Debriefing: A Critical Step to Learning and Change

We know that it is important to provide staff with a variety of learning opportunities. Shadowing, formal instruction, group work, critical thinking exercises, behavioral rehearsals, and live coaching are some of the many ways to help the lesson stick and real skills develop. But what really makes or breaks those activities (in terms of long term learning) is not the activity itself, but how you debrief it.

Multiple research studies show that debriefing can be at least as important as preparation and the actual observation to long term learning.  Two key aspects of debriefing are building self-efficacy and a strengths-based approach by addressing the things that went well and by problem solving things that could have been done better. Other research shows that observers transfer learning better if they are asked to explain how the model addressed theory components and principles.  In addition, when the debriefing ties the actions back to theory and principles, the observer is able to use the learning to transfer to other activities.  This can lead to a more holistic use of wraparound theory.

That is a big jump – from seeing an activity of wraparound to applying to lessons learned across the whole process. This move to generalization is exactly what we want from our staff. How exactly should we be debriefing in order to get these benefits?

To explore this question, we will look specifically at debriefing after shadowing. It is sometimes assumed that shadowing is primarily about getting staff to observe wraparound, but research tells us that the debriefing has at least as much impact on observational learning transfer as preparation and shadowing the activity.  Taking the time to debrief the shadowing experience is important.

debriefing steps

We want the staff to reflect on the experience and identify how the critical components were done and how effective they were.  In debriefing, start with what the observer saw and use more active listening.  The coach should actively listen to the observer before offering their own insight. It is important that we do not tell the observer what they saw, but for them to tell us what they saw.  We ask them questions so that we know they understand it because they explained it to us, not assume they understand it because we told them.

Go through the action steps, principles, and the Theory of Change. If they miss important aspects of the observation, the coach might show these again if it is a video or explain if it is not. While it is better for the observer to see and comment on their own, coach observations can bridge learning gaps. Then the coach might ask very specific debriefing questions on the areas identified as critical in preparation.

One of the things about overall information processing is that better learning occurs when connected to things we already know.   Instead of shadowing being a random collection of new thoughts, making the shadowing experience fit into things already known will improve coding, storage, connections, and observational learning. Help the learner specifically connect this new knowledge back to things they already know.

The last thing is identify some challenges, some things that did not work in this situation, ways the observer might use or do this activity differently based on their own style, or with another family who presents a different set of challenges.   These would all create an opportunity for brainstorming, problem solving, and critical thinking.  Not only has the person learned from the shadowing experience, but they have thought about how to use the shadowing experience in other experiences in the future. Have critical thinking questions ready to prompt this deeper thinking (our textbooks include critical thinking questions for all of our activities to help facilitate this process).


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