04 December 2013

...Critical Incidents

This post discusses David Tripp's approaches to the analysis of incidents, and how the practice he describes can help teachers to develop their professional judgement. I'll start off by describing what we mean by critical incidents, and why they matter. I'll 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's 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. (See Reflective Practice & Writing to Learn for some of my thoughts on the professional benefits of systematic reflective writing.) 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 They often veil historical structures and assumptions which are at best outdated and, at worst, harmful.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 doesn't tend to occur without change. But, to return to critical incidents...

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 can raise your awareness and develop your understanding of the implicit structures and unquestioned assumptions which served to generate your incident in the first place.

But let's now turn to the practical approaches which Tripp suggests will help in our quest for deeper understanding. Here's my brief take on his 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've considered all factors relevant to a situation, or misjudge its complexity. It's 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 doesn't 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 - it's exactly what is says on the tin. However, its simplicity belies its ability for revealing assumptions of which you may be unaware. To apply this approach, simply 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. (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, which links strongly to...

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, and; 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're struggling 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.

My next post will discuss this further - the nature and value of professional judgement in teaching. It's a particularly significant topic at the time of writing as it relates strongly to the current debate about the accreditation of teachers and the future of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

References & further reading

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

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

Citing this post?
Ayres, D. (2013) Critical Incidents. Available at: http://danieljayres.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/critical-incidents.html (Accessed: [Date]).


  1. Great post. I'm writing a CIA essay and I'm using the CIA (critical incident analysis) framework. I'm stuck with one of the bullet points that is: What theories might have helped develop your understanding about some aspect of the incident.
    Could anyone help me please?

    1. Two perspectives on 'theories' come to mind for me.

      We develop our own - often subconscious - personal theories about what is 'good' and the 'right way' to act or behave. Our personal theories shape the decisions we make and the way we view other people's decisions.

      However your essay probably requires you to cite literature which supports your understanding of the incident. In this case the ideas which you read - the authors' proposals - are the 'theories' you're being asked to evaluate and discuss.

      Hope helps!

  2. I am speaking from a teacher preparation context. I think these theories would refer to theories learned about in university coursework, lay theories (our personal perspectives/beliefs), or at times the lay theories of others (mentor teachers. There is a body of research that suggests that these lay theories (self/others) are strongest. CIA can modify and/or create new theories, or expel others.

  3. Great post. I have referred my students to this article!

  4. Heya! I'm at work browsing your blog from my new iphone!
    Juust wanted to say I love reading your blog
    and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the fantastic work!

  5. i loved the simplicity with which you explained critical incidents!

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  7. Really helpful Daniel. I appreciate the succinctness of your post on a topic that I have found to be somewhat bewildering at times (Tripps Horsebutterfly scenario comes to mind).

  8. First of all, this... (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.)...had me laughing out loud in the library! Those around me were not impressed.

    Secondly, thank you for this blog, it has been most useful.

    And lastly, I would like to suggest, that's if you are not doing this already, that you write short, witty stories (education based or otherwise) because you are awfully good at it.

    Kind regards



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Regards, DJA