Critical incidents & Significant events

Critical incidents

Significant events have an incidental and interpretable critical reason for existing…

Critical Incidents

Critical incidents are often defined practically by the extent to which they fit in with our existing ‘cognitive structures’.

For every situation in which we find ourselves, there is the possibility for ‘cognitive conflict’ – in which the many fragments of understanding and insight that we possess through intuition and experience and knowledge are brought to bear on assessing whether a situation is ‘reasonable’ or not.

If the situation matches your cognitive framework, then the situation is judged to be ‘reasonable’. If it doesn’t fully match or has certain mismatches, then it’s judged to be ‘surprising’.

If there is no match, then it’s judged to be a ‘critical incident’.

Definitions from research

  • Tripp (1994): they are not at all dramatic or obvious – they are mostly straightforward accounts of very commonplace events that occur in routine professional practice which are critical in the sense that that they indicative of underlying motive and structures……
    ……in teaching, importantly, critical incidents are created. Incidents happen all the time, but critical incidents are produced by the way we look at a situation: a critical incident therefore is an interpretation of the significance of an event…
  • Tripp, D. (1994) Teachers’ lives, critical incidents and professional practice, Qualitative Studies in Education 7(1): 65-76.

Translating this into actual practice, what does it mean for you?

  • That you often only begin to understand the real significance on incidents upon reflection
  • That you also often only begin to appreciate the consequences of your actions in retrospect
  • That you may lack a full understanding of the implications of your decisions – contextual factors may be important
  • That you may not always know what importance and significance to attach to different facets of practice life – are some things more important than others? How do we find this out?
  • That in many cases, your aspirations may well not be reflected through your actions – what are these possible barriers?

So how can you properly use critical incidents in order to get better?

If in reflection, you identify a ‘critical incident’, try to analyse it and its effects systematically:

  • Why did you regard it as critical?
  • Describe the event in some detail
  • Focus on key points to help you identify what you could do better the next time e.g:
    • Was it related to the learning environment?
    • Was it behavioural?
    • Was it subject related?
    • Was it pedagogical?

Pedagogy is the study of the methods and application of educational theory to create learning contexts and environments.

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