Sir Tim Brighouse: On Checklists

Sir Tim Brighouse: On Checklists

In the foreword for Ticked Off, Sir Tim Brighouse offered his thoughts on checklists:

Like the author, I am not a natural fan of checklists.

The roots of my dislike probably can be traced to having an excellent memory when I was young and being a bit over-pleased with myself for that good fortune, which for a long time I assumed was connected with our view at that time about what it was to be intelligent. My attitude is best illustrated by anecdote. As a very young Deputy at Chepstow Community College in the mid-1960s I worked with a head towards the end of his career whose working practice included summoning me each morning for a briefing. I recall thinking him rather pathetic for having a ‘list’ in his hand as he ran through what needed to be done that day and I remember his puzzlement that I didn’t take any notes of the many tasks he required of me. I had no difficulty in recall. Now of course I not only need lists but often find I can’t remember where I have put them!

To do list

Image: Justin See

But my prejudice against lists had two further aspects. First I thought checklists the enemy of creativity, especially in teaching, which I saw as more of an art than a science, and therefore ‘lists’ were to be avoided at all costs. Secondly when I later deployed weekly ‘to do’ lists drawn up on a Sunday evening for the following week, I became depressed at my inability to tick any of them off as the crisis of the days that followed displaced them and the urgent overtook the important. I even considered the temptation recounted to me by a Scottish educator of adding things on a Friday that had been done simply to gain the pleasure of ticking them off.

So like Harry Fletcher-Wood, I approached Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto with some scepticism. But like all good books it caused me to think. Of course I had long realised that good management and administration is about ‘doing things right’ to complement the strategic imperative of doing the ‘right things’. For schools this was best expressed by the Victorian Head of Uppingham who once said ‘I take my stand on detail’. So I accepted in the administration and management of schools, checklists had their place. Of course this book will show you how the checklist has an essential role in good and effective lessons and learning. Perhaps the primary practitioner has always known that: certainly the widespread practice of giving pupils regular tasks – the classroom monitor syndrome – relies on the checklist approach. This book takes our thinking so much further with an abundance of practical examples.

As schools wrestle with the conundrum of what are the ‘non-negotiables’ in their teaching and learning policy and practice and as they seek to strike a balance between ‘singing from the same song sheet’ yet not doing so to the extent that they hem the individual teacher around with so many ‘must dos’ that they stifle creativity, they’ll find this book more than useful – in practice an invaluable aid to discussion in whole school, departmental and phase meetings.

I had a glimpse the other day in a primary classroom of practice which I thought reflected the surgical practice outlined in the Checklist Manifesto where Gawande explains how consultants were initially resistant to the checklist approach and were only won over by the nurse taking the role in the operating theatre of running through the checklist since for the consultant to do so was an affront to dignity. In the classroom I caught sight of two year 6 pupils at the start of the session were running through the requirements of the teacher’s lesson plan as she smilingly looked on, nodding as it came to issue affecting her and the rest of the class also checked as it came to issues that would involve them playing their part in what was to unfold.

So I commend this book as a stimulus to improving practice in schools and classrooms across the country. It will lead to better learning for pupils and, as I saw the other day, perhaps their involvement in the checklist process.

Ticked Off is available now.