Checklists can feel tedious and reductive, especially in a field like education, where the autonomy of the teacher is so important to success. Some argue that the art of teaching cannot be reduced to a simplistic 15-item checklist, or that telling teachers to use a checklist exactly as it is written de-professionalizes teaching and ignores teacher expertise. This can be true; when used incorrectly, checklists can inhibit learning. However, when used correctly, checklists are vitally important power tools for learning.
In their new book, The Instructional Playbook: The Missing Link for Translating Research into Practice, authors Jim Knight, Ann Hoffman, Michelle Harris, and Sharon Thomas discuss why checklists are important, how to properly use them to communicate and implement complex teaching strategies, and they explain how checklists fit into one of the most practical tools available to coaches and teachers: an instructional playbook.
What Not to Do
As evidenced by common, negative perceptions of checklists, there are many ways to use them poorly. In the context of instructional coaching, three common mistakes should be avoided to ensure effectiveness:
- Assuming a simplistic list captures all that is important for the complex art of teaching
Teachers must adapt to each student as best as they can. Each class is its own unique learning culture: What works at 8:15 might not work at 2:15, and what works with one student might not work with another. Given such complexity, any attempt to create a simple checklist for all of teaching is likely doomed to fail. Checklists dramatically increase the precision and clarity of our explanations of particular teaching strategies and practices within strategies. Checklists can be used for at least four purposes:
- to describe how to do something, such as write guiding questions for a unit
- to describe quality characteristics, such as the characteristics of effective learning maps
- to describe what teachers do
- to describe what students do
- Assuming that one size fits all
A strict focus on fidelity sends a message to teachers that leaders view reform as a problem that they have identified, solved, and require teachers to implement the solution exactly as they dictate. This discounts teachers’ knowledge, experience, capacity, and especially their knowledge of their individual students, and it encourages teacher resistance in taking on the new strategy. Telling teachers to implement exactly the steps of a checklist also often decreases teacher motivation.
What knowledge workers, in this case teachers, do for a living is think; if someone else (researchers, administrators, policy-makers) does the thinking for teachers, teachers will resist. The notion that an educational practice works the same way in every district, school, and classroom and for every individual student is great in theory, but students are complex human beings who require different approaches depending on where they are in their life and learning. Teachers, too, have different strengths, so most teaching strategies will look different in different hands.
- Explaining checklists without listening
Conversations about checklists should not be one-way, with the coach telling the teacher what to do without asking for feedback from the teacher, expecting the teacher to do just what they are told. Teachers have a lot of knowledge about students and about teaching, and that knowledge must be valued. Telling and not listening is not an effective communication strategy.
After coaches have done the deep work of creating checklists for an instructional playbook, they should share ready-made checklists with teachers precisely but provisionally. Often, because of their knowledge of their students and their ability as professionals, teachers suggest revisions that improve the teaching plan embodied in the checklist.
Why Checklists Are Important
Teaching is an endlessly complex profession that requires expert technical skill as well as an artful discernment to address the unique needs of each student in each learning situation. When it comes to instructional coaching, checklists are an essential tool to:
- Gain clarity
- According to Michael Fullan, “false clarity occurs when change is interpreted in an oversimplified way.” Checklists remind us of the steps of a process—they make and keep the tacit knowledge (knowledge gained through unique personal experience and involving intangible factors) explicit.
- Avoid the curse of knowledge
- Using a checklist to explain a strategy ensures that we don’t overlook something that we have learned so well that we might forget to explain it.
- Check for understanding
- Stopping and checking is a way of allowing each teacher’s internal dialogue to become external. Asking directly for teacher voice when explaining the checklist can not only increase partnership and enhance the coaching relationship; it also can improve implementation.
- Improve explanations & implementation
- Too many strategies overwhelm, and so does too much explanation. Keeping the checklist simple while ensuring that every essential element is captured requires an ongoing balancing act to make implementation more visible and easier for teachers.
Along with a Table of Contents and One-Pagers describing each teaching strategy, checklists are one of the three elements of an instructional playbook. Creating checklists can seem like a daunting task, but keeping in mind the following crucial steps helps them come together efficiently:
- By positioning collaborating teachers as the decision maker right from the start, it is much easier for teacher and coach to have a conversation where they are thinking together.
- Work independently
- The first step in creating a checklist is to have everyone create their own unique checklist without anyone else’s assistance to ensure that no important information is overlooked. When everyone creates an individual checklist first, more items will be included, and the team is less likely to leave out important information.
- To make it easier to see and learn from everyone else’s checklists, we suggest each person writes his or her checklist on chart paper and posts it in the room. Then the group facilitator can ask the group to identify common elements (or specific individual elements that might be grouped into a more general item on a checklist), while writing a common checklist on chart paper or a white board.
- To ensure that all of the important elements that make a checklist helpful are included, we suggest that team members scrutinize the checklists they are creating for the following five characteristics in our Checklist for Checklists (drawn from the ideas of Daniel Boorman, a former pilot who created many checklists developed by Boeing).
- Finally, a key piece of creating effective checklists is having a process in place to examine checklists over and over again for relevance, for modification, and to ensure that they continue to hit each item on the Checklist for Checklists.
The creation of an instructional playbook helps coaches develop the deep knowledge they need in order to effectively support teacher learning and clearly communicate strategies for teachers, and checklists are a practical and indispensable piece of a playbook that has been proven to improve implementation of complex tasks. The books, articles, and TED Talks of renowned surgeon and author Atul Gawande are a great example of the profound effect checklists can have, even for experts in a particular field.
However, some teachers have a negative response to the term “checklist.” It can feel like a mandate. It can feel restrictive and judgmental. Teachers may think, “You can’t capture everything a teacher has to do in a lesson in a checklist,” and they’re right. Teaching is too complex for such limited thinking. Therefore, the checklists we describe are tools, created in an environment of partnership, to help teachers get better at what they do. In a profession where change is constant and the responsibility is intense, the humble checklist can foster clarity and confidence on improvements as teachers work to create the best learning environments for students.
Create an instructional playbook of your own! The Instructional Playbook: The Missing Link for Translating Research into Practice, written by Jim Knight, Ann Hoffman, Michelle Harris, and Sharon Thomas, is now available for purchase here on the ICG website.