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Critical Incidents in Teaching

Article · July 2017


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Daniel J Ayres
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Critical Incidents in Teaching
Daniel J Ayres

This brief article is based on a blog post I wrote to discuss David Tripp's approaches to the analysis of
incidents, and how the practice he describes can help teachers to develop their professional

I start off by describing what we mean by critical incidents in teaching, and why they matter. I then
share my understanding of Tripp's main strategies for effectively analysing our experiences.
Hopefully I will help you to understand and employ the approaches, to broaden your professional
awareness of the complex and sometimes emotionally charged events which occur in your school.

First of all, let us determine what a critical incident is not. Imagine you are undertaking a cold
January playground duty, shuffling from foot to frozen foot. You hear a sudden shout from behind
the emergency exit, and the head teacher falls headfirst into the playground. She slides a good 12
feet across the ice forming beneath the leaking water fountain, before bowling over a group
of children from class 3b... 'What a critical incident!' you cry. Except it's not. Not by Tripp's
definition, at least.

The process of generating a critical incident begins with a straightforward, descriptive account of an
event. The account, or record, can be generated through diary writing, jotted note-taking, or a
reflective journal entry. Critical incident analysis depends on a thorough initial record of an event, a
detailed description of your experience. But what to write about? Start by noticing the attributes of
particular events, and your reaction to them. For example, you may find something unsettling, or
confusing, rewarding or cheerful. Perhaps the event was unexpected. Or perhaps it was something
that went almost unnoticed.

The analysis of typical, routine events is of particular value. This is because such events can be the
result of habits which have been simply adopted and then left to embed, unchallenged. They often
veil historical structures and assumptions which are at best outdated and, at worst, harmful. Typical
events are often realisations of our expectations, perpetuated by our perception that they always
seem to be happening. By raising our professional awareness, and becoming mindful of the
underlying structures which drive our thinking, our decision-making and our consequential actions,
we are in a position to challenge, reassess and make changes. And, of course, improvement does
not tend to occur without change.

We create a critical incident through analysis. That is, an incident becomes a critical incident as a
result of our critical thinking about it. And this is the key: When you commit to the analysis of
professional experience (critical incident analysis) you must be prepared to question accepted
systems and routines, including your own taken-for-granted understanding, and your beliefs and
feelings about what is good or bad, right or wrong. The point is not simply to confirm what you
already suspect may have caused the event, but to uncover something new. And through thorough
scrutiny of all relevant factors you raise your awareness and develop your understanding of the
implicit structures and unquestioned assumptions which served to generate your incident in the first

Here are the practical approaches which Tripp suggests will help in our quest for deeper
understanding - four approaches to the analysis of incidents:
Thinking Strategies
Tripp presents a selection of prompts, a sample of which are included below, to initiate analysis and
broaden our thinking. I often have discussions with teachers who either assume they have
considered all factors relevant to a situation, or misjudge its complexity. It is crucial to ensure we do
not take too narrow a view of our incident. Here are some examples of the thinking strategies Tripp
suggests that we consider, to ensure we obtain a fuller picture. Consider:
- all the positive/negative/interesting points about the situation
- alternatives/possibilities/choices which were also available
- alternate viewpoints/perspectives/opinions possibly held by others

This approach is not personally challenging. It does not demand a particularly critical approach, but
using these prompts is useful for ensuring that the incident is considered in its entirety,
from multiple perspectives. Look into Edward de Bono's CoRT Thinking programme for more
information on this approach.

The Why? Challenge

The title of this simple approach to analysis speaks for itself. However, its simplicity belies its ability
for revealing assumptions of which you may be unaware. To apply this approach pick a specific issue
from your account (mentioned above).
Write it down.
Then ask, 'Why does this matter?'
Write down the answer, beginning 'Because...'
Follow this with a further 'Why?'
Write down the answer, 'Because...'
Continue, allowing the dialogue to take you wherever it needs to. Eventually, you are likely to come
to a conclusion that is governed by policy, the law or faith, or by one of unavoidable practicality.
However, where the process stops is often a powerful indicator of the forces that combined
to create your original event.

Dilemma Identification
Many times a day in their work teachers experience the feeling that if they had done what they
chose not to do, things might have turned out even better. But they can never know for certain.
That is one of the very stressful and often demoralising aspects of being a [critically] thinking, feeling
teacher. (Tripp, 2012, p.54).

This approach assists us by forcing us to view particularly complex or less-that-satisfactory events as

created for, rather than by us. Identify the dilemmas which exist within your incident. By
considering your decisions, and the decisions of others, from an objective standpoint you are in a
better position to uncover the motivations, values and beliefs which underpinned the actions.

Personal Theory Analysis

Our personal theory represents the set of beliefs we have formed about how we view the world, and
how we think things must be, or how they should be. This is about your own ideological
viewpoint concerning professional practice. It is formed by your experiences to date: your
upbringing; your own journey through the education system; your teacher training; your tutors and
mentors; your parents and carers; everything you've seen, heard and read along the way.

It is crucial that you not only become aware of the existence of your personal theories, but
understand them as the powerful, solid structures they are. Significant shifts in these structures
usually only occur through particularly emotional or stressful life events (see Mezirow). At times
your personal theories inevitably conflict with the policies and practices you are instructed to follow.
You then quietly concede, and get on with it. By analysing accepted practices which don't appear to
conflict with your personal theories (those which are embedded without challenge) you can
reveal any unhealthy or harmful assumptions which have no place in the supposedly safe and
nurturing classroom environment.

So, where to start? Consider embarking on some free writing. Let yourself describe a situation you
faced in the last 24 hours. It needn't be particularly remarkable. Remember that trivial situations
can reveal highly useful material. If you struggle to make a start you might find it useful to follow
Tripp's advice and think of interesting, amusing, sad, unfortunate or silly occurrences you can recall,
for inspiration. And persevere, because reflection, self-analysis, questioning your understanding,
and exploring your assumptions is essential to the development of your professional judgement.

References & further reading

Ayres, D. (2014) Dilemma Identification. Available at: http://danieljayres.blogspot.co.uk/p/dilemma-


De Bono, E. (1987) The CoRT Thinking Course. London: Pergamon.

Mezirow, J. (1981) 'A critical theory of adult learning and education', in Adult Education 32: 3-24.

Tripp, D. (2012) Critical Incidents in Teaching: Developing Professional Judgement. London; New
York: Routledge Falmer

This article is based on an original blog post, available here:


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