By LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed.
Going into the grocery store, I now have a mental checklist: Do I have my mask? Do I have the food list? Do I have the coupons? Do I have the wipes for my hands? Do I have the Rewards Card for Kroger? I don’t know about you, but I have sure been forgetting many details in my day-to-day experiences. We all know why: stress takes up valuable space in our working memories so we don’t have as much capacity to remember other trivial things; and the more uncertain life is, the more we can experience some cortisol dumps that greatly influence our hippocampus (part of the brain that is a long-term storage site), and therefore, we forget things. I have an efficient and effective tool to share with you today that I guarantee you have already used and know about, BUT do you use this tool consistently in your personal life and in your classroom to produce HOPE? Hope stands for:
Yes, this tool can give you the motivation, energy and optimism to change, grow, and even celebrate small progress!
A best-selling book by Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009), has research collected that checklists can make experts better, even doctors! He helped design a surgical checklist in hospitals around the world that concluded the following: when checklists were used by surgical teams, complication rates in all of the researched hospitals fell by an average of 35%, and death rates fell by 47%.
Checklists Have The Following Benefits:
- Increase efficient use of time and resources
- Define what you do and do not want to accomplish
- Can dump dopamine in frontal lobe (reward center) – gives boost to optimism, focus and attention
- Encourage quick self-assessment (yes or no; either you did it or didn’t do it)
- Allow us to communicate to others simply and clearly
- Ensure that we won’t forget critical steps or crucial aspects towards mastery
- Increase confidence in ourselves with progress
- Give us HOPE to continue on amidst stressors
- Can reduce the cognitive overload that many experience on a daily basis
- Help us prioritize our actions based on our goals and intentions
- Keep us focused on what matters most each day
- Help us realize just how much we’ve accomplished, even when it feels like the day has “gotten away from us”
- Help us break down larger tasks into manageable, meaningful sub-steps
- Encourage more success in our daily routines (With each small success, our brains can release a neurotransmitter called dopamine, the Motivational Neurotransmitter. This “dump” makes us feel good, helps us focus and pay attention, and drives us to want to accomplish)
During this past stressful year, I had to create checklists to keep me going and to prevent me from forgetting important information and To Do’s. In fact, it improved my willpower if I made the checklist manageable. I used checklists for many different things in 2020. A few of them were:
- Daily To-Do Checklist – personal and work-related items
- Quick Food Checklist – the staple foods we needed each week
- Water Checklist – how many ounces of water I drank that day (needed more water in my life)
- Dementia Activities Checklist – This one was for a friend who is suffering from Dementia. I made this based on what I know and what the doctor said. We designed a daily plan to enrich her brain. It’s still going great, and she is still using that checklist daily to meet her enrichment goals.
I highly encourage you to create a checklist that will help you reach your goals. For example, if you have a goal to have more energy each day, your checklist might look like this (obviously, this list must contain mini goals or action steps that you still need in your life consistently).
To have more energy, I will do the following each day:
▢ Drink 8 glasses of water
▢ Eat a protein-rich breakfast each morning
▢ Drink black and green tea before lunch
▢ Go to bed by 9:30 pm
Once this list has been decently mastered, you could create the part 2 checklist that might include other items such as: exercise for 20 minutes on treadmill, don’t eat any refined sugars by themselves, try a 20-minute rest around 2:00. After these items have been mastered, you can create the next small chunk of action items. Smaller, bite-size actions steps are much better than a huge, overwhelming list that could cause your brain to react in thinking, “No way can I do this today!”
I even designed a weekly checklist template for you and your 2021 micro action steps towards one of your goals. If you want to learn how to determine what one of your goals could be this year and accomplish it, then go to my article from last year about the cognitive science behind goal setting.
To truly give yourself HOPE in achieving your desired goals, then you will want to make sure that your Personal Checklists have the following criteria:
▢ A few micro, concise action steps that you need and want in your life (based on your values and strong whys). Only place 3-5 of these micro-steps on a checklist at a time, or you risk being overwhelmed. Change them once you determine mastery is occurring.
▢ Some simple action steps that you need to master fully (you have it in place partially).
▢ Some simple action steps that are brand new to you (not too many, just a few).
▢ A place to give yourself feedback (checkmark, rating of implementation (0 = didn’t do; 1 = partially did; 2 = fully accomplished; or small note to self) and next step statements for accomplishing the next day (if needed).
▢ Printed onto brightly colored paper in a location that you will see every single day.
▢ Customized for YOUR needs (not necessarily will it be helpful for others).
▢ A “trigger event” that reminds you to engage with your checklist each day. This can be your morning coffee, the first time you sit down at your desk, the sound your computer makes when it turns on in the morning, etc.
“Good checklists… are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.”
(Atul Gawande, 2009, p. 120)
Professional/Classroom Uses for Checklists
Now that we’ve talked about using checklists for personal goals, let’s talk about two ways to use checklists in a professional and classroom setting. There are two checklist protocols that work wonderfully to give teachers and students HOPE. They are:
- Teachers and coaches design checklists for teachers in order to learn and master a new multi-step skill such as the formative assessment process (how to do it and characteristics of a quality process).
- Students co-creating a checklist for a thinking process (like solving long division problems) and for characteristics of a product they are about to engage in to show their learning towards a standard (AKA: Criteria for Success).
When working with teachers and coaches, I use checklists to coach educators towards using a new skill such as the 5 Steps Towards Conferring in Reading and Writing (email me if you want the checklist, directions and template for this valuable feedback process). We literally created a checklist with the teachers to use while they were learning to master these 5 Steps with their students. Results: The teachers who use the checklist to learn the skill, master the process faster! They even give themselves their own feedback by using the checklist (which is what coaching is truly about…getting the coachee to come to their own conclusions of what went well and what could improve). As Jim Knight, coaching expert, said, “…checklists are helpful, if not essential, tools for communicating about teaching strategies” (Knight, Hoffman, Harris, and Thomas, 2020).
I help schools design their own Criteria for Success Checklists of the top instructional strategies that they want every teacher to master based on their needs and student data. These schools truly do reach their goals much faster when these valuable checklists are in place alongside coaching opportunities. To learn more about these checklists that make up a larger global plan, check out the amazing book: The Instructional Playbook (Knight, Hoffman, Harris, and Thomas, 2020).
Not only do teachers need a checklist when they are first learning an instructional skill, but our students also need checklists for learning processes or content within a product. “Criteria for Success are the qualities that must be present for performances and products to meet the standards and be deemed successful” (Saphier, Haley-Speca and Gower, 2018).
In order to develop Criteria for Success, you must first have a very challenging, measurable Learning Target (based on a standard) that can be accomplished by your students in that one day’s lesson. Based on that Learning Target, you design a main formative that will make that learning towards the goal visible – a product, assignment, or “show” that provides evidence of where each student is on achieving mastery of it. The development of Criteria for Success for the product or assessment helps students visualize the path toward the Learning Target and give clarity to the desired outcome. We help foster better buy-in, clarity, excitement, and ease in accomplishing the formative assessment by inviting students to co-create the Criteria for Success as a checklist. For example:
Main Formative Assessment: Summary Writing
Criteria for Success: My summary has…
Here is a checklist to help you and your students design effective Criteria for Success so that everyone can be successful and filled with HOPE in reaching the daily goal, the Learning Target.
*This list co-created with Dr. Kathy Spencer for Pittsfield, MA schools.
So don’t forget:
▢ Make personal daily checklists for your goals so that you can experience more HOPE.
▢ Create checklists to master instructional learning processes that are multi-step and ask your coach to help you design, reflect, assess, and accomplish the process.
▢ Co-create Criteria for Success with your students so teacher clarity is high and student achievement of the Learning Targets improves drastically!
Gawande, A. (2010). The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York: Picador.
Knight, J., Hoffman, A., Harris, M., & Thomas, S. (2020). The instructional playbook: The missing link for translating research into practice. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Saphier, J., Gower, R. R., & Haley-Speca, M. A. (2008). The skillful teacher: Building your teaching skills. Acton, MA: Research for Better Teaching.