A Simple Way To Solve Complex Problems In Schools

Key Takeaways

  1. Use Checklists. They are a great low-cost way to manage complex problems.
  2. Use them to improve communication and productivity. Don’t just list what needs to be done, use checklists to help people communicate more effectively.
  3. Use them to improve Professionalism and Reliability. Checklists can help people work out what to do when things don’t go to plan.
  4. Use them to build distributive leadership and systematic improvement. Checklists can help you empower others to improve a school
  5. Make them effective. Not too short, not too long.

A simple way to address complex problems in schools

Use Checklists

Teachers and school leaders value their professional judgement and autonomy so suggesting that checklists will benefit your daily work may seem like another threat to educators’ professionalism. Atul Gawande challenges this notion in The Checklist Manifesto arguing that when used well, the humble checklist not only improves practice but also enhances professionalism and effectiveness.

From The Checklist Manifesto:

“We need a different strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies. And there is such a strategy – though it will seem almost ridiculous in its simplicity, maybe even crazy for those of us who have spent years carefully developing ever more advanced skills and technologies.  It is a checklist.”

Many of the problems encountered in fields like education are complex problems. These are problems for which known solutions are not assured of being effective.

Gawande explains complex problems with the analogy of raising a second child. Having raised a child before parents may bring some knowledge and experience in raising their second, but this does’t mean the same strategies will work for kid number 2 (something both authors of this post can attest to). Complex problems come up often in schools and checklists can help.

Let’s say you want to implement a new initiative to improve literacy. Although there might be a wealth of research supporting this program, and guidelines detailing its implementation, the complexity and unique nature of any given school can still undermine its effectiveness. 

There are several complex problems in schools that checklists can support. In each, checklists increase the effectiveness of outcomes and improve aspects of professionalism that flow from their use. Let us dive a little deeper into how you can use checklists in your work.

Use checklists to improve communication and productivity

Teachers work in teams now. Gone are the days where a teacher closed their door and ‘chalk-and-talked’ their way through the lesson. Instead, education has become more collaborative.

Units and lessons are developed and, in some cases, delivered by more than one teacher. Teamwork in schools comes with challenges. Schools are messy and imperfect places with a wide range of staff bringing different specialisations and interests to their work.

For a school to succeed, these different people need to work together to develop, execute and evaluate long term plans and solve problems when things don’t go to plan.

Checklists can help with this. Gawande gives an example of their effectiveness in the construction industry. Construction has also moved towards more collaboration. No more Master Builders who know and can do everything. Instead, large-scale construction relies on a large and diverse team to work together. Joe Salvia, a structural engineer, used a particular type of checklist to build a ‘team system’ during the development of a major hospital.

Salvia’ checklists managed the the array of people and processes involved in the project. Salvia didn’t just list tasks and timelines though, his checklists included a “submittal schedule” that ensured the right types of communication were happening during the project.

From The Checklist Manifesto:

“It was also a checklist, but it did not specify construction tasks; it specified communication tasks. For the way that project managers dealt with the unexpected and uncertain was by making sure the experts spoke to one another …

could make their individual judgement, but they had to do so as a part of a team that took one another’s concerns into account, discussed unplanned developments, and agreed on the way forward.”

Good checklists are not a top-down thing that are pushed to frontline workers by their manages for compliance-based box-ticking, instead they improve the way people work.

In Salvia’s case, all workers on the project were able to use software to communicate, enabling to message one another with problems, queries or suggestions.  The program then generated a communication checklist in which all relevant parties were able to respond to in a set period to allow everyone to contribute to a solution.

Let’s say you’re dealing with poor academic progress by a student leading to a student support meeting. It can be tricky for schools to know that that all the inputs needed for this meeting are going to be there when they need to be.

Has every teacher has been contacted for feedback? Is this the latest data is available for the meeting? Have all involved staff conferenced before the meeting about their expectations and possible outcomes for the student?

The right checklist can really help with this.

Use checklists to improve professionalism and reliability

How clear is it to teachers in your school what they do when something goes wrong? Checklists can be a powerful tool for ‘non-normal’ but foreseeable events.

This could be a high-level security threat for students on an excursion, or something more mundane like a regular teacher absence. When things go off script, the right kind of checklist can help.

The aviation industry is no stranger to checklists, but they have found them useful for working out what to do when things do not go to plan. Daniel Boorman from the Boeing aviation company explains.

From The Checklist Manifesto:

“First came what pilots call their “normal” checklists – the routine lists they use for everyday aircraft operations. There were the checks they do before starting the engines, pulling away from the gate, before taxiing to the runway, and so on. The rest of the handbook consisted of the “non-normal” checklists covering every conceivable emergency…they address situations most pilots never encounter in their careers. But the checklists were there if they should need them.”

The reliability (remember that flying in a commercial plane is overwhelming safer than driving a car) and professionalism of the aviation industry is not just aided by checklist; it is because of checklists that flying is so professional and reliable. Importantly, this is not a static process, where you make a checklist and stop. Instead, good checklists result from iterative processes of continuous refinements that respond to new information.

In education, Robert Marzano has examined a range of high-reliability organisations and made a framework detailing what they can teach schools. This work is encapsulated in his book ‘High Reliability Schools.’

While schools do not have the resources to undertake an ‘air crash investigation’ every time a student misses a learning target, Marzano’s work suggests that school should be collecting a range of leading and lagging indicators to monitor progress towards whole school goals. His framework has five key areas of reliability for schools to ensure regular ‘smooth landings’.

Use checklists to build distributive leadership and systematic improvement

Having a capable and well-led team is essential in successful schools. The ability to empower all staff to take responsibility for their own defined responsibility and to enforce school values and norms, no matter what the scenario, helps teachers and students perform better.

This sort of distributed leadership is also vital in hospitals where surgical teams work together seamlessly to perform miracles in the operating theatre. On a daily basis though, any number of small oversights or omissions by surgeons and their teams can result in avoidable death and permanent injury. Gawande describes the problems faced by teams working in this environment.

From The Checklist Manifesto:

“We need them [all staff] to see their job as not just performing their isolated set of tasks well but also as helping the group to get the best possible results. This requires finding a way to ensure that the group let nothing fall between the cracks and also adapts as a team to whatever problems might arise.”

At this point, there are no prizes for guessing Gawande’s solution to maximising distributive leadership. Gawande initially trialled a ‘Surgical Checklist’ during operations performed by himself and his medical team.

This didn’t got to plan right away. In the early stages, Gawande made the mistake of turning the checklist into a bureaucratic accountability measure. Team members felt that that the list needed to be a verbal team building exercise, not just a written compliance exercise.

Nor was the checklist successful when it was to be seen being solely led by the surgeon in charge. Just like schools, the operating room works most effectively when it is not just directives sliding down the pay-scale. Finally, Gawande found that it was necessary to slim down the checklist so that it was workable and not a drag on productivity.

The use of checklists in surgery by was trialed in 8 hospitals around the world through the World Health Organisation. This trial saw a reduction in major complications for surgical patients by 36 per cent and a fall in deaths by 47 per cent. There was also a fall in issues that were not addressed by the checklist such as surgical bleeding.

After analysing the survey data of staff involved in the trail, Gawande and his colleagues concluded that an increased sense of teamwork, communication and the distributive leadership ingrained in the checklist was key to the fantastic improvements in results and patients lives.

Schools are complicated places; distributive leadership can increase the chance of school-wide systematic improvement. Learning from Gawande’s mistakes, distributive leadership should not be able delegating responsibilities, but rather empowering every member of staff to have a pair of eyes to observe and a voice to alert the team if anything looks like it will slip through the cracks.

Want to identify where these sorts of checklists can help at your school? Think about the regular tasks in your class or school that where human error leads to important steps being missed in a process.

Make your checklist effective

Just as there is a high-level investigation every time a plane crashes, a building fails, or there is a surgical death; so too should schools be investigating why students haven’t attained the necessary knowledge, skills and understandings to maximise their potential.

Unlike the fields presented by Gawande, schools do not receive the funding of a major airport or hospital so rolling out an investigation team every time a student misses an expected milestone is not realistic. However, in balance to this, the humble checklist may be the lowest cost idea in our field.

So how do you create a practical and effective checklist? Like many things, there is a sweet spot – checklists should be neither too short nor too long. Effective checklists cover the primary requirement of the given procedure as well as addressing the easily foreseen problems that may arise.

If a checklist is too long, it can become unusable or unwieldy. The best checklists are shared documents in which the team is accountable to not individuals; although individuals may be delegated tasks, it is the collective that is responsible.

On a daily basis, teachers and school leaders are bombarded with a plethora of information and have to make thousands of instantaneous decisions. Combine this with the complexity of maintaining hundreds of individual relationships, on top of yard duties, parent meetings, marking, preparation, first aid and all the other priorities being juggled in schools; working in education comes with a high degree of cognitive burden.

As a result, despite the best efforts of those working in schools, things get missed. The humble checklist is not a threat to teachers’ professionalism, but rather an aid to reduced the cognitive burden of decision making and problem-solving to streamline and sustain the work of schools. Ultimately, the checklist is an aid to minimise our foreseeable mistakes.

Key Takeaways

  1. Use Checklists. They are a great low-cost way to manage complex problems
  2. Use them to improve communication and productivity. Don’t just list what needs to be done, use checklists to help people communicate more effectively
  3. Use them to improve Professionalism and Reliability. Checklists can help people work out what to do when things don’t go to plan
  4. Use them to build distributive leadership and systematic improvement. Checklists can help you distribute leadership and empower others to improve a school
  5. Make them effective. Not too short, not too long.