Disruptions (Part 2): The After-Action Review

Tim Van SoelenThe CACE Roundtable6 Comments

“We didn’t sign up for this.” Offered by administrators, teachers, parents, and students, this line has found its way into numerous conversations in recent months. Every leader of every institution, organization, and family has made decisions that they had not previously considered. In our world of education, we had some tough ones. Do we close our school because of this virus? Do we mandate self-quarantine for students who were traveling abroad? Do we allow people to come in to work? If so, who is allowed to come into the building, and how will we stay safe? What services are essential? How do we deliver special education remotely? Do we hold a virtual graduation or delay until late summer?

It has been fascinating to note the complexity of decisions at every level as the coronavirus has spread across the world. How decisions are made matters. How we press the occasional pause button to reflect on our decisions matters as well.

Every crisis has outcomes or lasting effects. In America, the 9/11 crisis resulted in the Patriot Act, massive increases in Homeland Security, changes in immigration and deportation, and extreme patience needed when traveling the less-friendly skies (added security measures at the airport). Every crisis presents opportunities for change and growth. What will emerge from this crisis is yet to be determined, but here are a few that I’m noticing and anticipating.

The promise of technology, which was never really fulfilled in the last decade, has a rekindled opportunity. Schools are quickly realizing the challenge but also the sophistication and flexibility that technology can provide. At the same time, staring at a screen for up to eight hours a day has led to a renewed appreciation for the outdoors, even a revitalized consideration for the creation and the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28). A deeper understanding of how viruses travel could lead to cleaner and safer schools, which should lower absenteeism.

Along with these observations, I have some bigger-picture questions. What new pedagogies that we were forced to employ will carry over into next fall? Will this communal fight against Covid-19 help to restore a healthy political culture? Will our culture of hyper-individualism thrive or fail?

Full disclosure: I have more time to wonder. With Dordt students finishing their semester from home and many colleagues working from home, my face-to-face contacts are way down. On a normal walk to work, I would see 100-500 people (the number dependent on whether I was walking at 7:50 a.m. with the on-time students or at 7:58 a.m. with the “I hit snooze one too many times” student zipping by on a long-board). Today, I saw zero students and zero colleagues. So I had 20 minutes to simply reflect on yesterday’s work and think about today’s. Working at a university during this crisis makes me wonder what it was like for people such as Luther or Kempis to do their scholarship at a monastery. A lifestyle of social distancing?

I realize that in the midst of this pandemic, not all of you have more time to wonder and reflect (especially those of you with young children at home!). But I do want to encourage you make time. And to do so in community. What are the possible (maybe intended) outcomes and lasting effects of this crisis? Are we making the right decisions to achieve the lasting effects we desire?

To maximize what we’ve all gone through, consider using this powerful protocol first utilized by the U.S. Army in the 1970s, the After-Action Review (AAR). The AAR was developed as a learning methodology to foster day-to-day learning from combat training exercises. Adopted by the business world in the late 90s, the AAR has become part of the culture at places like Steelcase, Lenovo, and GE.

In most formats, the AAR asks four big picture questions:

What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? Why was there a difference? What can we learn from this?

My example comes from Dordt University’s Education Department during this unusual semester:

What was supposed to happen?

Dordt University’s Teacher Preparation Program would execute our mission (to prepare preservice teachers for service in diverse settings, equipping them with God-centered, reflective, and transformative skills, knowledge, and dispositions for teaching, learning, and leading) in a virtual environment.

What actually happened?

We were able to provide emergency (one of our professors used the word “triage”) contextually-appropriate resources for school-at-home through our learning management system (Canvas) and video services. However, these changes did not always go smoothly. When students have completely different experiences in a Canvas course, from professor to professor, they became frustrated. When students received 50 notifications of tasks to be completed on Monday morning, they were overwhelmed. When each of their five or six classes asked them to read an additional text and respond in a discussion board or report, their enthusiasm and engagement lessened. As a department, we did not identify system-wide protocols, processes, and expectations for professors. Students used a lot of common sense and provided us with much grace. Survey data from students helped us make significant adjustments, and weekly check-ins with our department helped us discover what was working and what wasn’t

Why was there a difference?

The main reason that we couldn’t deliver on our mission as well as we hoped is because we had five days to figure out how to move our courses completely online–from science methods courses with labs to field experiences for undergraduates and student teaching for seniors.

What can we learn from this?

That consistency in our delivery system is critical, and department-wide communication is necessary.

As you can see from the example above, AARs help us maximize experiences—capture the learning from them. AARs can be done to different degrees. Most educators engage in personal AARs as they review the outcomes of an event (think fundraising event, professional development training, board meeting, assessment data workshop, etc.) These informal AARs can be done individually or with a group, with little preparation and planning, as a spur-of-the-moment conversation or as an agenda item. On the other hand, the formal AAR is a resource-intensive process that requires planning and preparation. The formal AAR might have an external facilitator and have targeted AAR meetings–multiple opportunities and levels for thinking through what worked and what didn’t.

The After-Action Review is not a report; it is a tool for improvement that is focused on advancing the organization’s learning and, ultimately, performance. While the AAR process is beneficial, we will not know whether learning occurred until we see a change in behavior. This pandemic, while incredibly disruptive, has been an opportunity for schools to improve how we do school. I hope that your organization has some time in the next week or month to ask these questions, in community, and to determine what you will sustain and what you will improve as you begin planning for multiple fall scenarios.

Lead well,

[This is part two of a two-part series. Read Part One here.]


  • Tim Van Soelen

    Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.

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