Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Checklists in Education

UPDATE:  November 30, 2012:

When addressing the importance of planning in education in a blog post this morning, Grant Wiggins made reference to Gawande's Checklist Manifesto.  I like his idea of using an INSTRUCTIONAL PLANNING template as a planning checklist.  What a great way for instructional coaches to support teachers in helping focus their planning activities too!  :)  Check out Wiggins' blog here:

-------------------- original post follows  -------------------

When I'm overwhelmed, and/or struggling to juggle a variety of tasks that are competing for my attention, I find myself making lists to help manage the chaos.  It works for me, and I appreciate the mighty checklist.

So does Atul Gawande, a surgeon/author/researcher who wrote the book The Checklist Manifesto.  It might be my bias towards lists in times of complexity that influenced me to LOVE this book, but I don't think so.  I think it is because it makes sense and I see room for this strategy in the complex system where I work.

Our educational system is incredibly complex, as are our individual daily jobs within the system.  Education is highly social work, is based on the interactions of many people and in a wide variety of settings, and as such relies on highly effective communication to be successful.

Gawande's premise is that in highly complex systems (like ours) checklists can be a great resource!  To illustrate his point, Gawande describes how checklists have improved the effectiveness of complex surgeries in (previously) successful hospitals.  He also describes how pilots RELY on checklists to simplify the amazingly complex tasks involved with flying commercial jets.  It is a compelling testament to the mighty power of the seemingly little list.

I am in agreement with Gawande's premise that we must manage complexity, decrease 'errors' and increase our successes.  There will be are times when we are not as effective in our system as we desire.  Lets learn from those 'errors' and seek to explicitly stop doing what is less effective and start doing what is most effective.  

Reflecting on the need to learn from our mistakes, I was reminded of John Hattie's claim that when it comes to education, "...just about everything works...".  Just about every educational strategy is effective to some degree, but it is clear that some work more consistently or more effectively than most.  Instructional strategies such as Marzano's essential nine strategies, for example, are proven to be highly effective.  Why wouldn't we all strive to use them?

What I found most valuable in this book is the focus on improving the SYSTEM.  Talk about improving education really, when you think about it, is talk about improving individual school systems.  When considering how we might improve our school district, we must plan accordingly, given we are a complex human system.  Gawande offered the reminder that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts when he said that great systems are more than just great components!  They are an EFFECTIVE mesh of those components!
Working backwards from the system level, as educational leaders we must help our schools each be great, and work effectively together!  We must also help our teachers in each school be great, and mesh well together.  Great systems then can only be the result of great individuals working collectively as a great schools that then work collectively to form a great district.

Autonomy is a condition necessary for high intrinsic motivation, but I think it what effective systems do is create the parameters within which autonomy can be exercised.  Having a high degree of professional autonomy was described by author Daniel Pink (in his book Drive) as one of the three essential components of someone who is highly intrinsicly motivated, along with personal mastery and a strong sense of purpose.  Gawande described autonomy as requiring limits, to ensure it was not a complete distraction from the core focus of the organization.  I think that is a minor difference only.....ultimately, why not?

I appreciate that Gawande identified effective systems have standards, set clear goals, measure progress and utilize some form of centralized decision making to pull it all together.  Along with effective teamwork, collaboration, and communication is as much listening as it is sharing!  In the surgical checklist situation Gawande described, nurses and doctors communicated together on an equal playing field and in working through the presurgery checklist that equality made a significant impact on the effectiveness of the surgery.

What might this equality and effective communication look like in our schools?  Can we create a 'start of year' school checklist?  Who would use it?  What would it look like?

Reflecting on our district and wondering how we might apply the concept of a checklist, I considered the idea of a checklist as being similar in some ways to our guiding principles.  A surgical checklist identifies the things essential to successful surgery.  How can our guiding principals be shaped into a 'pre-learning checklist'?  Or into some other checklist?

To me, the power of the book is the promise that exists when a systems focus becomes entrenched within an organization.  It's worth the effort and investment to change to be a better system.  Our students will benefit!

If you've read this far, thanks.  I have a small favor to ask.  If you are a teacher, and Gawande's premise makes sense, please consider adding a comment to this post in response to the following question:

Where is one place in our system that we might be able to create and use an educational checklist?

I'm thinking when we transfer a new student in, or register a new student.  A checklist might be created to help review prior learning, identify student needs, etc.  Simple, but powerful, to walk through all the steps of a checklist to quickly get to know a new student.

I'm curious to hear other thoughts too, please.....