The new school year is starting up soon. So for schools and teachers, I’m continuing this series of posts on content from Dave Gray’s and Sunni Brown’s book Gamestorming, which contains a variety of business-development and business-improvement games for rethinking strategy and tactics… and how to adapt Gamestorming for an education environment.
Schools by their very nature are quietly conservative, no matter how progressive they are in philosophy. Part of the reason for that is that schoolteachers work with kids — and what worked with one group of kids in past years is likely to work with another group of kids in the present. Innovation is difficult. (It’s part of the reason why it’s better to get teachers in the middle years of their teaching career — no set of philosophies or teaching theories is adequate to actual contact with actual children, so teachers with actual experience have more tactics and systems that work with students “in their heads” and “in their hands”… but new things still surprise them sometimes, and they invent new strategies on the fly out of the fabric of their experiences).
Schools still get things wrong. One of the most complicated things they get wrong is the happy enthusiasm at the start of the school year — all the teachers are moderately well-rested after a couple of months away (or not — teachers are sometimes frazzled in August after summer work taken on to pay for their teaching career). The administration and faculty have had a few months to remember their most difficult students with fondness, to let the rougher memories subside, to ignore any community challenges or failures experienced in the past year, and to otherwise let the previous year have a golden glow about them. And, of course, summer is usually when new policies, schedules, procedures, and curriculum changes get rolled out and planned… well before those polices and programs have actually been tested by actual students.
So my inner Goth is always quietly pleased by the idea of the Pre-Mortem. When using this game, a group of teachers and administrators identify all of the ways that this current year might wind up a disaster.
In my example, you can see that I’ve created the sort of ambitious program that many schools roll out in the fall. There’s a set of big goals to achieve, and a variety of plans to achieve them. By writing down the big goals, we can see the big picture, and identify the plans that help those goals get achieved.
Every single one of those plans has a person behind it. Plans don’t come out of nowhere — a person uncovered the idea, and began to push that idea… and now their idea is ON.THE.LIST. And none of those people want to hear how their program died, especially not at the start of a school year, before it’s even had a chance to succeed.
Schools need to focus on the first item on their checklist, which is teach children and make a good-faith effort to keep them safe. That’s the first order of business, and all other plans have to be subject to that particular standard. So anything else can — and should be — subject to a pre-mortem analysis, to make sure that it actually achieves its goals.
So once the the goals are announced, and the plan for achieving those goals is on the board… it’s time to do step three, which is to identify the things that go wrong.
Many teachers, even ones who’ve spent their whole careers in one school or one school district, have seen the same kinds of issues again and again. Issues of communication, issues of leadership, issues of personnel management, issues of parent-student-teacher interaction, issues of curriculum, issues of trying to do too much. The Pre-Mortem is an effort to gather and collect that collective wisdom, to write it down, to present it together, and to try to identify certain ways that a group project (like a really amazing school year) might fail before it’s had a chance to fail.
If you could identify what killed the patient before the operation even started (leaving a sponge inside, letting the surgical incision be open for too long, the wrong medication administered), you would do that. In fact, Atul Gowande in his book The Checklist Manifesto, designed a process that derived from a Pre-Mortem exercise very much like this: “what are the top ten mistakes surgical teams make at the outset of a surgery, that then result in the death or further injury of the patient? How can we avoid those mistakes?”
So maybe, instead of all the hoopla and celebration that accompanies the start of the school year in most schools, we should begin with a more gothic exercise draped in funereal black:
- Imagine it’s early summer in 2018
- What went wrong?
- Why was it such a terrible year?
- What could we have fixed earlier than we did?
- What common pitfalls could we have avoided?
Imagination serves a useful purpose, even if the results are gloomy. It gets us talking about our blind spots and our failures, which is difficult. But if it allows us to make the year more successful for everyone, before the school year even starts, then that short few hours of gloom and doom will make everyone’s year that much better, by identifying some risks before they take root.
I have used the pre-morterm to good effect a number of times. It’s really good at highlighting assumptions, dependencies, and risks that might otherwise go unspoken until too late down the ine.
The problem with it is that it’s sometimes too accurate. People leave the pre-morterm feeling down and fatalistic about the future regardless of what mitigating actions they might have come up with.
Have you encountered this? How did you deal with it?
I think that you have to follow it immediately with an identification of the two or three biggest challenges, and work out ways to commit to avoiding those particular issues. And the challenge of course, is that you might avoid those big three six or seven times during the course of the year, knowing that they were challenges from the start of the school year; but then you get tripped up the eighth or sixth or ninth time, and everyone winds up feeling betrayed — because they don’t know about those other six times that you got it right! Right! We did it right six times, and you didn’t even know! Or Notice! Or Care!
So there’s got to be a system with some trust built into it, I think. A trust that, having aired some grievances and challenges, that people will be sensitive to them and improve on those challenges. Of course, this is often exactly the issue that difficulties between administrators and mainline teachers often have: trust that behind-the-scenes issues are properly addressed, and not permitted to fester.
I think that you have hit the nail on the head that there is a feedback loop that needs to be followed to show that the output of the pre-morterm had a cpositive effect – that actions were taken to avoid the predicted issues. We should celebrate our successes more.