Friday, February 26, 2010

Towards A Checklist Manifesto for Good Instruction

Every once in a while, in between coding and writing for my dissertation, I actually have time to work on cleaning off the DVR. Actually, the DVR many times threatens to explode and take my house out with it unless I clear some things off. Well, anyway, I was watching an episode of John Stewart and he had a guest - Dr. Atul Gawande - who authored the book, The Checklist Manifesto. This book, which I am in the process of reading, describes the process of developing the checklist to be used by surgeons and a study that evaluated the impact of using checklist within the operating room. The idea for the checklist was borrowed from the aviation industry referencing the checklist that pilots use to prepare the plane for takeoff. The idea was to develop a checklist that surgeons could use in the operating room to ensure that key steps were not omitted. After the checklist was developed and implemented, the study to examine the effectiveness of the checklists found significant drops in postsurgical complications and deaths. For more information on this book, I will refer you to the New York Times article entitled, A Hospital How-To Guide That Mother Would Love.

After watching the interview and beginning to read the book, I began thinking about the instructional planning process that teachers go through as they prepare their lessons. I believe that all teachers want their students to learn. I also believe that there is a pragmatic aspect to lesson planning and that, sometimes, even the best teachers may fall into a routine of using certain strategies or techniques repeatedly due to comfort, the pace of planning and implementing learning experiences, etc. I know, at least, that from time to time I have fallen into that trap. I have also experienced putting together and executing really good lessons where all students were engaged and 'got it' and other lessons that I felt 'if I only did these things differently' the precious time I had with the students would have been better spent. As I talk with other teachers, this phenomenon seems to be a shared experience.

In addition, teachers are bombarded with so many, well intentioned initiatives and models - Response to Intervention, Differentiated Instruction, Universal Design for Learning, Understanding by Design, Direct Instruction, 21st Century Learning, and so on. These initiatives and models have both similar attributes and some differences. Some have greater degrees of efficacy research supporting the initiative/model and others have less. Teachers also have different awareness and understanding of these initiatives and models and may or may not ascribe to one or more of these. Put in the words of one of my K-12 teaching colleagues as we were sitting in the start of the year meeting, "I wonder what the model for instruction will be this year?"

Suffice to say, the instructional planning process for teachers is complex.

So, that brings me to thinking about what a checklist might look like for good instruction. Would a checklist - say no more than 5-7 items - that teachers would consult every time they plan be a good thing? The checklist would contain the 'must haves' for each and every learning experience for which they are planning. The items on the checklist would result in learning experiences that allow every student to learn and be successful.

What would be the components of such a checklist?

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