This bulletin provides an overview of what is meant by effective ‘debriefing’ – an essential skill for any practitioner who wishes to generate conversations about learning in their classroompdf-1547707

ASK model.pdfpdf-1547707 Debrief planner.pdf

Debriefing: making thinking and learning skills ‘visible’
‘Debriefing’ refers to the discussion that takes place following or during a learning episode. The purpose of these discussions is to encourage pupils to talk not only about their answers/solutions – what they have learned about a particular subject – but also to:

  • talk about how they are doing/have done the task — both in terms of their individual cognitive processes and in terms of group processes;
  • anticipate possible opportunities for transferring the skills and strategies (including the personal qualities or mindsets required) to new contexts.

This entire agenda cannot be achieved in every lesson—the whole process is cumulative. However, the debriefing session is the means by which you can turn almost any activity into an opportunity to develop personal, learning and thinking skills. Metacognitive thinking of this kind requires lots of support and the quality of your questioning and listening will be key to its success.

Practical advice
1. Debriefing is only likely to be appropriate and successful if the pupils have done a stimulating and challenging task — one which has made them think hard and draw upon mental strategies that they can see are personal.

2. Group tasks will lead to a richer dialogue than individual tasks. When students work together, they have to share information, verbalise and justify their decisions and thus explore alternatives.

3. You can develop your students’ ability to think metacognitively by asking ‘rich’ questions. They are rich because they can draw out a wealth of possible responses regarding knowledge, know-how, thoughts, feelings and speculations. Being a rich questioner involves you in asking questions about things you cannot already know the answer to – about how your students think and feel. Listen closely to their responses so that you can:

  • ask follow-up questions that challenge and extend their thinking even further
  • ‘join up’ their thinking so they can learn from each other.

4. ASKing rich questions: The ASK model of learning helps to structure your rich questioning. Display an ASK poster on your wall to remind you and your students what learning is all about.

ASKing rich questions: attitudes

Questions linked to students’ Attitudes will explore the learning dispositions that motivate and sustain good thinking. Examples include:

persistence               determination              curiosity             open-mindedness             flexibility showing           empathy           taking          responsible            risks             striving for accuracy   finding humour         courage         friendliness         honesty          patience           reflectiveness

applying past knowledge to new situations                    posing problems                  questioning

Examples of A-rich questions are: How did your feelings change in the process of tackling the task? What personal qualities enabled you to think well as a group? Why do you value that? Imagine you had faced that problem on your own – what would have been your attitude then? Which disposition were you most tested on? How did you overcome the problem?

ASKing rich questions: skills
Questions linked to students’ Skills can explore their thinking skills as well their subject-specific skills.

Examples of S-rich questions are: How did you go about doing the activity/solving the problem? How did you know you were thinking well? What strategy did you use? Did you change your strategy or ideas as you worked? What skills were you using/learning? What type of thinking were you doing? Can you give an example of this? What helped you most to learn these skills? Where else could you use these skills?

Try using sets of Word Cards to help your students develop the language they will need to think and talk about their thinking and learning. You will find example word cards (both attitudes and skills) with an accompanying activity ‘help sheet’ in issue no. 2 of this series ‘Success in teaching thinking programmes: 7 key classroom strategies’.

ASKing rich questions: knowledge
Questions linked to students’ Knowledge can simply reinforce the subject-specific knowledge they’ve gained in the lesson or they can help towards the ‘transfer’ of a developing thinking skill to its application in other contexts, ie knowing how to think well when the occasion arises.

Examples of K-rich questions are: What knowledge did you draw on to be able to do this task? Had you done anything before in other subjects that helped you? Knowing that…, how will it help you at home? What is the value of knowing that?

5. Don’t expect an immediate reply to your rich questions. It can be useful to have a number of questions displayed on the board/overhead which you give students 3-5 minutes to have a quick think about. This means they have a chance to prepare their thoughts — they are not caught cold. Two or three questions would be enough on any one occasion.

6. Debriefing is helped by watching and listening to groups as they work, so that you know something about what they have done. You can later call on different groups to share the interesting comments/lines of reasoning that you have overheard.

7. The success of debriefing is heavily influenced by the classroom climate that you have created. Pupils must be prepared to listen to each other, contradict, develop and extend each others ideas, and offer alternatives. It may take some time to get this right and, in the meantime, you have to be sensitive to how much a particular class is prepared to listen to.

8. It is important to plan analogies/stories/examples that show how the thinking strategies/skills that pupils are learning can be applied to other contexts both within and beyond school.
This not only helps pupils assimilate new skills, but makes it more likely that these skills will be retrieved from memory when the opportunity for their use arises.

This raises an important, longer-term issue: If one is concerned about transfer and making connections to other subjects, then it opens a need to talk to other subject/class teachers about the use of learning and thinking skills in their lessons.

9. It is vital that you protect time to conduct the debriefing, which may mean thinking very differently about the structure of lessons. Practitioners experienced in developing students’ learning and thinking skills believe that the debriefing process is at least as important as the activity—that the learning processes are as important as the content. Without this belief, there is no motivation to make it happen.

If you and your colleagues are interested in developing the skill of debriefing, you may be interested in the following lesson planner. The planner encourages you to consider the key elements, detailed above, that you will find in any lesson that aims to make thinking and learning skills explicit, and help students to develop a language for talking and thinking about their learning.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.