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Following a List

posted: 4.5.11 by Steve Bernhardt

In my previous post, I discussed Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (Picador, 2009), specifically noting the ways that lists can improve team performance on complex tasks, including writing. These lists must be stripped to essentials and tested repeatedly under performance conditions, refined to fit the way people behave at work. I ended by suggesting, as Gawande does, that lists don’t work by themselves. A list has to be reviewed at the right time, with the right people, and in the right way if it is really going to improve performance.

In Gawande’s operating rooms, the surgical team calls a time-out at opportune moments, what he calls pause points, to make sure everything is right and ready. One pause point is just before the patient is given anesthesia; the second is after anesthesia but before making an incision; the third is after the patient is closed up and ready to be wheeled away. Timing is critical to decrease errors and improve outcomes. We might ask: What are the pause points in our writing classrooms? When is just the right time to review a simple list that calls to mind the most important points of consideration or action? Too often, I find myself closing out a class session by reminding students what to do when they eventually get around to working on an assignment. While I am trying to review key points for their consideration, the students are shuffling laptops and backpacks, ready to move on. My timing is bad.

In addition to careful timing of pause points, Gawande stresses the importance of the team’s reviewing the checklist aloud. Gawande refers to an activation phenomenon: “Giving people a chance to say something at the start seemed to activate their sense of participation and responsibility and willingness to speak up.” In the operating room, each person speaks up, identifying his or her role and confirming each item on the checklist, all out loud in response to a leader. Gawande notes that it all seems corny at first, but the speaking experience proves critical. These points make me wonder how we activate our students’ sense of participation and responsibility. When does each individual speak to identify roles and confirm that each element is in place for undertaking an assignment?

Perceptive readers will already have formulated a qualification to all this talk of lists. Gawande is improving team performance, where various experts must perform complex tasks in collaboration, whereas we teach writing to individuals who typically perform on their own, outside of class. But most of us use groups for peer review, and many of us use groups during planning phases. Increasingly, some portion of the writing we assign requires collaborative composing, and when we assign multimodal compositions, these are often well suited to bringing together teams of students with individual and complementary areas of expertise. To the extent that our assignments require collaboration, we might profitably use carefully designed and tested checklists at just the right times in just the right ways to help improve performance.

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Categories: Writing Process
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