Checking on education

IT almost seems too simple, that a one-page to-do list can save lives.

I just finished reading Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, a 200-page New York Times bestseller that proves how a short checklist can lower the number of preventable mistakes made in complex situations. It heightens the chances of survival when engines fail mid-flight, and it reduces the number of complications that occur during surgery – by an average of 30 per cent.

A checklist, in other words, can bring some level of structure to complexity and order to chaos.

Just like a shopping list, it frees the mind from having to remember the mundane and routine. In medicine, that’s verifying a patient’s name and the surgery about to be performed. In life: Asking yourself if you’ve checked if the milk jug was full, instead of assuming it couldn’t have been put back in the fridge empty.

A checklist isn’t about dumbing down a process – it’s about relieving the mind from juggling two-dozen different thoughts, allowing it to focus on more important tasks. It helps ensure that the milk (or the anaesthesia) doesn’t get forgotten.

A fascinating read, Gawande got me thinking about what value checklists could bring to education, and whether it would be possible to implement a method that could increase students’ ability to learn.

Plenty of research has been done on best practices for retaining knowledge, and many students have their own checklists of what works for them – read the chapter, take notes, answer practice questions, re-read notes. Check, check, skip, check.

But personal study guides and lesson plans aside, what would a checklist that enhances learning ability, and not just a learner’s knowledge, look like? What would be on a list that increases the likelihood of getting hired right out of the gate? What about one that ensures students get the most out of their education, across all disciplines?

It’s a big idea – that a sheet of paper with a few lines of text could significantly affect such a nuanced, multi-faceted and variable system. No two universities are alike, let alone the differences between a university and a college, an institute and a polytechnic. Teachers have different educational backgrounds; chemistry differs from biology, which barely resembles art history, upper-level Spanish or the study of international human rights. And what about the students, with varying economic and social backgrounds, interests, study habits and career plans?

Gawande looked at eight hospitals, including St. Mary’s, which has catered to the medical needs of the royal family, and a hospital in Tanzania that was forced to deal with severe supply shortages when flooding cut off access to the country’s largest city 200 miles away. The checklist was rolled out in the U.S. and in India. It was used in operations on all parts of the body.

Across the board, it worked. Deaths fell by close to 50 per cent; the number of infections cut in half.

What it takes is will and dedication: The will to alter routine and put checks in place; dedication to a new routine, to communication, to change.

It also takes a lot of work to create a simple and straightforward checklist that is actually effective in complex situations. It’s work that involves analyzing which practices work, as well as those that don’t. It takes trial and error, fine-tuning and tweaking. To apply it to an entire system, it takes time, commitment and collaboration.

Can it be done with education? Would it work?

It does in aviation, in investment and in medicine. Education is, of course, unique, but only as unique as any other complex system of practices. Why couldn’t education be added to that list?


Hayley Woodin is Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Media Specialist. KPU offers the Metro Vancouver area over 145 programs through campuses in Surrey, Cloverdale, Richmond and Langley. Learn about what over 18,000 students learn annually at