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Checklists, getting better at getting better, and ‘visible learning inside’ : 2015-08-25

Checklists, getting better at getting better, and ‘visible learning inside’

The acclaimed surgeon and writer, Atul Gawande, highlights the need for a different strategy; one that is ‘ridiculous in its simplicity’. This strategy, he says, builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but also makes up for our ‘inevitable human inadequacies’. It is a checklist!

In his brilliant work, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Gawande details the power of such checklists, charting their use in the airline industry, their translation into the medical domain, and beyond medicine into other fields, from disaster response to investment banking, sky scraper construction and businesses of all kinds. Gawande gives a fascinating account of his innovative work with the World Health Organisation and a global program aimed at reducing avoidable deaths and harm from surgery. Gawande says that:

It’s ludicrous… to suppose that checklists are going to do away with the need for courage, wits, and improvisation. The work of medicine is too intricate and individual for that: good clinicians will not be able to dispense with expert audacity. Yet we should also be ready to accept the virtues of regimentation.

I was particularly intrigued by Gawande’s findings so far as the building industry is concerned. He found that the use of checklists redistributed power, as opposed to what checklists are usually about – dictating instructions to the workers below to ensure they do things the way we want. Gawande describes how, on the particular large-scale building project he was exploring, that when confronted with complex, non-routine problems, the philosophy was to push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the centre. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works. A democratic strategy.

After reading and thinking on Atul Gawande’s brilliant work I returned to the piece of work that has held my attention for several months now, something that keeps drawing me back: Bryk et al’s Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools can Get Better at Getting Better. It was, indeed, this work that had signposted me to Gawande’s in the first place. It was this particular citation that compelled me.

Making systems work is the great task of my generation of physicians and scientists. But I would go further and say that making systems work – whether in health care, education, climate change, making a pathway out of poverty – is the great task of our generation as a whole.

Bryk and colleagues use ideas from improvement science to show how ‘a process of disciplined inquiry can be combined with the use of networks to identify, adapt, and successfully scale up promising interventions in education’. Interestingly, Bryk, highlights Gawande’s warning that the use of great components, even evidence-based components, does not assure that quality outcomes will result. ‘Making all of the pieces fit together is a formidable and quite distinctive improvement task.’
I like the fact that the discipline of improvement science directs us to step back before we move forward; before looking to improve the current system, seek to fully understand it first.

Further, Bryk and colleagues are adamant that rather than “implementing fast and learning slow,” educators should adopt a more rigorous approach to improvement that allows the field to “learn fast to implement well”. The authors describe themselves as “analogical scavangers”. That, because they are constantly looking to other fields that share a concern about improving practices and that have made some significant progress. I love the idea of being an “analogical scavenger” and ‘getting better at getting better’!

An improvement culture puts learning to improve at its centre and challenges everyone to put failure to work toward valued goals. This kind of culture encourages people to report when things don’t go according to plan. It makes people feel safe because they know that failure means that their team is testing its theories and bettering the work of the organisation. Part of the genius in the quality improvement logic of starting small and aiming to learn fast is that the costs of early failure are reduced and the dangers of confirmation bias – seeing only what we want to see – also lessened. In this regard starting small eases the path toward subsequent success.

In summary, the authors concisely recount their six improvement principles:

1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered. Quality improvement starts with a single question: “What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?” It enlivens a co-development orientation. Engage key participants as problem definers and problem solvers from the earliest phases of development through large-scale implementation.

2. Focus on variation in performance. A networked improvement community aims to advance efficacy reliably at scale. Identifying and addressing the sources of variability in outcomes is essential. Rather than documenting simply “what works,” as in estimating an on-average effect, aim to learn “what works, for whom, and under what set of conditions.” Develop the know-how to make innovations succeed for different students across varied educational contexts.

3. See the system that produces the current outcomes. It is hard to improve a system if you do not fully understand how it currently operates to produce its results. Seek to better understand how local conditions shape work processes and resulting outcomes. Use this analysis to explicate a working theory of improvement that can be tested against evidence and further developed from what is learned as you go.

4. We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure. Measure outcomes, key drivers, and change ideas so you can continuously test the working theory and learn whether specific changes actually represent an improvement. Constantly ask: “Are the intended changes actually occurring? Do they link to changes in related drivers and to desired system outcomes?” Anticipate and measure for unintended consequences too.

5. Use disciplined inquiry to drive improvement. Common inquiry protocols and evidentiary standards guide the diverse efforts of NICs. Engage in systematic tests of change to learn fast, fail fast, and improve fast. Remember that failure is not a problem; not learning from failure is. Accumulate the practical knowledge that grows out of failure, and build on it systematically over time.

6. Accelerate learning through networked communities. NICs aim to break down silos of practice and research. They enliven a belief that we can accomplish more together than even the best of us can accomplish alone. A shared working theory, common measures, and communication mechanisms anchor collective problem solving. Organise as a NIC to innovate, test, and spread effective practices sooner and faster.

Adopting such an approach makes good sense to me. Through this reading, and more, I found that I was constantly able to make direct reference to the Visible Learning Framework that we, as a team at Bader Primary School, have embraced and are working with as a school improvement driver. In a previous post I have detailed how we have adopted Sir Michael Barber’s Deliverology model as we look to deliver on our shared aims and aspirations, namely:

All members of our school community are assessment-capable learners
• I know what to do when I don’t know what to do
• I Know where I am, how I am doing and where I am going next

All members of our school community are self-evaluators
• I know how I am doing, where I am going next and how I am going to get there
• I see assessment as feedback to me

All members of our school community are effective collaborators and communicators

All members of our school community have a growth mindset

This week, I returned to John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning. Lo and behold – missed on earlier readings – there he is again… Atul Gawande, mentioned by John Hattie himself. Hattie points out how Gawande shows how checklists help to achieve the balance between specialised ability and group collaboration. Hattie moves on to Michael Scriven’s distinction between types of checklists, from the laundry list, the sequential list, flow charts, and the merit checklist. And then… hey presto!! Hattie directs us to the fact that contained within each chapter of Visible Learning for Teachers (and collated in Appendix A: Checklist for ‘visible learning inside’) is a set of criteria that can each be considered, with those reviewing the evidence making a decision about merit and worth. Such an approach, he says, offers flexibility in providing evidence and acting to ensure that a school is working towards making learning visible.

We have a ‘checklist’ to guide us in moving forward on our Visible Learning journey at Bader, and we shall adopt it on 1st September!! Now, sometimes it takes a while for the penny to drop with me, but I have thoroughly enjoyed indulging myself in the work of these great people. And how often do you find yourself going full circle when immersing yourself in great literature?!

A personal aspiration for me, now, is to get better at getting better and make it my task to make systems work at school in such a way that we may say that Bader Primary has ‘visible learning inside’.

What am I thinking on now? Based on the above, how might we make collaborative inquiry work at Bader, and incorporate individual engagement in that process in our performance management cycle? Watch this space!

Delivering on Visible Learning at Bader… : 2015-04-21

We are on our way with use of the Deliverology model…

Step 1 saw us define our aspirations. We wanted the wording of them to be accessible to all school community members + tied into Visible Learning.

Our school community aspirations are:


We decided that our aspirations should be stated in the most positive terms, reflecting a position where all school community members ‘are’, as opposed to ‘becoming’ or ‘developing’ or ‘working towards’; an aspirational state.

We have laid the foundations for and assigned school leaders responsibility for the building of our Delivery Units:

  • Learner Dispositions
  • Teacher Mindframes
  • Assessment & Feedback
  • Digital Learning
  • Collaborators & Communicators
  • Growth Mindset
  • Learning Environment

Our Visible Learning journey continues, as does our work with and through the Deliverology process…

Visible Learning at Bader: The Story so Far : 2015-04-20

Ever since hearing of and then exploring John Hattie’s brilliant work I have carried it in my head, with a view to its implementation in practice. As a staff we considered the messages and learning within videos of John Hattie speaking (You Tube). We observed, with awe, the amazing work that has been done at Stonefields School in New Zealand – through their excellent website. Discovering that Osiris run the Visible Learning Plus program pushed the door wide open.

We have worked hard here to create a culture of learning, learning, learning and learning. We recognise that ‘It is the personal and professional growth of teachers that will have most impact on pupil development’. Self-development is a shared mission. VL has been embraced with great enthusiasm. It has encouraged an even greater degree of reflective practice, willingness to try a greater range of approaches, and want to effectively monitor and assess the impact of teaching at Bader. Beyond that, the level of collaboration and openness to sharing has been taken to a whole new level. Teachers are taking risks, making themselves vulnerable. And that is OK! Already busy teachers, negotiating the advent of a new curriculum, along with ‘assessment without levels’, are eagerly making time to have learning conversations with their peers, across teams, vying for time in staff meeting to share their latest learning. Wonderful!

So far as our pupils are concerned, the floodgates have opened! Our pupils have shown an appetite for dialogue on: learning, generally; learning dispositions, more specifically; and an acceptance of challenge that I am not sure we have fully appreciated before now.

Beyond our immediate learning community, what a bonus it has been to connect with like-minded, inspired, inspirational, and passionate fellow professionals and learners. Learning conversations (via Skype) with Stonefields’ brilliant principal (Sarah Martin) and her colleagues, have guided us in recognising the importance of process and the need to contextualise. We are proud to be in the vanguard of a growing network of UK schools (#VLNetworkUK), along with Pembroke Dock Community School, Ysgol Merllyn (both in Wales) and those schools attached to the VL initiative being led by Midlothian Educational Psychology Service. We met up for the first time last week at Pembroke Dock, invited by Michelle Thomas (Head Teacher) to share one another’s progress. What a school! What a Visible Learning School! Nursery through to Year 6, through to parents and the local community. A Visible Learning steeped school!

Exploring Visible Learning and its potential for transforming the way we design and then make learning happen at Bader has been an absolute thrill! Every element of every training day led by the inspirational Craig Parkinson (UK Visible Learning Lead Consultant) has been valuable, well received, and has taken us forward. Our latest training on the use of SOLO Taxonomy to plan for balanced and challenging learning added another piece to the jigsaw. As the various pieces of that jigsaw offer up avenues of progress, I have put my mind to strategic planning that will pull everything together and ensure impact and sustainability. A visit to meet Laura Kearney, Head Teacher at Hodge Hill Primary School in Birmingham, proved to be extremely informative, encouraging and helpful – especially our conversation around professional learning. A tour of the school left us convinced (not that we needed convincing) that the Visible Learning model works. Many conversations with wonderfully articulate young learners!

A sharing of ‘holiday’ reading material (via Twitter) with Tracy Jones (Head teacher, Ysgol Merllyn) introduced me to Sir Michael Barber’s Deliverology model. One reading of the Executive Summary that heads the book was all I needed to convince me that here we have a way of guiding delivery of our aspirations. So, starting this evening (SLT) we will work through the deliverology process, feeding that into staff meetings the following evening. We will work in that way from here on in as we strive to be the very best we can be. I will post updates on our use of the process to this blog as we move forward. I would love to hear from anyone who has used this process in school. The longer I do this job the more I appreciate the value there is to be had in collaboration and sharing of knowledge, practice and experience.
To those schools out there who may be contemplating embarking on their own Visible Learning journey, I say Do it! Do it as a whole staff, with as well as for the children. Leaders, see it as a process, drop formal lesson observations and build effective feedback to teachers in to your Visible Learning driven school improvement cycle.

Osiris Staffroom article : 2015-03-10

We are proud to promote Visible Learning Plus and proud to be a Visible Learning School


Staff meetings that are learning conversations : 2015-02-24

In supporting our learners to become assessment capable learners we are scouring far and wide, as a team, and then sharing outcomes of method and strategy trials with one another. We can now truly say that our ‘staff meetings’ are a series of learning conversations that are illuminating, informative, collaborative and, yes, thoroughly enjoyable! Visible learning targets (identified by pupils) and feedback boxes labelled ‘What did you find tricky in the lesson?’, ‘I’ve nearly got it but I need a bit more help!’ and ‘What have you consolidated in this lesson?’ are just two excellent examples of this.






We are OK with making mistakes at Bader : 2015-02-04





“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”
Albert Einstein

“Of course I make mistakes. I’m human. If I didn’t make mistakes, I’d never learn. You can only go forward by making mistakes”
Alexander McQueen