Why are observations often better than ‘normal’ lessons?

The cynic may argue that teachers are good at covering themselves in front of their managers and ensuring they get their performance-related bonus.  Perhaps this is true, but in my experience there’s another force at work.  I start thinking about observed lessons a day or two earlier than others.  In the run up to the lesson, I keep turning the lesson over in my mind, working out where the flaws are, which bits matter most, what elements are missing.  I don’t do anything substantially different, I don’t give it much extra time, I just mentally test the lesson a little further.  As a consequence, I catch the gaps which sometimes emerge in ‘day-to-day’ teaching.

How can I make all my lessons as good as my best?

This process of checking and testing, if it is a cause of better teaching, should then, be applicable to all lessons.  Unfortunately, when faced with twenty lessons over the next few days, I struggle to build in the time and the attention to think through and weigh up every lesson to the same degree.  However, a simple checklist, of the kind I’m tacitly employing for observations, could fill this gap.

Atul Gawande using a checklist (presumably)
Atul Gawande using a checklist, presumably

I was inspired to begin using checklists having been convinced of their merits by Atul Gawande’s wonderful book The Checklist Manifesto (about which I wrote recently).  Gawande explains, for example, how integral their use is to flight safety: a Boeing checklist allowed what was learned from an engine failure in January 2008 to prevent another crash just ten months later.  In construction, checklists (and the collaboration they engender on complicated projects) have brought the “annual avoidable failure rate’ of buildings down to 0.00002% per year.  Gawande’s own study introduced checklists to operating theatres around the world; 78% of the participants saw checklists prevent surgical errors.  From a trial group of 4,000 patients, 150 people avoided harm, 27 lives were saved.  So I was convinced they could work, but I wasn’t sure how or when I might employ them; they seemed pretty simplistic – obvious even.

What makes a good checklist?

Gawande paraphrases a flight checklist designer:

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 could miss.”

In practice, a good checklist is likely to:

  • have no more than seven items
  • fit into a ninety second ‘pause point’ (a moment when a check is convenient and logical)
  • ensure different participants communicate with each other

Checklists may be “read/do” or “do/confirm:” in the former, I would read the item and then do it; the latter involves double-checking all my actions after they’ve been completed.

How have I used checklists?

When I finish planning a lesson, I pause and check:

  • Hook (How does the ‘Do Now’ gain students’ interest & get them thinking?)
  • Model (How is it clear what success looks like?)
  • Motive (Why is this worth doing? (Interesting, worthwhile, challenging))
  • Access (Can every student access the main ideas of the lesson?)
  • Challenge (How will everyone be challenged by the lesson?)
  • All student Check for Understanding (How will I know what every individual has learned?)
  • 3X (How will I ensure students are exposed to key ideas at least three times?)

When I am just about to begin a lesson (before students arrive), I pause and check:

  • Resources – mine (What things I’ve made do I need?)
  • Resources – generic (What classroom resources do I need?)
  • Work to be returned
  • Powerpoint
  • Cards (lollipop sticks)
  • Special (Who do I need to keep an eye on?  Who has earned a pat on the back?)

Do checklists work?

In my first eight days of employing checklists, here are some things I would have done:

  • forgotten to include a model answer in the lesson.
  • failed to check individually on a couple of students I was meant to.
  • left the (dry and uninspiring) lesson question unchanged.
  • printed out the sheets I needed but left them on the printer.
  • omitted to reorder my powerpoint slides, leaving me flicking in the wrong direction and confused. while also failing to print out spare sheets for students I knew had been away.
  • despite students having been confused in the middle of the lesson when I taught another class. leaving this unchanged and again failing to print the resources needed.

After the last catch on the list above, I stopped recording the errors I was avoiding and instead routinised the use of checklists.  I’m no more skilled or smarter, but my lessons are better.  I am a little better at doing the things I know I need to do and I know how to do.  These are small mistakes, which I am experienced enough to glide over fairly easily (and had taken little account of before I began this experiment, seeing them as inevitable symptoms of time pressure and my peripatetic existence).  Each error, however, costs me: time students could have been learning while I padded out discussions, sending someone to get my sheets for me; focus which would have been better spent on answering or asking questions, while I was working out how to recover from my error.  This is a marginal gain which frees time for me to focus on what really matters in the lesson.

A checklist is no panacea.  I have been tempted to omit its use on a number of occasions, when I’m in a hurry.  (It is at these moments I am far more likely to have missed something critical to the lesson, which a sixty second pause will allow me to establish).  I need to keep working to normalise its use, so that failing to use it becomes an active decision to break with my habit.  I am also trying to train myself into checking things physically rather than mentally too: the mental check that I have printed out something is no assurance I’ve collected it – indeed, I have checked once, checked twice and still failed to pick something up.

What happens next?

I’m still at the earliest stages of my checklist use.  As I was writing this, it occurred to me that a checklist on how I respond to disruptive behaviour might help me ensure that I treat something small and frustrating in period 6 with the same approach I would use at the start of period 1.  I’m convinced that checklists can be used in many more environments; there some great suggestions made during my PedagooSW workshop on this topic, including:

  • Changing the pop-up reminder asking ‘Do you need to print this?’ reminder to ask ‘Is the literacy level appropriate for your class?’ and ‘Are you printing on the right colour for your dyslexic students?’ (Chris Hildrew)
  • Writing down the names of students you didn’t manage to speak to sufficiently in one lesson and prioritising spending time with them in the next lesson (can the teacher who made this suggestion please get in touch so I can credit them with this great idea!)
  • A seven-point checklist of big “don’ts” for using Powerpoint (David Morgan)

I look forward to hearing more about how checklists can be used.

Update – September 2015

My interest in checklists grew to such an extent that I wrote a book about how to use them in teaching – including a collection for teachers and school leaders.  Available now to pre-order, out in January 2016.


Further reading

This book: my reviewThe Checklist Manifesto

Also by Atul Gawande: Better: my reviewthe book

Andy Day has written a wonderful post with his trademark humility and reflection, introducing checklists and offering a number of examples of how his school has used them for heads of department.

There are innumerable examples of checklists available online.