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May 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 8

The Principal Connection / Checking for Checklists

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I remember lying on the operating room table, looking up and seeing quite a few people, all dressed in blue scrubs, every face covered by a mask. One individual came over and pulled down the mask so that her face was exposed, and I recognized my surgeon. She greeted me, asked me how I was feeling, and assured me that things would be fine. She then introduced me to the anesthesiologist who also pulled down her mask and said hello. The next memory I have is of the postsurgery intensive care unit. Thanks to the skills and preparation of my surgeon and the many other health care professionals involved in that surgery years ago, I'm now back to my normal.

Learning from Experience

These memories came back to me when I read Atul Gawande's new book, The Checklist Manifesto (Metropolitan Books, 2010). It's always fun to learn how professionals in other fields approach problems, and I've learned a lot from Gawande, a surgeon/writer who writes on medical issues and their applicability to society. He often causes me to think about education and what I might do differently to be more effective.
For example, in an earlier book, Complications(Metropolitan Books, 2002), Gawande wrote about how important it is for a surgeon to have a great deal of experience doing a particular operation. You want to be operated on by someone who has done this specific surgerymany times. Gawande talks not just about repeated experience—which is important—but also about the analysis and reflection that accompany it. The merit of experience is not just in having the experience, but in learning from it.
When I think about school administration, it's clear that we spend much more time planning than reviewing. We spend hours making plans, acquiring new information, and learning new skills. We spend far less time gathering data on our performance and learning from our experiences. Gathering data involves analyzing test scores, but that's just the beginning. It also means finding out how our students perceive lessons and school, asking parents and teachers for feedback, and taking time to assess ourselves. Who succeeds in our classes and why? How often does a student's scholastic trajectory change? Which of our teachers are energized and learning even as they "make new mistakes," and why are they so energized? What interventions are successful, and which ones don't work?
This kind of reflection and analysis, done first individually and then with colleagues, isn't easy—it can even be a bit painful. But it is necessary if we are to capitalize on our experiences. Unless we allocate the time to do this regularly throughout the year, it won't happen. We're always too busy planning how to address the next problem to take time to analyze what went right and wrong in trying to solve the last one.

Planning with Checklists

The Checklist Manifesto makes the case that we all need checklists when we engage in solving complex problems, regardless of our skills. In demonstrating the effectiveness of checklists, Gawande cites U.S. Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger's successful landing of flight 1549 on the Hudson River. He also offers examples from operating rooms, including his own. Instinct and memory are important, but it's easy to overlook small, yet important details at a crucial moment. That's why a checklist is essential. There are differences among flying planes, performing surgery, teaching students, and leading a school, but I wonder what checklists would be helpful to teachers. What checklists would be beneficial for me? What do I take for granted that I shouldn't?
A checklist can help us ensure that we accomplish the basics. In the operating room, is there a sufficient supply of blood in case a transfusion is needed? Or, in flying, are the wing flaps in the proper position? But a checklist can also address problems that aren't so obvious. One of the items on the surgical checklist, for example, requires that all the individuals in the operating room lower their masks and introduce themselves to the rest of the team. Often the nurses, doctors, and anesthesiologists haven't worked together before, and introductions flatten the hierarchy a bit. As a result, nurses are far more likely to speak up during the surgery, to point out something the surgeon may have missed or to make a suggestion about another way of proceeding.
I'm struck by how this simple act of introductions changes interactions in a powerful way. We don't wear surgical masks in schools, but it makes me wonder what we should be doing to ensure that everyone is actively involved in solving problems. Maybe we need a checklist.
This August when my faculty and I plan for the coming year, one of our tasks will be to consider what checklistswe might create. How might checklists address the necessary steps for eliciting student engagement, differentiated instruction, or principal renewal? I can envision checklists that ensure that we have reviewed all aspects of a student's progress, that teachers have incorporated all of our talking points in their presentations to parents, and that I have spoken to all the relevant stakeholders before I initiate action. Then we need to evaluate the effectiveness of the checklists during and at the end of the school year. We might decide that a checklist isn't applicable to some situations, but even so, the reflection and dialogue will be beneficial.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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