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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: How Checklists Help Students Write

Technical Writing: How Checklists Help Students Write

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T. R. Girill Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab. trgirill@acm.org Technical Writing: How Checklists Help Students Write Whenever I work with high school students or their teachers on technical writing, I always ground the activities and exercises in two checklists or sets of guidelines (one for instructions, at http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysis0.html and one for descriptions, at http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/analysisGd.html ). Does using such checklists really promote student expertise or instead just undermine it? Atul Gawande answers that question in his best-selling nonfiction book from 2009 called The Checklist Manifesto (New York: Henry Holt). Checklists in Life Gawande is a physician who wondered if he could significantly improve surgical outcomes by borrowing techniques from other professions. He learned from engineers and managers of large (office-tower) construction projects that they rely on formal checklists to "ensure that the stupid but critical stuff is not overlooked" (p. 79) when the work of many crafts must integrate smoothly. And of course aviation checklists famously contribute to reliable flight. Gawande found that Boeing's "flight operations group is a checklist factory" (p. 120), providing big books with one list of simple steps in large print on each page for maximum in-flight usability by pilots. Even Gawande's friend, a master chef who runs her own restaurant, told him that "following the recipe is essential to making food of consistent quality over time" (p. 82). So how do checklists deliver these benefits to those professionals who use them? Gawande found that checklists do not replace professional judgement but rather amplify it: "judgement [is] aided--and even enhanced--by procedure" (p. 79). The effective checklists cited above help their users by (1) making PRIORITIES clear (for example, if a plane's engines fail, the pilot must reduce altitude BEFORE trying to troubleshoot the alarms or even restart the engines), and (2) promoting, even facilitating, needed COMMUNICATION (among the kitchen staff, for instance, or the cockpit crew). Checklists in School One can readily see how these benefits extend to students hesitatingly trying to build their technical writing skills. The instruction-writing checklist has (what Gawande calls) a DO-CONFIRM format: students draft some instructions and then use the checklist mostly to review their own preliminary work, spot weaknesses that they would have otherwise overlooked, and experiment with improvements that the checklist suggests (do all of the steps begin with an action verb? are any key steps accidentally omitted?). The description-writing checklist has a somewhat different, READ-DO format: it offers an explicit framework for planning a basic technical description (divide the text into parts, plan their order, choose relevant comparisons to include, etc.), because that daunting responsibility falls squarely on the description writer with little help from nature. But tips for self-revision are included as well (e.g., don't forget to make your lists overt and signal your reader with headings). In both cases these guidelines help students to prioritize their drafting tasks and to talk about their writing problems with teachers or peers--just as Gawande noted for the checklists of working professionals. The Results As part of a WHO-sponsored international effort, Gawande tested his own 19-point safe-surgery checklist during 4000 surgeries in 6 hospitals worldwide. Surgeons were sometimes doubtful at first, but results showed a 36% decline in complications and a 47% decline in post-surgery deaths among hospital teams using the checklist (p. 154; for more details see A.B. Haynes, et al., "A surgical safety checklist to reduce morbidity and mortality in a global population," New England Journal of Medicine (2009), 360:491-499). So checklist use offers another example of how a practical, widespread, real-world technique can be brought into the science classroom and adapted to provide nonpatronizing, reliable support for student literacy. And students who practice with writing checklists in school will not be surprised later if they go on to be chefs, pilots, construction managers, or even surgeons.

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