Herb Stevenson
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Critical Incidents

Adapted from Stephen Brookfield, Using Critical Incidents to Explore Learners’ Assumptions, in Jack Merzirow and Associates (eds.) Fostering Critical Reflection In Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning. (1990), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 177-193

The process of critical reflection includes three phases: (1) identifying the assumptions that underlie our thoughts and actions; (2) scrutinizing the accuracy and validity of these in terms of how they connect to, or are discrepant with, our experience of reality; and (3) reconstructing these assumptions to make them more inclusive and integrative. Central to the process of critical reflection is the recognition and analysis of assumptions. Assumptions can be defined as comprising those taken for- granted ideas, commonsense beliefs, and self-evident rules of thumb that inform our thoughts and actions. As an explanatory device, they both confirm and shape our perceptions, including helping us to define what is appropriate personal and professional behavior.

How we understand what happens to us and how we create meaning and find significance in these happenings are interpretive activities that occur within the framework of our assumptive clusters. They can be viewed as the interpretive glue that binds the various meaning schemes that structure our understanding.

Not for the Faint Hearted

Engaging in critical thinking is not a continuously joyful exercise in creative self actualization. Rather, it has the potential to mirror our very core of meaning-making and reveal that the way we think is not the only way to think. Because our very identity is associated with the assumptions holding together our world views, unearthing the core assumptions can be psychologically unnerving and potentially explosive. When these assumptions explode and we realize that what we thought are only fixed ways of thinking, living among a wider range of alternatives, the whole structure of our assumptive world crumbles. If the space/container is adequately held by the facilitator, deep and life changing shifts can occur. If not, the individual can experience serious psychological difficulty.

Critical Incidents

Critical incidents are brief descriptions written by learners of significant events in their lives. The descriptions are typically no longer than one full-page and include the details of the time, place, people involved in the incident, and the reason(s) why the event was so significant. To focus the process, the facilitator typically directs the learners to a specific type of critical incident. For example, in a men’s workshop, the critical incident could be to describe a time when the individual felt most like a man, and/or least like a man.

As a means of probing learners’ assumptions, the critical incident technique presumes that the learners’ general, meaning-making assumptions are embedded in the detailed descriptions. The detailed descriptions provide a real life experience from which the assumptions can be inferred. Hence, the purpose of critical incidents is to attempt to enter the frame of reference of others and to experience and understand the incident as closely to how the other experienced it. In so doing, the individual, in collaboration with others, is able to move into an inductive analysis of the general assumptive elements embedded in the detailed descriptions.

Modeling

A critical aspect of the process is to create some sense of familiarity to ease different forms of anxiety. By modeling the process with personal examples, the anxiety tends to ease as the group and individuals are able to see the actual process. Whether a group of three or four of learners volunteer or the facilitator uses a personal example, the learners gain some comfort that the facilitator knows what he or she is doing. If he or she personally models the process, the group will gain the added perception that the facilitator is willing to be the proverbial “sacrificial lamb” for them, thereby potentially building trust.

Power Roles

Another aspect of modeling is to shift the focus from facilitator-as-expert to learner as- peer or as-experiential learner. This empowers each learner to assume responsibility for active participation in the exercise. Hence, the focus becomes one of each person sharing their individual thoughts and insights as personal perceptions and not as judgment.

Commonalities

The exercise includes an opportunity to examine commonalities and differences. When commonalties move into discussions of conventional wisdom, awareness of groupthink begins to develop. These untested morsels of wisdom tend to be what eliminates critical thinking and therefore conscious choice.

Closing

The process/exercise tends to open people in ways that need to be closed down. Hence, the group as a whole should have adequate time to share/discuss their individual and group experiences. Further, each individual can enhance the closure process by briefing stating what it is that they are taking home from the experience. This is a natural method to close the exercise as well as close the session. Source: Stephen Brookfield, Using Critical Incidents to Explore Learners’ Assumptions, in Jack Merzirow and Associates (eds.) Fostering Critical Reflection In Adulthood: A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning. (1990), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 177-193

Critical Incident

Analyzing Assumptions About Ourselves

Critical Moment

Think back over the past four or five years, During that time, what event made you feel a real “high” of excitement, satisfaction, and fulfillment? A time when you said to yourself, “This is what life is all about,” or “This is what makes it all worthwhile.” Detailed Description Write a brief description of this event. Make sure you include details of when and where it happened, who was involved (roles, functions, and job titles should be used here rather than names of individuals), and what it was about the event that made you feel so good. Write these details by yourself, keeping your description to under one page.

Another Critical Moment

Think back over the past four or five years, During that time, what event made you feel a real “low” of despair, dissatisfaction, and emptiness.? A time when you said to yourself, “Life sucks” or “This is not what I expected.”

Detailed Description

Write a brief description of this event. Make sure you include details of when and where it happened, who was involved (roles, functions, and job titles should be used here rather than names of individuals), and what it was about the event that made you feel so good. Write these details by yourself, keeping your description to under one page.

Collaborative Inquiry

Now, find one or two other participants to form a group of two or three. In this group, each person will take a turn reading aloud his or her descriptions. After you have read out your descriptions, your colleague(s) will try to identify your assumptions about being a man that they think are embedded in your descriptions. You, in turn, will do the same for each of your partners. To help identify assumptions, it might help to think of them as the rules of thumb that underlie and inform our actions. In this exercise they are the general beliefs, commonsense ideas, or intuitions that you each hold about being a man.

Levels of Analysis

Your analysis of assumptions should initially be on two levels:

(1) What assumptions do you think inform your partners’ choices of significant incidents—what do their choices say about their value systems?

(2) What assumptions underlie the specific actions they took in the incidents
described?

Accuracy and Validity

After your description has been analyzed by your partners, you have the opportunity to comment on what you see as the accuracy and validity of their insights, Do you think they have gauged accurately the assumptions you hold? Were you surprised by their analyses? Or did the assumptions they identified confirm how you conceive yourself as a man. They, in turn, will have the chance to comment on the accuracy and validity of your assessment of their assumptions.

Commonalities and Differences

It is also interesting to look for commonalities and differences in the assumptions you each identify. If there are commonly held assumptions, do they represent what passes for conventional wisdom of being a man. If there are major differences, to what extent might these signify divergent societal views. Or might the differences be the result of contextual variations.

Contextual

Finally, after reading your incident description, it is almost inevitable that your partners will ask for more information about the circumstances you have just described. What do their requests for additional contextual information say about what they perceive to be valuable and significant in the incident described?

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