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.

Complexity is what makes it a good job

The other day I wrote:

“… we’ve sent a rover to Mars but haven’t been able to bring most of our nation’s students to proficiency. That says something.”

No one would argue that sending a rover to Mars isn’t difficult. Keeping the spacecraft on trajectory, performing health checks, and communication all involve a daunting level of complexity. Once the rover lands on Mars’s surface, then the real work begins, such as determining whether life ever arose on Mars, combating dust storms, characterizing the climate and geology, and preparing for human exploration. The number of variables for NASA to keep in mind is staggering, and only a high level of monitoring and problem solving can lead to a successful mission.

It might sound surprising, but this is a wonderful example with which we can compare education. Every day, teachers are faced with innumerable variables: curriculum, changing lesson plans on the fly to better suit students, classroom management, checking for understanding, reteaching, motivating, carving out time to create lesson plans, grade student work, collaborate, and engage in professional development. None of these examples include a student’s experience before and after school, which as we all know can contain events that potentially make learning difficult for a child. I don’t need to list the unfortunate home life variables–teachers know what they are.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The best course of action then is to read from NASA’s playbook. In order to complete a mission, NASA scientists use all the resources they have at hand and then problem solve. Do you remember this scene from the film Apollo 13?

NASA had to solve a problem with a limited number of resources in order to bring the astronauts home. Failing this objective was not an option because the stakes were too high. They did everything they could to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem. It wasn’t easy, but through hard work they figured it out.

Here’s the above paragraph written just a little differently:

As educators, we’re dealing with limited resources in order to teach students. Failing is not possible because the stakes are too high. We’ll do everything we can to fix a seemingly insurmountable problem. It’s not easy, but through hard work we’ll figure it out. 

Of course teaching is hard, but that’s to be expected. No one joins NASA and thinks, “Great! The rest of my career will be a walk in the park!” On the contrary, once a person is finally accepted by NASA, that’s when the difficulty is really cranked up. The same goes with being an educator. Teaching students is not easy; as I stated before, it’s downright complex–but that’s good.

Dylan Wiliam, in his book Embedded Formative Assessments, writes:

That fact that teaching is so complex is what makes it such a great job. At one time, Andre Previn was the highest-paid film-score composer in Hollywood, and yet one day, he walked into his office and quit. People asked him why he had given up this amazing job, and he replied, ‘I wasn’t scared anymore.’ Every day, he was going in to his office knowing that his job held no challenges for him. This is not something that any teacher is ever going to have to worry about.

People need challenges, and there’s no greater challenge than teaching students. We’re facing a lot of complexity (or, simplexity, if you’d like) and it’ll take a lot of hard work to accomplish our goals–but we can do it.

So let’s get started.


I heard about ‘simplexity’ for the first time exactly one month ago at an education conference. A Google search for the term will provide you with this Wikipedia page, which begins with:

Simplexity is an emerging theory that proposes a possible complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity. The term draws from General Systems Theory, Dialectics (philosophy) and Design. Jeffrey Kluger wrote a book about this phenomenon that describes how house plants can be more complicated than industrial plants, how a truck driver’s job can be as difficult as a CEO’s and why 90% of the money donated to help cure diseases are given only to the research of 10% of them (and vice versa).

I like the word, even though Wikipedia doesn’t explain it precisely the way I think it can relate to education.

Teachers work in a seemingly straightforward environment: standards, curriculum, technology, students. On their face, these items appear pretty simple; bureaucratically, they are usually dealt with interchangeably. We say one size doesn’t fit all, but we rarely mind it, and this is because there’s not enough time and training.

It’s a pity, because even though such things as standards, curriculum, technology, and students are dealt with millions of times a day, their simplicity masks an almost impenetrable complexity. To better illustrate this, think of an iPhone: The device is extremely easy to use–so easy, in fact, my three-year-old son can navigate its interface to select apps (PBS Kids is his favorite), movies, and home videos. However, the complexity underneath the touchscreen is astounding, and it’s too much for my son (and me) to comprehend.

The same can be said for the items I mentioned above. Common Core standards are clearly published online and in districts’ pacing guides, but the various ways to teach them is confounding. Curriculum, which must be accessed to teach Common Core, is in the same boat. Technology is used every day by teachers, but how to use it is up for debate. (Should students take notes on devices? How many words should be on a PowerPoint slide?* How does one provide digital infrastructure in a classroom?)

Students, of course, are the most seemingly simple but undoubtedly complex factors in every classroom across the country. Language, background, disabilities, gaps in knowledge, missing school days, years of ineffective schooling, attitude, parent support, peer groups, nutrition, health, and subject area interest are some of the many variables students bring to school. Teachers must view each student under a lens of simplexity. When figuring out how to best teach (usually with the aid of formative assessments, experience, and time getting to know the students), teachers can determine what kids need to know. This, in turn, can better guide teachers on how to approach standards, curriculum, and technology. By no means is this easy. I mean, we’ve sent a rover to Mars but haven’t been able to bring most of our nation’s students to proficiency. That says something.

Because of the proliferation of information and rapid speed of technological development, change is ever-present. I tell this to teachers all the time during professional development sessions. The only way to be comfortable in 2015 is to embrace uncertainty and find a complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity.

*As few as possible