School: Pre-Mortem analysis

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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).

The Pre-Mortem

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. Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.19.01 AM.png

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.Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.49.41 AM.png

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 Manifestodesigned 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.


School: Horizontal/Vertical Sort

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A recent conversation with Dave Gray of XPLANE, Inc. got me thinking about his heuristic matrix from the book Gamestorming which he wrote with Sunni Brown. Once I thought about the matrix, though, it was easy to return to Gamestorming, and find other exercises worthy of using in schools.

One of my favorites — but also one of the ones most ineffectively used — is the horizontal and vertical sort.

This exercise consists of three parts.  The first is the generation of a group of ideas using Post-It® Notes.  That might look something like this, in a beginning of the year exercise.  The facilitator might say something like, “What does it take to make the students in your classroom have a successful year?”

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Doing this much of the exercise is nice, of course.  You get a lot of good/random ideas just by reading the Post-It® Notes, pretty easily.

But a horizontal sort is an essential part of the process, and shouldn’t be avoided just because there’s a lack of time.  Here’s how this gets sorted in one way, according to two horizontal categories: expensiveness in school budget, and expensiveness in personal time.

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Now, in a Punnett Square, from biology, these categories of school treasure and teacher time, would be arrayed against one another in a vertical/horizontal sort.  There’d be a chance to think about these things seriously.

But I’ve chosen to sort them this way, to point out that sometimes the teacher’s time and the school’s treasure should be weighed against other issues, like, for example, the school’s stated or guiding philosophy.  That might lead to a sort like this…

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It’s now clear which ideas can be discarded, at least for now.  It means that if a classroom needs to spend 2-3 class periods on the question of rules, it’s a good idea.  If the school has decided on a new mathematics curriculum — that investment should be made.

It also makes clear that the school should begin an ongoing conversation about the role of homework in the school, and that the question of pets or class animals is kind of a sticking point for a lot of folks.

I want to point out that this is a demonstration.  A #fakesort.  All I’ve done is create some generic Post-it® Notes in a word processor, and then sort them according to three categories.  Were this a real activity, you and your colleagues would each have generated Post-It® Notes for 5-10 minutes, then sorted them horizontally according to some relevant categories, and then sorted them vertically according to a different set of categories.

For example, instead of “School Philosophy” you could have made columns that said “individual action”, “Administration action” or “School-wide issue.”

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And I also want to point out that I was altering Post-It® Notes as I created these individual screen-shots, too. So this isn’t a true picture of any one institution. Rather, it’s a demonstration of what kinds of pictures of an institution or a school’s divisions or departments can emerge from a diverse range of inputs (the team writing the individual Post-It® Notes), and the decision to sort those Notes according to a given set of rules or themes.

It’s even fun to work with the same collection of Post-It® Notes more than once, in order to see multiple emergent patterns.

What you MUST NOT DO, though, is generate multiple sets of Post-It® Notes on the same themes or similar themes, over and over again, without processing them.  That way lies madness. You will overwhelm your team, and you will never actually decide on a course of action.  It’s far better to generate a small number of Post-It® Notes once, and then sort them multiple times, in order to develop themes for further conversation.

School: Redesign Homework


Around this time of year, I always think about how I’m going to re-design my teaching for the fall semester.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m teaching or not, I think about it.

A recent conversation with Dave Gray of XPLANE, Inc. got me thinking about his heuristic matrix from the book Gamestorming which he wrote with Sunni Brown. A heuristic matrix looks a lot like the grid from a spreadsheet, and which I used several years ago to redesign homework.

That grid looked something like this…

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I identified a bunch of broad categories that I wanted my students to learn about.  In this example, based on the broad theme of teaching about Ancient Greece, I have categories like religion, and aspects of art history, politics, literature, philosophy, and science and technology.

I then identified a variety of styles that I wanted my students to learn to write in. These formed the individual columns of the heuristic matrix.    These included paragraphs dealing with compare and contrast writing, where the same paragraph alternates between two different viewpoints or styles. There was also descriptive writing, involving a top-to-bottom explanation of a thing or a place.  Narrative writing, the description of a beginning-to-end process, was another category. Persuasive paragraphs offer reasons for holding an opinion, and attempt to persuade the reader to accept a particular viewpoint.  Exposition attempts to define or explain a person’s ideas or opinions without forcing them on the reader.  Reading comprehension, on the other hand, asks students to engage with an actual historical text.  Self-directed research is another category — independent projects of various kinds.

I haven’t filled in the heuristic matrix completely. Some of this is left as an exercise to the reader (which is to say, perhaps, that I’m lazy or that I don’t wish to think all of this through, or maybe that I don’t wish to share all of my thought process at once).  But the overall structure should be discernible.

I tried to do something similar with a mathematics heuristic grid for a lower grade, perhaps grade 2, grade 3, or grade 4.

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I’m not a mathematics teacher, so you’ll notice that the grid isn’t completely filled in.  But you’ll see what I’m trying to do… I’m trying to come up with a variety of mathematics exercises and activities that don’t revolve exclusively around the traditional “do these 20 problems to learn a type of procedure” worksheets or homework lists.  This is about inventing new forms of assignments and identifying how these can be used to teach or refresh skills that lie outside the usual curriculum norms.

And it’s important to note that YOU don’t have to fill in a grid completely, either. You may only generate one or two useful ideas from a heuristic matrix.  Yet if a few of those ideas have the chance to reinvigorate your teaching, that may be worth i.