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Pro-Child Checklist for Teachers in the 21st Century Economy

Posted: 2010-03-26

I, too, have enjoyed Atul Gawande's books, but I find The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right the least compelling of the three, mainly because although I'm glad to know hospital staff have checklists reminding them to wash their hands, I'm not convinced the principle transfers to teaching. As soon as I read The Checklist Manifesto, I predicted that Standardistos would embrace Atul Gawande's prescription. And it's not surprising that Denis Doyle, co-author of Louis Gerstner's Reinventing Education would be the first to jump on this bandwagon.

As Philip Howard pointed out, "Dr. Gawande is right to note that checklists are indispensable in situations where a small mistake can lead to tragic consequences, as in surgery. But his call for a broad checklist regime would be counterproductive--fraught with all the dangers of bureaucracy and excessive law.

Remember those de rigeur Madeline Hunter checklists?

1. objectives
2. standards
3. anticipatory set
4. teaching
* input
* modeling
* check for understanding
5. guided practice/monitoring
6. closure
7. independent practice

Case closed.

Or maybe not.

Pro-Child Checklist for Teachers in the 21st Century Economy
Make sure each of these is done at least once a day.

1. Invite students to tell a joke or read a riddle out loud.

2. Make sure students engage in extended reading of books of their own choice.

3. Invite students to visit the library and bring back some amazing fact.

4. Read aloud from a variety of texts: chapter books, poems, newspaper articles, picture books, joke books.

5. Send notes home to at least 3 households, recounting something good that happened for and with their child.

6. Ask children to volunteer information on someone who was helpful--within the classroom or elsewhere in the school.

7. Ask children to volunteer information on something good that happened for them this day.

8. Ask children to volunteer information on how the day could be improved tomorrow.

9. Find a way to send a positive vibe to the most annoying child in the class.

10. Once a week invite a child to be "Teacher for 15 Minutes," and learn from the way they parody you.

Gawande is at it Again

by Denis Doyle

Atul Gawande –surgeon, bestselling author, New Yorker staff writer and thoughtful commentator par excellence -- is at it again. He has written another book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (Metropolitan Books, NY, 2009) – that should be read by educators everywhere. Although some of the material appeared in the New Yorker it receives fresh treatment here.

As was the case with his first two books -- Complications: a Surgeons̢۪ Notes on an Imperfect Science and Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance -- his writing is deceptively simple, eloquent and packed with factual information. Although he is a practicing physician, he writes for a lay audience and his observations, while drawn from medicine, apply to a broad array of issues, education reform among them. The Checklist Manifesto is no exception.

He takes a very simple idea -- a checklist -- and spins a powerful tale. He begins with aviation and the checklist that every pilot must go through before taking off and landing. His opening example is shocking -- as it is meant to be --describing the test flight in October 1935 of what was to become the WW II Flying Fortress. On its debut flight (in pre-checklist days) it crashes and burns, the fact notwithstanding that it was piloted by one of the great test pilots of his generation. The plane was aerodynamically sound, but it was too complex to fly in the way its predecessors were: "pilot error" was the conclusion. The plane had a 103 foot wing span, four rather than two engines, and countless machinations to go through before taking off. The experienced test pilot forgot to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. After an otherwise normal take-off the plane climbed to 300 feet, stalled and crashed in a fireball: as the newspapers described it, "too much airplane for one man to fly."

The fact that tens of millions of air miles are safely logged day-in and day-out now is a testimony to a tool as ordinary as a checklist on a clipboard. So too medicine, with every sponge and scalpel accounted for, the surgeon can "close" the patient confident that nothing that doesn̢۪t belong there has been left in the abdominal cavity.

He goes on to describe the extraordinary complexity of modern high-rise construction with similar reporting; how is it that these giant buildings don't fall down? How indeed. Gawande's writing passes the most arduous test a specialist author faces: holding the generalist reader's attention. The stories are interesting in their own right as they illuminate general issues as well. Most illuminating is the problem of extreme complexity, a characteristic common to most systems in the 21st century. In business or computer "speak" it would be described as a "workflow" issue, one in which the multitude of tasks necessary to accomplish an objective are carefully mapped, recorded and executed. While Gawande doesn't go in to it, the mapping exercise is a doubled-edged sword, permitting cutting and paring of weak or unnecessary workflow steps or adding missing ones. Process engineering it̢۪s called in the trade. It forces practitioners to rationalize the production process, getting from here to there as cleanly and directly as possible.

Easy to say, hard to do, particularly in "soft" disciplines like education. But in examples like medicine, still as much art as science, the process works and works wonderfully. One of Gawande's prime examples is the resuscitation of a child in Austria who has fallen into a semi-frozen lake and is not found for thirty minutes: blue and comatose, there was little hope for her. But thanks to the EMS check list her rescuers used no time was lost and no steps were overlooked: she was saved.

More to the point, the "checklist" didn't literally save her -- the EMS and ER medical personnel saved her; nor does it permit a complex airplane to fly safely by itself; well trained pilots do. But the checklist is an essential tool; it is the representation of "essential" work flow, detailing the EMS or pilot̢۪s or doctor's knowledge of what steps are necessary in what sequence.

The checklist is the product of the best minds -- and most experienced practitioners -- in a field.

So too would the checklist work in education, drawing on the smartest and most effective teachers and principals, requiring them to analytically breakdown complex tasks into their simpler component parts. To simply figure out what works in what sequence would make the task worthwhile. In and of itself the checklist works no magic, creating and using it simply sets the stage for the practitioner to make his or her own magic.

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