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How a Checklist Manifesto Can Take School Culture Deeper

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman, a journalist and educator who for more than 25 years has documented deeper learning in articles, books, and mixed media. Her book with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools, will be published in September by Harvard Education Press. 

In my previous post, I wrote about the crucial relationships of trust that support a shift toward learning more deeply.

That may explain why teachers at Springfield Renaissance School, a Massachusetts district magnet school for grades 6 through 12, once spent their first professional day of the year on a scavenger hunt.  As they raced to various community sites in search of items historic or hilarious, said Principal Stephen Mahoney, they were learning to work together as a team on a common mission, and to take risks with each other.

And it also might explain why this school leader swears by Atul Gawande's book The Checklist Manifesto. Though developed with hospital safety in mind, its message applies equally to the health of a learning culture.

"Once we know which actions affect the outcome, we've got to make sure everyone does them consistently," Mahoney says. So the checklist has become part of his manifesto, too.


The checklist in the classroom

I wondered whether a checklist approach in the classroom would reek of scripted curriculum. But in this Expeditionary Learning school, the common lesson formats that teachers follow encourage autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

To suit their students' needs, they may choose a workshop or a discovery process; a multi-step protocol, lab, or game-based activity; even a lecture or video. But every class period has certain key elements in common. It starts with clearly stated learning targets--for academic content, habits of work, and even character development. And it closes with a debrief, where students and teacher synthesize and reflect on their learning in all those areas.

(Listen as Mahoney reflects on the value of a classroom debrief on social-emotional learning targets.)

Used in teacher planning and in classroom observations, a checklist like this ensures that essential learning processes don't get skipped. Not only does deeper academic inquiry result, Mahoney believes, but the daily closing debrief forges common bonds of trust. "To talk openly about matters of culture and character traits and habits of work, everyone has to make themselves vulnerable," he said. "It opens the heart."

The checklist in the hallways

In its startup years, despite "a very loving culture for the kids," Mahoney recalled, the new school often edged into chaos in classrooms and halls. Working with a teacher task force, he identified half a dozen minor antisocial behaviors that he believes "eat away at the consistency and the quality of the learning environment."

All of the school's adults now agree to consistently impose clear consequences for those matters -- a list that they revise and prioritize each year. Without sacrificing empathy and nurturance, the principal said, that checklist approach to behavior turned the school culture toward order and respect.

The checklist in teacher collaboration

Teacher teams also use checklists to schedule, plan, prepare for, and facilitate their meetings. With eight meetings each month during the school year, they devote three to logistics, two to responding to data; two to "student talk," and one to curriculum planning.

To facilitate administrative supports, every administrator joins a teacher team. And to keep meetings organized, engaging, and productive, there's not only a checklist for meeting preparation but also a standard template for its process (including, naturally, a closing debrief!).

The checklist for inclusiveness

I don't actually know if Springfield Renaissance School uses a checklist to remind people of the crucial role that students, families, and the larger community play in creating a deeper learning culture.

Yet several practices reveal that inclusiveness counts as a "must do" here.

  • All students take part in setting and reviewing school norms and commitments. This happens in an advisory structure called crew (which has its own checklists, of course!).
  • All families play a role in student self-assessment, goal-setting, and performance review. This happens three times a year, when families come in for conferences where the student takes the lead. They come again for culminating presentations of "passage portfolios," at the end of grades 8, 10, and 12.
  • Curricular and extracurricular activities routinely take place in the larger community, with students immersed in authentic case studies, projects, fieldwork, and service. (Those teachers on their scavenger hunt were building a knowledge base as well as relationships.)

Frequent low-stakes feedback

Checklists can serve an assessment role as well as an organizing role, of course.  More visible here, however, are moments of frequent, low-stakes feedback that combine acknowledgment, appreciation, and "press."

I overheard hallway conversations with students about small triumphs as well as small stumbles. Without protest, one yielded the item that didn't conform to the dress code. Another volunteered to guide a visitor through the maze of hallways.

And Mahoney stopped to thank a teacher who came out in the hallway for the passing period between classes. "I know she loves to be in her classroom working extra with that kid at the end of class," he said. "But it's really, really important that every adult is in the hallways for transition."


Photo: Principal Stephen Mahoney meeting with members of a student action group. (Photo by Nick Whalen)


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