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January 7, 2022

How a Military Feedback Model Could Foster Instructional Change

The After-Action Review process can help pinpoint problems and solutions.
How a Military Model Could Transform Educator Feedback
Credit: PCB-Tech from Pixabay
Feedback, by definition, is “the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source.” In education, there are three feedback-related challenges that many teachers and administrators experience: 1) knowing when to give feedback, 2) knowing how to give feedback, and 3) knowing what to do with the feedback received.  
From 360° feedback to SMART goals to mini-observations to peer-to-peer feedback in teams and in PLCs, educators gather intel and take next steps: there is no shortage of purported solutions to instructional problems. There is, however, a longstanding plague of solutionitis. Solutionitis is the tendency to jump quickly on a solution before fully understanding the problem. Over my career as a teacher and school leader, I’ve found that feedback, as it is currently given in our field, rarely addresses educators’ actual problems. By failing to correctly identify how and why something didn’t succeed and address it with relevant feedback, it is nearly impossible for an individual or team to improve in future iterations. Moreover, without meaningful feedback, there is no accountability for improvement. We cannot fix what we do not acknowledge, and we cannot redress behaviors that we do not properly name. 
For these reasons I decided, as a campus administrator, to try out a unique feedback method—one with decades of success. It is a feedback method that I once used as a U.S. military servicemember: the After-Action Review (AAR).  

The After-Action Review

An After-Action Review takes a rearview mirror look at what was intended to happen in a situation versus what actually happened. Introduced in the mid-1970s, AARs were originally created by the U.S. Army as a learning methodology to capture lessons from simulated battles at national training centers. The use of AARs began to wane, for a time; however, a resurgence occurred during the Gulf War and then during the conflict in Haiti in the 1990s. Since then, AARs have been used extensively across units and operations within the Army and other branches of the military.  
Four main questions make up the After-Action Review: 


1. What was supposed to happen?  

2. What actually happened?  

3. Why did it happen?  

4. What are we going to do next time?  

The AAR is not meant to vilify any one person for their performance, nor is it meant to rate performance according to a generalized rubric or framework. Rather, it is designed to make learning routine and to create, as a commander once noted, “a state of mind where everybody is continuously assessing themselves, their units, and their organizations and asking how they can improve.”  
So, what makes the AAR a more effective tool for providing educators with feedback than other currently used methods? In a word, accountability. When employing the AAR at the conclusion of events and military missions, the focus is not just on identifying problems. The primary reason for the AAR is accountability for the outcome of the mission. Given that each individual serves a specific purpose in the success of a mission, reviewing individuals’ roles in ensuring execution of the mission keeps everyone on the same page and cultivates a team-centered mentality. Each person is reminded that their contribution is crucial to the overall success of the unit or team. When any individual falls short, identifying how and why is imperative for the improvement of the individual and the whole unit. The next time a similar mission is assigned, the members review the previous AAR and discuss the improvements that have been made before proceeding.   

Each person is reminded that their contribution is crucial to the overall success of the unit or team.

Author Image

DeShanna Reed

How can teachers and administrators use the AAR methodology—or glean lessons from it—to provide better feedback to students, colleagues, and staff? Here are a few AAR-inspired tips that have worked for me in one-on-one meetings, coaching sessions, and consultations.  

1. Remove the emotion.

Giving and receiving feedback can be an emotional experience. As humans, we tend to draw nearly inextricable links between our performance and personal worth. Our ability to render and respond to feedback is rooted in a sense of safety and belonging. If we do not feel safe or trust the other individual, feedback could be filtered through personal biases and misinterpreted as attacks on our character (i.e., this information is about who I am, not how I performed). To avoid this, keep your personal feelings about an individual’s performance or character out of the discussion.  

2. Identify the most salient elements of the lesson or performance.

Before the meeting, determine how the feedback will be divided into sections. Perhaps it may follow the flow of the lesson or a predetermined outline. Make sure you communicate how the feedback will be divided and discussed in advance to maximize time and to keep the focus solely on the performance. During the feedback meeting, begin with the first question in the AAR sequence, “What was supposed to happen?” Record the individual’s responses on a whiteboard or large anchor chart paper. Discuss only those elements at the start of the feedback session and avoid using ambiguous questions such as “How do you think it went?” Focus on what is known, not what you or they think.  
As an example, I was once asked to observe an educator who was frustrated by his student’s lack of understanding during instruction. As I observed, I took note of his objective, lesson structure, and clarity of his instructions. I also noted his demeanor, voice cadence, register, tone, delivery, visuals, explanations, and other elements. Before we debriefed, I outlined what I observed according to sections of the lesson. When we met, I had a large piece of chart paper featuring the question, What was supposed to happen? written in bold blue marker on the left side of a T-chart. I asked him to fill out the left side of the paper while leaving the right side covered up (more on that in tip #3). Together, we discussed his responses.   

3. Drawing from the most salient elements, determine “What actually happened?”

This is where the right side of the T-chart came in. The right side focused solely on what I observed, according to the same sections the educator outlined on the left-hand side. It is imperative that, when giving feedback in this section, the observer is respectfully direct and specific about what they observed. Sticking to the facts removes the likelihood that emotive statements such as “I feel like” or “It felt as though” cloud the reflection process. Of course, there is a time and place to express personal feelings. We are, after all, emotive beings. However, in the case of providing feedback, the focus must remain on the actions of the individual(s). 

4. Ask questions that elicit higher-order thinking.  

Once the facts have been laid out, dig deeper into the how and why. What role, if any, does the feedback recipient believe they had in the outcome of the lesson or performance? What factors do they believe impacted their performance or actions? Were these factors within the recipient’s control? If not, to whom does the responsibility for mitigating these factors belong?  

5. After discussing and reviewing what actually happened, what should have happened, and why it happened, identify what will be done differently next time.

Failure to discuss future changes defeats the purpose of the AAR. Note that the question is not, “What are you going to do next time?” which isolates the individual from the unit. The question is, “What are we going to do next time?” The use of the word “we” is intentional. The Army Warrior Ethos states, “I am a warrior and member of a team.” This means no one serves nor fights alone. We succeed and fail together.  
When training other teacher-leaders and administrators on this methodology, I often hear the question, How much time should it take to conduct a successful AAR? In education, the answer truly depends on the depth of the issue, magnitude of the event, and scale of the solution. Typically, informal AARs (which focus on smaller tasks and objectives) can be conducted in 15-20 minutes while formal AARs (which look at longer-term, more in-depth events) may take hours or even days to complete. According to Army guidelines, roughly 25 percent of that time should be devoted to the first two questions, 25 percent to the third, and 50 percent to the fourth. Informal AARs with teachers and staff can be conducted as one-on-one conversations or in a small administrative team of four to five people. Formal AARs can be conducted with PLC groups, larger administrative teams, or as a grade level or full staff.  

How Can We Do Better?

When we incorrectly identify problem areas or give others cryptic feedback, we waste time and valuable resources. Employing a feedback system such as the AAR can facilitate careful reflection among school teams and eliminate solutionitis. By consistently and effectively utilizing each step of the AAR, all parties become aware of what actually occurred, what was intended to occur, why it occurred, and most importantly, what will be done differently next time.  
When we shift our focus from individual actions to the overall mission of improvement, we can facilitate lasting change. The AAR is key to achieving a collective state of mind where everybody is continuously assessing themselves, their units, and their organizations by asking how they can do their part to improve. After all, teachers and school leaders are one unit with one mission: to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to make positive changes in their lives and in the community at large. 

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