“What the hell is this?” I silently asked myself as I cleared the boot of my car and found a book with the improbable title of The Checklist Manifesto. Inside, on the flyleaf, was a message of thanks for a talk I had given to Newham secondary headteachers. I began to read.
I am not a natural fan of checklists. The roots of my dislike lie in having an excellent memory when young and in being overpleased with that good fortune. My attitude is best illustrated by anecdote. As a young deputy at Chepstow Community College in the mid 1960s, I worked with a head near retirement whose working practice included summoning me for a daily briefing. I recall thinking him rather pathetic for having a “list” in his hand as he ran through what needed to be done each day and for his evident puzzlement that I didn’t take any notes about the many tasks he required of me. Then, I remembered everything: now, of course, I not only need lists, but often find I can’t remember where I’ve put them.
But my prejudice against lists had two further aspects. First, I thought checklists the enemy of creativity, especially in teaching, which I saw as more an art than a science. Second, when I later deployed weekly to-do lists drawn up on a Sunday evening for the following week, I became depressed at my inability to tick any of them off as the crisis of the days that followed displaced them and the urgent overtook the important. I even considered the temptation recounted to me by a Scottish educator of adding things on a Friday that had already been done simply to gain the pleasure of ticking them off.
So I read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto with less scepticism than I would have when I was younger. Like all good books, it caused me to think. His case for checklists affecting hospital practice and safety is persuasive – and his description of its vital role in the plane that landed on the Hudson river riveting. But did it apply to schools? Of course, I had long realised that good management and administration was about “doing things right” to complement the strategic imperative of “doing the right things”. So I accepted, in the administration and management of schools, that checklists had their place. But what about in teaching itself?
I thought checklists the enemy of creativity, especially in teaching, which I saw as more an art than a science
Then Harry Fletcher-Wood produced Ticked Off – for which I have written the foreword – which shows how the checklist has an essential role in effective lessons and learning. Schools are wrestling with the conundrum of what the non-negotiables are in teaching and learning policy and practice, and seeking to strike a balance between professionals singing from the same song sheet and not hemming the individual teacher in with so many must-dos that they stifle creativity. As they do so, they’ll find Ticked Off more than useful – in practice and as an invaluable aid to discussion in whole-school, departmental and phase meetings.
Last summer term, I had a glimpse in a primary classroom of something that I thought reflected the surgical practice outlined in The Checklist Manifesto, where Gawande explains how consultants were initially resistant to a checklist approach in the operating theatre but were won over by the nurse taking the role of running through the checklist, since for the consultant to do so was an affront to their dignity.
In the classroom, two Year 6 pupils at the start of the session ran through the requirements of the teacher’s lesson plan as she looked on, nodding as items affecting her were mentioned, while the rest of the class also noted issues that would affect them, playing their part in what was to unfold.
Somewhere in there is a lesson for the wider educational community.
Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London