Checklists – high impact, low stress

I always thought I was an organised person until I became a teacher. When I did, it became apparent that the only reason I’d previously coped with what was required of me was that I didn’t take on more than I was able – didn’t take on extra responsibilities, didn’t see too many people, kept a rigid routine. Teaching exploded all of that with its endless demands, and on a couple of occasions has brought me to the edge of breakdown as a result of them.

I’ve long been looking for solutions to this (in some ways I’m addicted to the productivity section of the App Store), and so when I read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto it naturally resonated with me. Gawande’s idea, as expressed better by Harry Fletcher-Wood here, is that this staggeringly simple thing – a short list, to be either run through at certain key ‘pause points’ in an operation before proceeding or to check that all tasks needing to be completed have been completed – can have an enormous difference in situations of great complexity. And he’s got the evidence, too, in that his checklist project was taken on by the WHO and has literally saved millions of lives.

The theory behind it is that master surgeons or pilots internalise a lot of procedural knowledge, which most of the time they put into practice perfectly. However, in complex situations, their intuition can give them false confidence; they assume that they have done everything when they’ve in fact missed something out, and then people die. Implementing a checklist simply refines that mastery; it doesn’t deskill a practitioner, it takes the burden of remembering off their shoulders so that they can focus on what they’re doing.

Harry’s book is currently getting a lot of traction on Twitter, and rightly so – it’s brilliant. He’s not just outlined Gawande’s idea, but he’s given concrete examples of checklists that he uses himself and that he gives to students. Seeing how somebody has used these lists is invaluable, if only to give you ideas of your own, and he’s also given suggestions of how his lists can be adapted for your classes. That said, the proof of any technique like this is whether or not it actually saves time. So I tried it.

I picked out ten checklists from Harry’s book that I thought might be helpful – eg. Is this lesson plan complete, am I ready to start this lesson, does this action deserve a sanction – and had them laminated. This is what the airlines do – they have a file of checklists for any given situation, which they follow if it comes to it. I’ve treasury-tagged them together and they sit by my desk for when I need them.

On the first day, they saved me from three issues. I checked before starting my first block of two lessons and realised I’d forgotten to print off a key worksheet for the lesson; I printed them and no-one was the wiser. I was meant to collect homework in from one class and I’d forgotten – the checklist caught it. That night, I checked my lesson plans and ensured they had models and a ‘hook’ to get students into the lesson. Most did. One did not. Fixing it took me two minutes.

On day two, I faced a difficult Year 10 class. I sent a boy out and checked my sanction checklist. Normally I’d have spoken to him and given him a stern talking to before issuing a warning. I checked the list. It took me fifteen seconds and I realised he needed a sanction. There was no doubt in my mind. I felt calm, professional and in control. I did the same thing later that day with a difficult student in one of my difficult Year 7 Literacy classes.

On Thursday I had a parents evening. Using the checklist for that was a no-brainer.

I am not a calm and peaceful person by nature. I am anxious and prone to stress. Mostly, I cope with teaching, and I do a decent job for my students, but it wears me out. And for me, that is my favourite thing about checklists. They are easy to set up and they take the stress out of some of those processes. There is so much to manage, so many different decisions and judgement calls to make, that sometimes it is nearly impossible to hold on to them all. So far, two weeks in, checklists have made that manageable for me, and may just make teaching manageable in the long-term. Are they a panacea? Of course not. But as a low-cost, high-impact solution, their importance can’t be overstated. Not to mention the time they’ve saved me in surfing the App Store.

[You should buy Harry’s book Ticked Off here and Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto here. Both are well worth the money.]