Atul Gawande

List Building

Originally Posted October 2011

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Since I last wrote, and now that school is back into full swing, I have continued to think about how checklists can help improve student learning and my professional practice.  I have started to realize how many checklists I already use on a regular basis in support of learning.

As a literacy teacher who follows a workshop model based on Lucy Caulkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, a form of checklist guides the multiple conferences that I have daily with my students.  They follow a common format, a type of checklist, to an effective conference.

  • Research : Spend a few minutes with each student to determine individual needs.
  • Complement : Begin by identifying a particular strength or improvement in the learner.
  • Teach : A quick little targeted mini-lesson to help individual growth.
  • Link : Link the mini-lesson to past and future ideas.

For years, I have used a hodgepodge amalgamation of binders, notebooks, clipboards, papers, and sticky notes to help track learning, performance, anecdotal notes, and learning targets.  Some of my colleagues are experimenting with the Confer App for iPad and iPhone.  It is formatted to follow the conferences structure and serves as checklist to remind teachers of the key components of a reading / writing conference.  I’ve chosen to experiment with Evernote, creating a similar conference checklist that I can use with multiple devices and keep everything stored in the cloud.  So far I’m quite pleased.  I especially like how I can embedded recorded conversations and digital exemplars of student work in my notes for each learner.  With conferences next week, I expect my notes to be more insightful and useful than ever.

In thinking about a back to school checklist, I’ve started to revise and add to my tried and true checklist.   I have started breaking  it into manageable pieces following the guidelines on making an effective checklist.  I have started to break things into the common components of Communication /  Collaboration / Organization / Resources / Culture.  I’ve made it available at SCRIBD.  Give it a go.  Let me know what you think.  I’d love to continue to revise and improve the checklist and hope that you find it helpful.

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Check. Please!

Originally Posted September 2011

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In Saudi Arabia, the new school year started on Saturday.  The start of each school year is an exciting time.  It is a  time to reconnect with friends and colleagues who have flung themselves on great adventures around the world and close to home.   As an international educator, it is also the time to meet new colleagues and build new friendships.  This year, the rituals of the “Welcome Back Coffee Mornings” were enjoyed by one and all, but quickly, everyone jumped back into the swing of things to get our school ready to the nearly 900 kiddos who will arrived at our doors.

One of my rituals at the start of each school is to delve into my “Back to School” folder.  I always go looking for a checklist that I received years ago from a principal in Monterrey, Mexico.  Ever since, this checklist has helped me organize and plan each school year.  I must admit, it is a bit of a laundry list with more than 30 items to think about, but it serves its purpose.  The “Back to School Checklist” helps me make sure that the simple and mundane pieces of the puzzle are not forgotten or allowed to fall between the cracks.  I couldn’t agree more with Atul Gawande, who in The Checklist Manifesto noted :

“The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (Are the elevator controls set? Did the patient get her antibiotics on time? Is everyone on the same page here?), and lets it rise to focus on the hard stuff (Where should we. land?).”

In the spring, my son was finding learning to read a challenge.  He loves school, loves books, enjoys listening and telling stories; but found learning to read quite difficult.  He has been fortunate to be supported by some of the best literacy teachers I have ever encountered, yet he still struggled.  We met.  We discussed strategies, plans, approaches, and after months, eventually hit upon eyesight.  It has been about 6 months since he had had his eyes last tested.   In short, he got glasses and began experiencing greater success with his reading.  As an educator and a parent, I found myself asking … why didn’t I think of it sooner?  I know better!  I needed a checklist.

Checklists exists throughout the world, in every profession.  They are central components to aviation.  Pilots have well developed checklists for everyday routines like taking off, or the unexpected incidents of a bird strike.  The medical profession is adopting a 90 second surgery checklist that has reduced patient deaths and complications by 1/3.  The skyscraper industry uses checklists to reliably manage complexity.  Van Halen even added “no brown M&Ms” to their concert riders (checklists) to help monitor compliance.

In the many schools since Monterrey, ASFM has remained the only one that provided teachers with a back to school checklist.  End of year checklists have been more common, and few have used checklists to support student learning (RIT, support services, etc.).  I find myself wondering, how can the world of education make better use of the checklist to improve student learning?   What checklists can I use to more deliberately to effectively manage the increasingly complex world of students, education and learning?