And then I was pointed to an article on National Public Radio (NPR) this week about The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. Although the book is written by a surgeon about the world of medicine, I am wondering what the applications might be for education.
Might this be true for the classroom, too? The closest thing to a checklist I have ever seen in education was really more like a flow chart. We had it at an elementary school and used it for developing reading groups for students. If a kid scored X on the latest DIBELS test and the teacher had observed Y, then the kid was placed into Z group and given a particular curriculum. For kids who were behind, the flowchart guided a teacher toward which intervention materials should help eliminate the deficiency. For kids who were at or above standard, there were suggestions as to how to move them forward.
"Our great struggle in medicine these days is not just with ignorance and uncertainty," Gawande says. "It's also with complexity: how much you have to make sure you have in your head and think about. There are a thousand ways things can go wrong."
At the heart of Gawande's idea is the notion that doctors are human, and that their profession is like any other.
"We miss stuff. We are inconsistent and unreliable because of the complexity of care," he says. So Gawande imported his basic idea from other fields that deal in complex systems.
"I got a chance to visit Boeing and see how they make things work, and over and over again they fall back on checklists," Gawande says. "The pilot's checklist is a crucial component, not just for how you handle takeoff and landing in normal circumstances, but even how you handle a crisis emergency when you only have a couple of minutes to make a critical decision."
This isn't the route medicine has traveled when dealing with complex, demanding situations.
"In surgery the way we handle this is we say, 'You need eight, nine, 10 years of training, you get experience under your belt, and then you go with the instinct and expertise that you've developed over time. You go with your knowledge.' "
Teachers are diagnosticians, of a sort. We are expected to determine each child's abilities and then tailor our curriculum, instruction, and assessment to meet students' personal needs. Might a checklist of some sort help us along? I understand that every child is unique and that we aren't making widgets---but teachers are juggling either 25 kids engaged in several content areas of learning at elementary or 150+ kids at secondary in one more content areas. It isn't reasonable to assume that we can be an expert on every student in every subject area. Perhaps a checklist might provide some guidance?
Here is a sample one for surgeons from the World Health Organization (click to embiggen):
What would be included in a version for education? Who are the stakeholders? Would time for other classroom pursuits be freed up if checklists were available? I don't believe that there will ever be a checklist for instruction---just like we don't see a step-by-step sort of thing in the list shown above. This is more of a pre/post idea. The "during" is still quite flexible.
At the other end of the spectrum is the assessment piece, which is where I originally started. I'm still not 100% convinced that a checklist is appropriate for the kind of assessment and evaluation I want to build, but I am no longer going to rule it out. Perhaps by giving teachers another way to identify what a student can and cannot do in terms of using technology (and some ideas about interventions), a large-scale assessment might gain additional functions. This alone makes checklists worth a second look.