my personal and continual “best practice search” I often surf the web, read numerous journals and periodicals, and attend professional meetings and trainings. I am ALWAYS looking for a different slant on mentoring and for new mentoring ideas. I guess I have the learning style that the researcher Bruce Joyce calls an “omnivore”. I love to learn anything I can about mentoring, regardless of setting or application.

Typically, this search is a frustrating process because, having done this for many years, now I rarely find approaches or ideas that are truly new to me.

Most often, what I find is that people are offering a straight-forward description. For example, at conferences, I typically hear programs sharing their own experiences and some tentative conclusions based on their individual perspective.This is to be expected and is fine of course. Everyone deserves an opportunity to share what they have learned, no matter whether it will change the world or just help one other person.

Rarely do I find that people offer ideas about effective practices which is framed so it might guide others practice. Even when I do find someone claiming to provide such guidance, I frequently find, at least for myself, that what is offered is not very comprehensive and is too simplistic. I have concluded that these are mentoring programs with a fairly narrow range of experience, and that, within that narrow range, they are doing the best they can with the time and resources made available to them. No problem.

Some of the leaders of those programs have gone a few steps further. They have rewritten the specific materials they use in their own program so that they are presented less as a description of one program and more as a description of a program “model”. Sadly, I feel that this step is more than a bit audacious, or at least presumptuous. It is often my personal conclusion after listening or reading that what these folks present as a “model” is really quite a bit less than the ideal or best practice framework than the word “model” suggests.

I tend to agree with the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo who said something close to, “Our greatest problem is not that we set our sights too high and miss the mark. It is that we set our sights too low and hit that mark”.

More confusing still is the next step in which other program leaders, who are naturally hungry for some guidance in finding “Best Practice”, will grab onto these “models” and assume the model has attained some level of credibility. In other words, they assume that it is THE Model, even when it was never intended to be understood that way.

Even MORE confusing is that just the use of these “models” actually adds credibility to these “models” whether it really deserves it or not. In other words, a program model (small “m”) that is used by many organizations tends to become THE Model (capital M), often regardless of how sound or even useful the theoretical or research base for it is.

What is Needed as We Define “Best Practice”?

I feel that, what is missing in this conversation, and what causes this misunderstanding, is a lack of definition of the “Level of Confidence” that people have in the conclusions they have reached from their own experiences. Fixing this lack of clarity requires either one of two solutions:

The people who are sharing their experience need to state their own level of confidence in using the program model they are sharing.


The people to whom they are offering their experience and conclusions need to ASK what level of confidence the originator has in the program model.

If the “giver” does not do this, the “receiver” needs to so that everyone can answer the question, “Is this A model, or THE Model?”

Here is my proposed common language which I urge YOU to use whenever YOU are sharing your experience WITH others, OR receiving information FROM others

:Some Proposed Language to Clarify “Level of Confidence”

Regardless of whether it is the giver or receiver of the information that ensures there is clarity about “Level of Confidence” in information that is shared, we need some common, consensus language about the levels of confidence and what each level means. Such a common vocabulary could really help end the confusion and unintended misuse of what we share with each other.

Level of Confidence Description Example Definition
HIGH degree of confidence 4. Principle “We offer this as a best practice because the strategy has proven so helpful at increasing retention in numerous settings.” Experience in many diverse contexts where increased retention was the goal has confirmed the universal applicability of the strategy.
3. Theory “We’ve done this for several years and it really led to increased retention for us.” Local experience has proven it. Now it needs to be tested out in other settings as well to
determine if it can be used as a guide for other programs.
2. Hypothesis “Well, here’s what we do…” No inquiry into whether the practice has a desired effect. We need an “experiment” to test the hypothesis.
LOW degree of confidence 1. An idea ‘Say, I have an idea that might work.” No previous experience to demonstrate potential value.