Against checklists: the complexity, professionalism and creativity of teaching

Against checklists: the complexity, professionalism and creativity of teaching

What could be worse than a ‘tick-box culture’?  This phrase exemplifies three powerful objections to checklists held by teachers:

  • Complexity: teaching is too complex to be reduced to a checklist;
  • Creativity: checklists curtail teachers’ individuality;
  • Professionalism: checklists deprofessionalise teachers, routinising their work and removing their judgement.

These fears can combine with underlying suspicion of the diktats of senior leaders, Ofsted or the Department for Education into a rejection of anything resembling a checklist, for fear that standardisation and procedure is a step towards a Fordist assembly line of deskilled teachers.

Ford_assembly_line_-_1913

These were my opinions too, so how can I justify my advocacy of checklists?

Checklists cut through complexity

Teaching is incredibly complex.  On a recent visit to a medical education centre, I learned about ‘Crisis Resource Management’ – a crisis being a time when you face multiple tasks simultaneously under time pressure.  By this definition, classrooms are in near-permanent crisis.

In dealing with this complexity, a clear, codified set of procedures which helps us focus on key actions is essential.  Experienced teachers know how to approach wayward students, irate parents and intransigent projectors; for newer teachers or leaders, guidance is essential.  Without it we rely on each individual discovering what works through painful experimentation.  Written school policies, rarely read, are no substitute for checklists kept to hand.  Tim Scarborough describes how, just as pilots have checklists for any given situation in the cockpit, he has treasury-tagged a collection of checklists, which “sit by my desk for when I need them” and how much this has helped him to address the unrelenting challenge of teaching, when there is “so much to manage, so many different decisions and judgement calls to make”.

Checklists

If we think school is complex for teachers, imagine how complex it can seem to students, asked to remember how to formulate a paragraph one hour, how to set up an experiment the next – perhaps for the first time in a month.  Providing students with checklists may allow them to cut through the complex web of choices they could make, focusing on the best ones.

Checklists provide scope for creativity

Individuality and creativity are only possible within constraints.  Whether writing a haiku, performing a symphony or scoring a goal, excellence, experimentation and originality exist within a poetic form, a conductor’s guidance or the rules of football.

Fetishising individuality in a profession can be harmful.  Atul Gawande contrasts the high standards and low cost achieved by the Cheesecake Factory chain of restaurants with healthcare:

In medicine, too, we are trying to deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory, we haven’t figured out how. Our costs are soaring, the service is typically mediocre, and the quality is unreliable. Every clinician has his or her own way of doing things, and the rates of failure and complication (not to mention the costs) for a given service routinely vary by a factor of two or three, even within the same hospital.  (The Cheescake Factory)

In the same essay, a knee surgeon tells Gawande that: “Customization should be five per cent, not ninety-five per cent, of what we do”.  I don’t think that figure holds for classrooms, but teaching is too complicated and demanding for an individual teacher to ‘customise’ 95% of what they do to a high standard: no human can be an expert in content, planning, assessment, and the individual needs of all their students at once.  There are areas, like assessment and planning, where evidence-led standardisation might reduce the huge variability in outcomes between classrooms and teachers; this leaves scope for creativity and individuality where it really makes a difference: relationships with students and ‘customising’ lessons for the microclimates of particular classrooms and lessons.

Surgery

Put another way, it’s worth considering how harmful variety and creativity can be in schools.  Early in my teaching career, I tried to make every lesson different – card sorts one lesson, group activities the next, role play in a third.  I feared that anything other than constant change would bore my students.  This was demanding for me and confusing for them: students spent more time trying to figure out the activity than learning anything.

There are simple and effective approaches and structures I should have followed, and experimented within.  A clearly structured approach on my part to key questions: what the lesson would focus on, the knowledge required, the assessment method, would have ensured everyone was learning.  The intricacies of individual topics – the upheaval to local life caused by the Reformation, for example – would still have left ample scope for creative and experimental approaches.  Similarly, I gradually learned to share checklists with students to remind them of standard approaches to structuring paragraphs and UCAS forms.  Within these structures, there was ample scope for them to be creative and individual.  Effective ‘Dead Poets’-style teachers are one in a million: familiar and effective structures provide a wonderful space within which to be creative and individual; complete freedom from structure does not.

Professionals get the details right

I expect a pilot or a surgeon is that they get the details right.  Checking the aircraft’s height while struggling to restart an engine, or operating on the correct side of the body are unavoidable and essential.  I would trade a little creativity to ensure I don’t forget basic actions: accidentally missing an activity, an explanation or a reference under pressure is not a teaching strategy.

To give an example, the lesson planning checklist includes, ‘Motive: Why is this worth doing?’  If I expect students to engage wholeheartedly in their work, I need to share something of what makes the topic useful, fascinating and worthwhile.  I once wrote a Master’s essay of several thousand words on student motivation, so I shouldn’t need any reminder of its importance.  Planning in haste however, I have sometimes failed to include anything of the motive in lessons.  A checklist reminds me to share the motivation to learn; it was left to my skill, such as it was, to identify why the topic was of interest and how I could convey the importance of individuals’ lives hundreds of years ago to teenagers today.  Far from subsuming my professional judgement, a checklist reminded me to exercise it.

Checklists as a route towards professionalisation

I’ve suggested previously that checklists can boost wellbeing and reduce stress.  If checklists deskilled and deprofessionalised people, we would expect evidence of the harm they are causing.  Interestingly however, alongside the benefits in better patient outcomes on introducing patient safety checklists, other benefits were noted:

Use of a “preflight checklist” in Kaiser Permanente Southern California’s operating rooms resulted in improved nurse retention as turnover decreased from 23% to 7%.  Also, after implementation of Kaiser Permanente’s checklist, there was a decrease in the number of operative cases that were canceled or delayed.  (Adopting a sugical safety checklist could save money and improve the quality of care in U.S. hospitals)

Not only have checklists improved outcomes for patients, they have also made nurses happier in their work.

Moving towards codifying what good practice and effective teaching looks like may look scary.  But for parents, new teachers and new leaders, I suspect the current reliance on individual judgement and expertise is equally scary in a profession with such a difficult role.   Codifying our understanding of good practice is critical to professionalisation; as Lee Shulman argued nearly thirty years ago:

“One of the most important tasks for the research community is to work with practitioners to develop codified representations of the practical pedagogical wisdom of able teachers” (Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform)

Checklists need not be imposed on teachers: they can just as well be created by departments, schools or researchers, working together to establish and spread good practice.

Complex problems are best addressed by focusing on key aspects; individuals can best be creative within some boundaries; professionals follow procedures under pressure.  If we want students to manage any of the above, the same ideas apply.

It has been suggested that ticking things off a list provides us with an efficacy boost, a feeling of warm satisfaction… even ticking boxes may have its merits.

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