Checklists force communication among colleagues

Roland Barth incisively observed, “[T]he relationships among the educators in a school define all relationships within that school’s culture. Teachers and administrators demonstrate all too well a capacity to either enrich or diminish one another’s lives and thereby enrich or diminish their schools.”

Amen. But for schools with room to improve (i.e. every single one), what does a culture shift toward better relationships look like? Tinkering or wholesale reform? Human knots? Happy hours? Clique-busting in the lounge? Collaborative planning periods? All of the above and more?

This weekend I tore through a compelling new book, The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, which gave me another idea. Gawande is a Harvard-based surgeon, writer of two previous award-winning bestsellers, MacArthur Genius Grant Recipient, leader of the World Health Organization Save Surgery Saves Lives program, and all-around world-beater. The subtitle of the book “How to Get Things Right” caught my attention. If Dr. Gawande wanted to tell a teacher perpetually seeking to get things right how to do it, I was in.






Of course, the book claims up front that checklists are useful. But why? What makes a good checklist? Can teachers use this? (I think so.)

Gawande offers a handful of well-chosen case studies in operating rooms, construction sites, airplane cockpits, venture capitalist brains, and high-end restaurant kitchens illustrating the consistency and collaboration that using a checklist can provide. When an operating team huddles before a surgery to run through a safe surgery checklist, the risk of complications decreased sharply. For starters, each team member introduces himself by name (a nonstandard practice in a great many operating rooms), a practice that removes much of the reticence of many nurses to call out doctors when they observe mistakes in progress. Running through the standard procedure for running lines into a patient drops the line infection rate from occasional to zero.  The nurses may have prepared lines many times, but in the heat of the moment, important little things can be forgotten— unless there is a check in place.

The Checklist Manifesto moves like a Malcolm Gladwell book. (Bestseller-machine Gladwell even appears on the back cover for an enthusiastic blurb.) It’s a good read. Gawande suggests convincingly that it’s too much for a surgeon, or a builder, or a pilot (or, we can extrapolate, a teacher) to hold in one’s mind every little thing that needs taking care of in all contingencies. We forget things, we re-shuffle our priorities, we respond to emergencies. Without a check— coming from a checklist or a colleague— things can get unnecessarily fouled up. As we pursue excellence in our craft, this cost-free (if initially annoying) option warrants consideration.

Good checklists are crafted on the ground and are constantly evolving. They should not take more than a minute to run through. Five to nine essential items. Clear and concise.

Perhaps most importantly, checklists require collaborators to talk to each other. This is where they can be of real use in schools, where too often each classroom becomes its own island. A functioning classroom has so many moving parts that the opportunities to use checklists with students and colleagues are vast.

I can see the adoption in schools of non-threatening, teamwork-oriented, locally-created checklists leading to better relationships among educators and better outputs for students. Roland Barth would like it.