Sunday 4 October 2015

The School Research Lead - Can research help reduce teacher fallibility?

Sometimes on Twitter you read a tweet which cannot be answered by using the Uzi like rapid fire of 140 characters, and which deserves a far more considered response.  One such tweet,  recently came across my time-line

Now I had two initial reactions to this tweet.  One, was annoyance that whoever thought up the question for debate had not read my recent posts on when to trust the experts, so would already know the answer  to the question (research can suggest to teachers what to  look at, it cannot tell you whether it should be adopted, as that's the teacher's or school's decision).  More seriously, I was annoyed at the quality of the question as it was unlikely to lead to anything more than a bit of Sunday morning posturing and setting fire to straw-men.   For me, a far more relevant and useful question would be: can research help reduce teacher fallibility?  Now this might not be as 'sexy' or 'roll off the tongue' as well as 'Goodbye Mr Chips all that ..." but on the other hand, addressing the of question how research can reduce teacher fallibility is far more likely to be useful in helping teachers improve their day-to day-practice.  So to help me examine  the relationship between research and teacher fallibility, I have turned to Atul Gawande's 2010 book - The CheckList Manifesto 

Gawande draws upon Samuel Gorowitz and Alasdair MacIntyre's 1976 essay : Toward a theory of medical fallibility - which sets out to understand why we fail.   Gorowitz and MacIntyre identify three reasons as to why we may fail to achieve what we initially set out to do:

Necessary fallibility

Some things we want to do are beyond our capacity.  Complex systems - such as schools - are beyond all-encompassing generalisations due to the differences in the circumstances of each individual school and complex feedback systems.  In these circumstances, the best possible judgement may turn out to be incorrect - even if it is based on the best available evidence and best-practice implementation.


The second source of fallibility is ignorance, we may not know enough of what works in teaching, learning and education.   There are still things we have yet to learn, examples include: how to make the most of peer-tutoring;  how best to integrate IT into teaching and learning; how best to develop teachers effectiveness in the latter years of their careers; what is best practice in setting and mixed ability teaching.  In other words, teachers will get things wrong because there are certain things we have yet to discover the first principles of getting it right.


The final cause of fallibility is ineptitude, this is where the underpinning knowledge exists but we fail to apply it.   For example, we know that graded lesson observations lack validity and reliablility for accountability purposes but we still continue, in some cases, to carry them out.  We know that just providing a homework 'mark' is unlikely to lead to pupil learning.

As such, two kinds of teacher fallibility are inevitable; necessary fallibility, which derives from the nature of complex system and ability to understand them; and our current ignorance about how things works.   So what are we to do to reduce unnecessary ineptitude.

The humble checklist

Gawande thought the solution to reducing ineptitude could be found through the use of check-lists and  subsequently led a World Health Organisation study on the development of a Safe Surgery check-list.  A 19 point check-list was eventually developed - which included checks at three stages, pre-aneasthesia, pre-incision and at the end of the operation.  This checklist was subsequently piloted in eight hospitals around the globe, four of which were in high-income countries and four of which were in middle to low-income countries.  As a result of introducing the check-list there was 36 per cent reduction in serious complications post surgery, with deaths falling by 47 per cent.  Based on approximately 4000 patients, more than 150 patients were saved from harm, and 27 of them from death.

So the question becomes :  can checklists be used in educational context to improve teaching and subsequently pupil learning?  Now it could be argued that there is insufficient agreement about what constitutes high quality teaching and learning,  that even is where there is agreement that it is not possible to distil it down to a simple - pre, during and post lesson check-list.  However, even if this view is accepted, I would argue that checklists can help teachers codify their own personal knowledge and experience.  In other words, can teachers reduce ineptitude by using checklists of what they already know derived from their own personal experience.

Checklists and reducing teacher fallibility

The potential of this argument is reflected in Harry Fletcher- Wood's new book - Ticked Off: Checklists for teachers, students, school leaders - which is to be published in January 2016.

Fletcher- Wood argues that on many aspects of teaching, teachers already know what they would like to happen.  However, the day to day pressures associated with teaching means it is possible to forget what is already known, unless that learning is embedded within a series of habits.   Forgetting what we already know is likely to take place in stressful moments, where things have not worked out in the way we would like or unexpected events have taken place.   Fletcher-Wood argues that building in a pause point just before the start of a lesson is a way to ensure that all the things that needed to be done before a lesson, have been done.  Alternatively, teachers may wish to develop a quick check-list of things to consider before issuing a sanction to a student - and in doing so ensure that any sanction is both fair, equitable and proportionate.  In other words, checklists provide a way of doing things that we would do if we were not overtaken by the pressures of the moment.  And of course, checklists can be applied to more than just these two situations, they can cover a range of issues, such as having a difficult conversation with a member of staff.

So going back to our initial question of whether research can help reduce teacher fallibility, my argument is as follows.  Some forms of fallibility are inevitable/necessary given the complexity of school environment.  Some fallibility comes from ignorance, we just don’t know enough of how to make some things work.  On the other hand, some teacher fallibility is the product of ineptitude, that is not doing those things that we know that work.  Research has shown that checklists have the potential to reduce unnecessary ineptitude within medicine.  Even if one accepts that research cannot tell what or how to teach, checklists can help teachers make the most of what they already know and prevent missed opportunities for learning.


I'd like to thank Harry Fletcher-Wood for contributing to this blogpost


Fletcher-Wood, H. (forthcoming) Ticked Off: Checklists for teachers, students, school leaders, Crown House Publishing, London

Gawande, A (2010) The Checklist Manifesto : How to get things right, Profile Books, London

Gorowitz, S. and MacIntyre, A. (1976) Toward a Theory of Medical Fallibility : The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 1976, vol. I, no. I., p 51-71


  1. The assessment without levels commission points out the problem of checklists thus:
    "Teachers may be required to judge pupils against a series of ‘can-do’ statements. Whilst such statements appear precise and detailed, they are actually capable of being interpreted in many different ways. “A statement like ‘Can compare two fractions to identify which is larger’ sounds precise, but whether pupils can do this or not depends on which fractions are selected. The Concepts in Secondary Mathematics and Science (CSMS) project investigated the achievement of a nationally representative group of secondary school pupils, and found out that when the fractions concerned were 3/7 and 5/7, around 90% of 14-year-olds answered correctly, but when more typical fractions, such as 3/4 and 4/5 were used, 75% answered correctly. However, where the fractions concerned were 5/7 and 5/9, only around 15% answered correctly."
    We've just got rid of levels - now someone wants to reinvent them and call them checklists. God help us!

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