I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

Best Practice Checklist

teaching checklist
What you stay focused on will grow.
— Roy T. Bennett

Blood everywhere, the nurse frantically switching one blood bag for another. Empty. Full. Empty. Full. Empty and a full one again.

Utter chaos, the doctor rhythmically squeezing the heart with bare hands to pump blood to the patient’s brain. Squeeze. Release. Squeeze. Release. Life and death.

Life wins but it was close.

Performing a surgery he has successfully attempted many times before Dr. Atul Gawande accidentally cut his patients vena cava, the blood vessel that carries deoxygenated blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. The amount of blood the patient lost was lethal ten times over. A checklist is why he lives.

The story above and the subsequent a-has it evokes are part of the Hidden Brain podcast episode You 2.0: Check Yourself. The podcast takes on the subject of checklists in a non-traditional sense. Rather than looking at checklists as a tool that merely helps one remember a list of things to do the show host, Shankar Vedantam explores the ways in which checklists help highly competent and skilled professionals such as doctors or pilots minimize procedural risk and improve performance.

This article looks at designing simple, general checklists professionals such as teachers can follow to help them improve their craft.

Checklists Do More Than Help Memory

I don’t know about you but I sometimes forget to do this or that in the classroom as a result of the morning I’m having. Maybe I’m rushing and my mind dismisses things that are routine. Thus, a simple 5 - 7 item checklist - an agenda of classroom (or office) routines repeated daily - can be a helpful tool preventing their consignment into oblivion.

All we need to do is decide on the absolute must haves, write them down, and display them as a checklist to follow daily. Next time your mind is drawing a blank go to your list. You will not just maintain consistency. In fact, your process and outcomes will improve just as it did in aviation, medicine, and other industries. A checklist also saved the crew of Apollo 13.

Your checklist might not save lives of patients, pilots, or astronauts but it will illuminate your way. Though they may seem rudimentary, checklists are often designed for highly skilled professionals who know their respective crafts well. Checklists not only help prevent mistakes but lead to continual improvement of the process, the professional, and the profession they are applied in.

Designing a Classroom Checklist

The checklist below is my attempt at designing an easy to use tool that promotes best practice in the classroom. It can be customized to what you do and your teaching style.

  1. Before learning: Opening activity intended to help students recall key concepts from the previous lesson. I usually ask my students to solve problems or recall concepts in small groups first as I walk around the room. Then, the answers are recorded on the classroom board.

  2. School announcements: Is there anything that needs to be passed on to the students such as charitable drives, assemblies etc.?

  3. Class announcements: Is there a test or an assignment deadline approaching? Just because it’s written on the class board doesn’t mean the students know/remember it. Most likely do not.

  4. Front-loading: What’s the most student-friendly way for my students to receive today’s material? Does this topic call for direct instruction and modeling? Or, can students use technology and discovery? Project? Lab?

  5. Learning: What can my students do to learn? How can they apply the information they received to construct understanding? This calls for doing (active learning) - practicing, problem-solving, drawing diagrams, recording video, modeling etc.

  6. Review: Quick activity that summarizes or reviews the key concept(s) such as asking students to compare or contrast or scribble down or tweet a summary of what they’ve learned.

And while it may not be feasible to do everything on my list every day, having a checklist helps me be a better teacher.

It helps me remember to design lessons that minimize “me talking” and maximize “them doing.”

It brings focus to the fact that receiving and learning information are not the same.

It reminds me to include continual repetition (items 1, 5, 6) and, as I often forget to announce school- and class-related information, the checklist is there to save it from oblivion.

Try it for yourself. Or make your own. Checklist your plan. Follow it. Grow.

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