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Debrief: Bringing it all together

Building Understanding

One of the most important aspects of an educator’s work is to help students draw connections between the content taught and the rest of their lives. In effect, it’s answering the age old and often dreaded question of “Why do we have to learn this?” Now, most folks who have been through the American public education system probably already know the knee jerk responses to those questions. “Because it’s on the test.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, and that’s where the all-important debrief comes in. The debrief is a teacher’s time to shine. A time to take a lesson that may have been cerebral, abstract or maybe even downright confusing and wrap it up nicely so students leave feeling like not only was that a decent use of their time, but something they might even be important later in life. Imagine that! Without further adieu, here are 4 easy things to remember for a successful debrief conversation.

1. Why are YOU teaching the lesson?

It might seem obvious, but if you can’t answer this question, how can students be expected to? In essence a big part of a successful debrief conversation is backwards planning. It’s starting with your objectives or enduring understanding, building a lesson plan around those ideas, executing that plan and circling back to the objectives in the closing discussion.  For instance when teaching a lesson about producers, consumers and decomposers decide whether your objectives are about understanding vocabulary terms or understanding the intricate connections of niches in an ecosystem. If your focus is understanding the connections, then the debrief is a perfect time to reflect on that with students and make that a priority of the conversation. This saves you from getting caught up on details that aren’t part of your end goal and helps to focus on what made the lesson successful.

2. It’s ok to be explicit.

As teachers we can often be our own worst enemy when it comes to a successful debrief because we feel like if we did our jobs well the students should just “get it”. We all want to be Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society and we’re scared that by being open with our students we lose the magic. That’s not to say there aren’t times for hard earned connections or pieces of subtle educational gold, moments that plant a seed and blossom into the learning we all hope to cultivate. Those are beautiful and essential parts of student driven practice, but there’s nothing wrong with simply saying “Here’s what I hope you’ll wall take away from this lesson” and laying it out there for them to think about.

3. Be concrete.

Use examples during your debrief that the students brought up during the lesson. Again, if you’re discussing the connections between producers, consumers and decomposers and a student noticed a nurse log, then talk about the nurse log. Don’t make things complicated by trying to tie in a lot of outside examples that may be abstract or convoluted in the eyes of your students. Ideally as a capable educator it should be possible to fit most aspects of students observations and/or conversation during the lesson to your debrief. Doing so will help them identify as capable learners and build a real life experience for them to link this lesson to later in the unit and their lives. It also helps to take some of the pressure off the teacher to come up with examples because the students have done it for you. Remember teachers and students are in this together.

4. Don’t let your debrief wander.

A debrief should be a wrap up, not an entirely different lesson. Too much time spent on final discussion and you run the risk of having what should have been the most important points becoming lost. They get mixed up with all the other information that’s been covered. Use the recency effect to your advantage and finish strong with the main points you want students to take away.

There you have it. Now the next time a student asks “Why do we have to learn this?”, you should be ready and able to help them figure that question out. Remember a powerful debrief can be the most important part of a lesson, and certainly a great opportunity to give the information a lasting impact. 

One of the most important aspects of an educator’s work is to help students draw connections between the content taught and the rest of their lives. In effect, it’s answering the age old and often dreaded question of “Why do we have to learn this?” Now, most folks who have been through the American public education system probably already know the knee jerk responses to those questions. “Because it’s on the test.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, and that’s where the all-important debrief comes in. The debrief is a teacher’s time to shine. A time to take a lesson that may have been cerebral, abstract or maybe even downright confusing and wrap it up nicely so students leave feeling like not only was that a decent use of their time, but something they might even be important later in life. Imagine that! Without further adieu, here are 4 easy things to remember for a successful debrief conversation.

1. Why are YOU teaching the lesson?

It might seem obvious, but if you can’t answer this question, how can students be expected to? In essence a big part of a successful debrief conversation is backwards planning. It’s starting with your objectives or enduring understanding, building a lesson plan around those ideas, executing that plan and circling back to the objectives in the closing discussion.  For instance when teaching a lesson about producers, consumers and decomposers decide whether your objectives are about understanding vocabulary terms or understanding the intricate connections of niches in an ecosystem. If your focus is understanding the connections, then the debrief is a perfect time to reflect on that with students and make that a priority of the conversation. This saves you from getting caught up on details that aren’t part of your end goal and helps to focus on what made the lesson successful.

2. It’s ok to be explicit.

As teachers we can often be our own worst enemy when it comes to a successful debrief because we feel like if we did our jobs well the students should just “get it”. We all want to be Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society and we’re scared that by being open with our students we lose the magic. That’s not to say there aren’t times for hard earned connections or pieces of subtle educational gold, moments that plant a seed and blossom into the learning we all hope to cultivate. Those are beautiful and essential parts of student driven practice, but there’s nothing wrong with simply saying “Here’s what I hope you’ll wall take away from this lesson” and laying it out there for them to think about.

3. Be concrete.

Use examples during your debrief that the students brought up during the lesson. Again, if you’re discussing the connections between producers, consumers and decomposers and a student noticed a nurse log, then talk about the nurse log. Don’t make things complicated by trying to tie in a lot of outside examples that may be abstract or convoluted in the eyes of your students. Ideally as a capable educator it should be possible to fit most aspects of students observations and/or conversation during the lesson to your debrief. Doing so will help them identify as capable learners and build a real life experience for them to link this lesson to later in the unit and their lives. It also helps to take some of the pressure off the teacher to come up with examples because the students have done it for you. Remember teachers and students are in this together.

4. Don’t let your debrief wander.

A debrief should be a wrap up, not an entirely different lesson. Too much time spent on final discussion and you run the risk of having what should have been the most important points becoming lost. They get mixed up with all the other information that’s been covered. Use the recency effect to your advantage and finish strong with the main points you want students to take away.

There you have it. Now the next time a student asks “Why do we have to learn this?”, you should be ready and able to help them figure that question out. Remember a powerful debrief can be the most important part of a lesson, and certainly a great opportunity to give the information a lasting impact. 

About the Author
Mike Munro
Author: Mike Munro
Mike has been working with youth of various ages for the past 10 years. Receiving an undergraduate degree in secondary education from the University of Vermont in 2008, Mike's spent time working as an assistant and community teacher and lead instructor with kids 2-12 in Vermont, Boston and Seattle. Mike loves combining his dual loves of nature and education to make a lasting impact with the students he serves.