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After Action Review: Learning From Failure and Building Success

This post is slightly out of order in my series on using PBL as a basis for Designing PD, but I wanted to share a success that our staff had this week in using a new (to us, but definitely not new) protocol to evaluate the success of our efforts to design what we are calling Workshop Wednesdays. The reason I call the use of the protocol a success is because it helped us to:
  • evaluate the successes and failures of our pilot project
  • gave everyone an opportunity to give feedback
  • invigorated the staff by providing an avenue to celebrate their own work
  • empowered the staff to push beyond the ok and to imagine great
I promise I will get back to the original series next week to explain the steps that led up to this point!

On Wednesday, March 22nd, our campus engaged in the 2nd pilot of our "Workshop Wednesday" plan. To catch you up if you haven't been reading the blog, the "Workshop Wednesday" is a day in our schedule where facilitators set up a schedule for the day that could include: hosting workshops, meeting with project teams, conducting End of Course exam tutorials, mini lectures, independent studies, an open gym, etc. Facilitators created these schedules in grade level teams and tried to account for offering enough independent study spaces for learners to go to between sessions, as well as provide other opportunities for learners to get different types of help from the same facilitator. 

The learners then are given a set of constraints and asked to build a schedule for the day that gets them to their classes or allows them to choose other options that they might need or want. To help learners with their scheduling, they were given a blank template and also were asked to enter their scheduling choices on a google form. The google forms were set up by grade level and students would get a copy of their responses when they submitted the form. One of our key limiting factors is that we do not have a good way to set seat limits for an individual session with a facilitator (and if anyone is reading this and knows of something we could be use that is free, help a principal out!). 

Knowing that we were going to be embarking on this pilot, I've been sharing out our thoughts and plans with different thought partners to get ideas and suggestions. One of those thought partners, I met at the New Tech Networks Leadership Summit that was held in Dallas this February. The design of our Friday morning session was for school teams to have access to Network consultants as we worked through problems of practice. Presented with this opportunity, the instructional coach that was with me and I explained our opportunity statement and were encouraged to use a protocol called the After Action Review to help us evaluate the success of our "Workshop Wednesday" pilots. 

What was appealing to me about the After Action Review (AAR) was that it is a very simple framework that allows teams to evaluate their success after a project, plan, product, or event. Even though the framework is relatively simple, the goal is to spark rich conversation around the execution of the project and to help improve implementation in future practice. If you Google AARs, you will find a lot of resources out there about how it is used in various organizations, how to prevent it from being meaningless, etc. Please see the bottom of this post for a short sampling of resources.

The AAR process listed in the Guide to the After Action Review listed in the resources below has four simple questions:

To facilitate the discussion, we divided the staff of about 30 into groups of three and had the group designate someone to facilitate the discussion (and keep the time) and someone to scribe. The resources on conducting an AAR recommend that the leader of the group should facilitate the discussion. However, since my campus has a very rich tradition of facilitators leading discussion among themselves and a PBL protocol called "critical friends", it was a safe strategy for us to be able to decentralize the discussion from the authority of the principal.

Now for me to be VERY real about why we needed this protocol. Let's be honest, we were trying a pilot program for something that relies on high school aged learners to develop their own schedule and be able to make choices based on what is in their best interest. Where could this go wrong?! I mean we have a great idea right? Our goals were based on sound practices of trying to:
  • meet learner needs
  • provide learner choice
  • create opportunities for small group or one-on-one instruction
Sounds pretty good right? The sticking point of course is that if our learners don't understand what we are trying to do with our "Workshop Wednesdays" and if we don't create systems that help them to make the right choices for their learning, then we are going to experience some failures. And we definitely had some failures. Failure can be tough. Even a relatively successful day that we had can feel muddied by the poor choices of a few to not follow through with a schedule that puts their learning first. 

But failure can be good and in this instance it was highly motivating for our staff. The truly amazing thing about going through the AAR process was that even though we could identify our successes and we definitely were frustrated by our failures, it made us want to try harder because we also had some areas of tremendous success. 

Some things our AAR revealed:
  • Some facilitators found a lot of success trying new things like meeting individually with project teams, learner led workshops, differentiation sessions
  • Strengths of the day also included that facilitators could isolate individual skills to work on with learners
  • We need to work as a staff to "market" these days to learners so that they understand the benefit to them and know how to use it more effectively
  • We still need systems for better attendance accounting and for groups to be able to schedule time together
This is just a small sampling from our list, but we will be conducting our third pilot near the end of April and will have more data, ideas, and hopefully systems to build off of. Look for more updates in early may on this process!



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