One of the books I read last year which had a great impact on me was Atul Gawande’s ‘The Checklist Manifesto’. A master of both surgery and prose (like so many of us…), Gawande’s descriptions of the realm of the checklist (from building sites to operating theatres) is an inspiring delight of a read.
The human brain, Gawande asserts, has the most marvellous capacity for storing memories, but its ability to recall them is less auspicious. With the huge cognitive loads we face day to day, it’s no wonder that Google has become a ‘second brain’ for many people; the act of remembering seems increasingly to be one replaced by Googling. And it’s the remembering of important, but sometimes overlooked steps in the processes of building and of surgery which got me thinking about teachers’ brains, and about how checklists might help them use research-based approaches in their work, but without them having to remember lots of steps. There’s enough complexity in a school day without me adding extra!
I could argue against my own position here, and quite easily. Surely, I would say, the complexity of teaching is such that reducing it to a series of checklist steps is a ridiculous idea that smacks of a lack of professional understanding. And yes, teaching is a complex, multidimensional activity which is nuanced and contextualised, but that is precisely why the case for using checklists is so strong. If we can agree – and there’s the rub – on a set of key points which should always be considered, or checked, then a checklist might help teachers refine their practice. It’s worth a shot.
I’m hugely interested in feedback and how it can be leveraged in schools to have a positive impact on learning. A look at the EEF’s Toolkit indicates that there is a body of robust research evidence which suggests that, on average, feedback used well has a positive impact on learning: there is a case for its inclusion in the professional work of teachers. Moreover, while there is variability in the ways feedback is used, there are certain key points on which there is agreement (focusing the feedback on the task, rather than the learner is one example), and, as such, there is scope for a checklist to be used.
I created the feedback checklist after reading several meta-analyses of feedback intervention studies; of particular interest is the work done by Valerie Shute in 2008 (Shute, 2008). From this reading I derived a set of yes/no items which I initially envisaged might be used by teachers to provide foci for supportive classroom observations, though some of the teachers to whom I gave the checklist used it in other ways: as a discussion tool in department meetings, and as a pre-marking reminder. At this stage, I’m interested in seeing if it changes teachers’ thinking about how they use feedback; how they implement it is entirely up to them. There are some items on the checklist that work better than others, I think, and there is certainly room for improvement.
Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78, 153-189.
I think checklists are dangerous in teaching, as I believe leaning is too complex to be reduced to a series of “can do” statements. Checklists and success criteria, particularly in the form of breaking down the examination requirements into a series of tick boxes, have been criticised by Daisy Christodoulou, David Didau, Martin Robinson and others, even Dylan Wiliam himself, whose ideas are often used to justify it. Moving on to your feedback checklist, I feel that a number of the items on it could be challenged. Is it always wrong to compare one student’s work with another, for example, if by looking at a “better” piece of work the first student could gain some ideas for improvement?
Where research offers ‘best bets’ for such things as how feedback is used in schools, we think checklists can have a function simply to point teachers towards them. With so much complexity in teaching, having something to which a teacher can refer quickly so that they are able to make sure they’re in the right ‘ballpark’ (trying to give feedback which is task- or process-focused, rather than learner-focused, for instance). I’ve mixed my metaphors a lot here, but the message is this: teaching is complex and checklists should not be used to reduce it to something simple and automated. Rather, we think they can reduce some of the cognitive load so that teachers can use their time and resources even more effectively.
The research suggests that, on average, comparisons of children’s work can have a negative impact on self-esteem, so I think that caution should be exercised when that situation may arise. Nonetheless, remember that research findings give an indication of average impacts, so the professional judgement of a teacher informed by good research evidence is likely to offer the most productive approach to getting a good balance.