A tool amidst all this complexity

Complexity has been a theme on Rise & Converge recently, and it’s mainly because I have a position within a school district that allows me to witness the many obstacles facing school teachers. They’re using programs and strategies that require a lot of training, and they’re managing classrooms with students that need help in a myriad of ways. Also, technology is not just more ubiquitous–it’s also becoming more advanced. Compounding this reality, there are ever growing ways to combat all of the newfangled teacher responsibilities: PLC time, intervention time, more training sessions, new strategies to enhance literacy, new strategies to enhance math skills, and more technology to learn–which includes but is not limited to: various learning management systems (LMSs), online grade books, online attendance, curriculum on the internet, Google Apps for Education, and all the interface changes that occur on a continual basis to these programs.

There’s a lot going on, and all the ways to ‘help’ that I mentioned above require the same factor: time. And time, unfortunately, is not a resource we’re being given to help our present reality. So how can teachers successfully continue into the unforeseeable future with all the growing responsibilities piling on their plates in addition to applying the strategies that are supposed to help, but inevitably subtract time from the day? The simplest answer is one word:


Over Christmas break, I read a wonderful book entitled The Checklist Manifest: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon who has come to espouse the many benefits of checklists for all professionals, and in his book he gives a very strong case for how doctors do their jobs well through the use of this simple strategy. Health professionals who see the importance of checklists do so because remembering the steps for treating patients is difficult, especially with all the various strategies that need to be recalled. From the book:

Studies have found that at least 30 percent of patients with stroke receive incomplete or inappropriate care from their doctors, as do 45 percent of patients with asthma and 60 percent of patients with pneumonia. Getting the steps right is proving brutally hard, even if you know them.

Doctors are intelligent people, but intellect can fail due to fatigue, stress, or lack of time to investigate an illness. Checking to make sure even mundane steps (ex: washing hands) have been completed is sometimes necessary.

I’d argue that teachers today are the most trained individuals the field of education has had over the last 100 years. The problem lies in the fact that we may have too much information at our disposal. There’s so much data concerning how to teach correctly, it’s hard to synthesize and practice it. Gawande writes:

…the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.

He’s writing from a doctor’s perspective, but the above excerpt relates very well to education. He goes on to say:

Medicine has become the art of managing extreme complexity–and a test of whether such complexity can, in fact, be humanly mastered.

Teaching is the same way. Can an educator learn, and continue learning, all the complex factors that need to be implemented in a classroom so that the ability to bring students to proficiency is ‘humanly mastered’?

It’s very difficult to remember everything when teaching. Lesson plans, classroom management, blending technology, formatively assessing student learning, and giving feedback are just some items that have to happen every day, and even those routine matters are easy to overlook. In this complex environment, checklists can help us complete steps that need to be done on a daily basis. Gawande writes:

Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.

‘…instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.’ This is what teachers want to accomplish–both for themselves and their students.

I can foresee the main argument against checklists as follows: Teachers are more than aides who simply go through steps and check them off when completed. There is an art to teaching that checklists will stifle.

Gawande states that checklists by themselves won’t solve problems. There has to be flexibility and freedom. From the book:

… the real lesson is that under conditions of true complexity–where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns–efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either–that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation–expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals.

I think it’s safe to assume that Gawande was not thinking of education when he wrote this, but it’s perfect for what we’re facing at U.S. schools. Effective knowledge teachers have learned needs to be implemented throughout a district, and daily checklists can make this a reality, but there needs to be freedom along with the expectation to use good strategies.

How does this look? Checklists are created that make sure important stuff is not overlooked, while at the same time leaving room (or time during the school day) to let teachers manage ‘nuances and unpredictabilities the best they know how.’ Here’s a description of a good checklist:

Good checklists… are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything–a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps–the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.

Checklists, therefore, are not something to tack on your day. They provide the framework of what should be accomplished, they keep necessities short and practical, and they remind you to do the most important things without making mistakes or wandering down an unnecessary rabbit trail. In education, we cannot add more things to our plates; we need to stop the flow of responsibilities being created. What districts and schools should be doing is focusing on how to do everything that’s already implemented, only better. That means new strategies and professional development should be the focus to make workflow effective and practical.

Gawande shares results that prove the effectiveness of checklists in hospitals:

…the rate of major complications for surgical patients in all eight hospitals fell by 36 percent after introduction of the checklist. Deaths fell 47 percent… The number of patients having to return to the operating room after their originals operations because of bleeding or other technical problems fell by one-fourth… Using the checklist had spare more than 150 people form harm–and 27 of them from death.


There’s a lot of knowledge inundating teachers right now. To be honest, it’s too much for an educator to remember throughout the course of a day. The checklist is an effective and free solution that can help alleviate much of the heartache and frustration teachers are feeling because of complexity. And best of all, creating checklists requires no professional development whatsoever. Teachers do it all the time for grocery shopping; they just need to be shown that daily checklists can be effective during their work lives, too.

The Checklist Manifest: How to Get Things Right is wonderful throughout its entirety and a beneficial read for every person involved in education.

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