Checklists in the academy

Checklists (as promoted in Gawande, A. 2010. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York, Picador) involve a small set of clear, readable steps not to be forgotten, pause points to check on the list, and communication among team members.  This seem clearly valuable in “operations” where a group of people have to coordinate to achieve an outcome while minimizing chances for dangerous errors.  Teaching and administration in the academy is not structured like that.  Could it be?

At the simplest level, an academic administrator who has a timetable of items to be addressed (e.g., assigning new students to an advisor) can minimize the extra work others inevitably get drawn into when such steps are missed.  At a more challenging level, an administrator could hold off on new ventures until the checklist was developed for that venture in collaboration with the people who would have to do the work to implement the venture.  At a deeper level, administration could follow checklists of items grouped under the “4Rs“—Respect, Risk, Revelation, and Re-engagement.  A new venture requires the people enacting it to be invested in it.  The costs of not having this include wasted resources then not available for future projects, burnout and cynicism, abandoned initiatives, special deals, and a culture of evasion of evaluation for improvement.

Similarly, teaching could follow checklists.  If students are going to achieve the learning objectives for the course, they need to build up for each course their connections, probing, reflecting, and creating change (in their concepts, practice, and products).  As indicated in the previous post, this requires attention to Respect, then Risk, then Revelation, and then Re-engagement.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

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