Checklists, Observations, and the Art of Failure

I was tired. The much anticipated snow day hadn’t happened. I knew it was going to be a day when students would be a bit difficult to corral. And then the English department chair walked in the room…

Everyone tells me I worry too much about observations, that their primary purpose isn’t meant to be evaluative, and that not every lesson exhibits all the marks of good teaching. But I’ve been well-trained to respond to checklists, in lots of ways this training has served me well through 21 years of traditional schooling. So when an observer walks in the room…

I start thinking about the checklist and the observer and the how I’d justify the pedagogical choices I make and why that kid won’t stop talking? and why wasn’t my lesson plan tighter? and the clock and the article I read about effective classroom discussion and how I’m doing it wrong and did I answer that kid’s question correctly? and we have to move faster and am I presenting the information in multiple modalities? and WHY WON’T THAT KID STOP TALKING?!

I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw. As soon as the loop started in my head this morning, I thought of his essay “The Art of Failure“.

In his essay, Gladwell makes a distinction between panicking and choking. Both reactions are caused by stress, but “choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct.” Panic suppresses short term memory, so those with less experience are more likely to experience it because they lack the “residue of experience to draw upon.”

The better a person becomes at a skill, the more “implicit learning,” the kind of learning that takes place outside of awareness begins to take over, according to psychologist Daniel Willingham. However, when a person chokes, she reverts to “explicit learning,” the conscious practice of skills that is more robotic and stilted.

While in the past I would have referred to what happens when an observer walks into the room as panic, today I thought, This is not panic. This is choking.

I know how to teach. I do it every day. Some days are better; some are worse, but I am at my best in a classroom. Throw a checklist, an observation into the mix, though, and I start crumbling, at least in my head.

The frustrating part of choking is that it’s harder to “fix” than panic. Panic can be remedied with knowledge. Panic can be headed off by reading books about pedagogy, attending seminars, and better preparation. Gladwell isn’t particularly helpful in thinking about how to remedy choking. Because choking is a function of audience, rather than performer, the “ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators” is required to avoid choking.

I feel fairly confident that if you were in my classroom during a typical observation you would have had no idea I was choking. I wasn’t shaking or yelling. I didn’t curl into a fetal position or start weeping. My evaluation reports are always commendatory. But I think some of my students would have noticed. After one observation, a 6th grade student said to me, “Why were you nervous? You laughed less than you usually do.” I started to deny it and stopped myself. “You know what- I was. It’s hard to have someone in the room watching you,” I admitted.

It would be easy to set up the checklist or even the observation itself as the straw man, but I don’t think they are inherently evil. I certainly want to improve as a teacher (Ok, I’m mildly obsessed with it), and the checklist to a certain degree contains a list of skills that I think are the hallmarks of effective instruction. However, I doubt the observation followed by narrative and checklist model, even a checklist full of hallmarks of effective instruction, is going to be the primary means for improving for me as a teacher. They shift me into performance mode- suddenly it becomes my class instead of our class. I feel like I’m more likely to learn from my failures and by reading, talking, and blogging about my experiences in the classroom.

But in the spirit of Seth Godin’s blog post, I’m also thinking about ways to recast the observation experience and give myself a bit more air to breathe. Today I tried shifting my attention, physically placing my body in a space where my attention was focused on students, not the observer. I told myself I could judge what I did later, but not now. There were actually a couple of 2-3 minute spaces during today’s observation where it felt like our class, instead of my performance.

I’ve also been thinking about how to teach in a way that balances holding students accountable and avoiding the mindset that checklist completion equates learning and growing. There are skills that they need to acquire, but I don’t want to create an atmosphere where the checklist gets in the way of the learning.


3 thoughts on “Checklists, Observations, and the Art of Failure

  1. Great post. My observation is scheduled for Feb 3 and I want to start planning it now, but I have no idea where in the unit we’ll be on that date since we have a variety of midterms and other tests disrupting the schedule between now and then. The observations don’t both me, its the pre-observation lesson plan review meeting that gets me.

    Being an education sherpa causes me to think that edu is a mountain only a few can climb while others will die in the effort. Not a pretty picture at all. (memo to self: must find new metaphor).

  2. Thanks for the comments, Jim and Deven.

    This was an unannounced observation, which in some ways makes things better. I know it’s foolhardy to try and switch everything when the observer walks in the door, so it’s kinda like- hold on here we go!

    I agree re: sherpa metaphor. It does conjure images of a grueling, perilous journey. Sometimes learning is grueling, but I’m not sure we want to associate with images of frost-bite and death.

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