Significant event or critical incident analysis
‘The structured and deliberate review of significant events has been advocated as a useful way to encourage reflection’ (Brookfield, 1990). This method has been widely used in education and professional development as a way of helping learners to make sense and meaning of events that for one reason or another evoke an emotional response, cause them to take stock, expose a gap in understanding or capabilities, or cause them to think differently about something. The event need not cause anxiety or distress (such as a death, perceived criticism or cardiac arrest); it can be positive (such as receiving unexpected, good feedback from a relative about how the patient was cared for). It can be a useful tool for learners to use with their teacher to identify learning needs, reflect more deeply about an issue or situation or to challenge preconceptions or beliefs. One example of this is where students may not have come into contact with many older people before and are often surprised about what they can tell them about their past, history and key life events – they start to see them as ‘people’ rather than ‘old people’.
A common framework is as follows:
- ask the learner(s) to think about something beforehand and be prepared to describe it to the teacher or a small group
- the learner describes their event in their own way without interruptions (what happened)
- the teacher asks them to identify their initial thoughts and feelings (how did you feel about it?)
- then move into an analysis or evaluation of the event (why do you think it happened this way or what do you think was going on?
- conclusions and implications for learning and development (what do you take forward from this? what do you think you’ve learned from this?).
Because these events are often seen as negative by learners, the session must be handled with sensitivity and care. Henderson et al. (2002, p. 124) identified 12 tips from their research into students’ and teachers’ perceptions of being involved in significant event analyses, paraphrased below.
- Take time to introduce the process to learners. Make it relevant to everyday life by drawing on the learners’ past experiences.
- Explain the use of significant event analysis and its importance as a lifelong learning tool.
- Provide a framework for thinking about significant events and discuss possible emotional conflicts that may arise.
- Explain the language and process used, as this may be unfamiliar to learners.
- Acknowledge that feelings might be evoked and their recognition is part of the learning process.
- Explain that there are no right or wrong answers.
- Encourage ownership of the process.
- Ensure that teachers are adequately briefed and trained.
- Teachers need to foster a trusting and open relationship with learners.
- Teachers who discuss their own significant events with learners provide a positive role model.
- Ensure learners have the opportunity to discuss the events in a peer group.
- Help learners to see the role of significant incident analysis in their ability to cope with difficult or demanding situations and their ongoing personal development.