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The Art of Using Checklists in the Classroom

In a blog post on Edutopia, California middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron explains how she attempts to bring a little more organization to the "organized chaos" of her classroom by creating unit checklists for her students:

"Because I teach using project-based learning, I find it very important not only to let students in on what our main goal needs to be, but to let them in on the process and steps it will take to meet that goal. My checklists, therefore, become almost a sequential narrative through an academic unit.
"It's about transparency, and the more information you grant to students, the better. After all, if we're working to let go of the authority in the room and create a classroom where students own their learning, then we have to let them in on the sequence of lessons and assessments ahead of time. There's no reason why students should be in the dark as to what I will expect and why. The mystery defeats achievement."

Wolpert-Gawron also argues that project checklists help her students learn organization and goal-management skills—hardly insignificant matters with all the talk in schools about college and career readiness. And according to the testimonials she provides, her students appear to like the idea.

The use of simple checklists to manage complex, sometimes unwieldy projects has been a trending topic in many industries (including education) since the publication of surgeon-writer Atul Gawande's book The Checklist Manifesto in 2009. In a post written last year in reference to Gawande's book, education writer and consultant Dennis Sparks argued that teachers could benefit from using well-made checklists in preparing lessons, planning faculty meetings, and setting professional-learning paths. Sparks quotes Gawande's advice on keeping checklists simple and manageable:

"[Checklists] do not try to spell out everything—a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps—the ones that even the highly skilled professionals using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical."

They are different, in other words, from rubrics or detailed procedural guidelines.

In a 2010 article in Educational Leadership, Thomas R. Hoerr, head of school at the New City School in St. Louis, envisioned using checklists in his school for differentiating instruction, eliciting student engagement, and reviewing student-progress indicators. When deciding what to use checklists for, a key question to ask, he said, should be, "What do I take for granted that I shouldn't?"

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