A question about the merits of problem solving checklists
One of the books on my “I really want to read it but I feel like I’ve already read it” list is Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto. A few years back, I read and loved Gawande’s second book, Better, and like Jason Buell, found it to be more insightful than almost any book I’ve read on education.
Gawande’s second book on Checklists is filled with stories of how hospitals have saved thousands of lives simply by creating standard “do-confirm” checklists to accounting for all sponges after a surgery (to ensure that sponges aren’t accidentally left in a patient) or for following all the hand-washing and sterilization procedures for inserting a central line, which often exposes patients to needless and deadly infections.
This idea got me thinking, what if I created a checklist for my students to use during problem solving. My original thought was that as the year went on, I’d add to this list. It might look something like this:
Confirm that you did each of the following for this problem:
- Wrote each number to an appropriate precision
- Put a unit with every number you wrote
- Labeled your axes in a graph
Then I realized this was way too me-directed. What if we, as a class, came up with the items on the checklist together, and students used the checklists as they worked through assessments? I was rather pleased with this idea and thought about implementing it, when Matt Greenwolfe gave me some very good pushback that I’ll try to summarize below.
Students want to reduce problem solving to a checklist—an algorithm that they can just crank through to get an answer. For beginning students, giving into this temptation by giving them a checklist, or a formula sheet, is one of the worst things we can do, since it really robs them of the experience of figuring out what to do when they don’t know what to do, often prevents them from seeing creative new solutions to the problem and leads them down the mechanistic problem solving. The reason checklists work well for hospitals and the situations Gawande describes is that they are implemented by experts, who understand the procedure quite well, and only create the checklist to go back and reinforce the mechanistic details. Doing this too early for students really send the message that the important thing is the mechanistic details, not the actual thinking involved in problem solving.
So this pretty much pushed me off of the whole idea of checklists, unless we somehow created them together as a sort of review for the exam. But it did leave me wanting to know what others might think of this idea, so I’m sharing it here for further consideration.