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Debriefing in geography

‘Debriefing is the plenary phase at the end of the lesson … The teacher plays an important role in connecting the new thinking to other contexts in order to generalise the learning and help create models that the students can use to transfer their learning to other contexts.’

Adam Nicholls, 2001

Topics on this page:

What is debriefing? | Why is it so important? | What makes a good debriefing? | Reading | Evaluate a debrief

What is debriefing?

Debriefing is a reflective discussion that takes place after an activity or experience. This should be a common feature of your teaching following learning activities. 

It is especially important when the activity has taken substantial time, such as a role play, simulation, enquiry or fieldwork. The purpose of debriefing is for students to reflect on what they have done, what they have learnt and how they approached the task.

Why is it so important?

When students have been engaged in challenging activities, they should have a lot to talk about. This discussion needs to be carefully structured by the teacher so that what students have learned is skilfully drawn out from them and they become fully aware of it. 

The teacher needs to concentrate on the significant learning in terms of key geography concepts and skills, and steer the discussion away from the trivial – this is particularly important if activities such as games and role-plays were used where students may have become very involved.

Sufficient time must be allowed for the debriefing. It needs to enable reflection and discussion and this cannot happen in a brief plenary, nor when students are packing their bags at the end of the lesson. If time is too short, it may be best to wait for the start of the following lesson. Students need the opportunities to voice uncertainties, share ideas and ask questions, which means they need space and must not feel rushed or be waiting for the bell.

The rationale behind debriefing, as explained by David Leat, is that by understanding their own thinking (metacognition), students can apply what they have learned to other situations (see Metacognition). He also talks about bridging, where students transfer concepts and reasoning to other geographical topics.

Read Roberts (2023) chapter 22 to explore metacognition and reflection and discuss with your mentor how students could be encouraged to reflect on their learning through discussion.

What makes a good debriefing?

Consider these points:

Preparation

  • Plan as you would for other aspects of a lesson. What is the focus? How long will you allow? What questions will you ask?
  • Make sure you keep a strong focus on the geography that is being learned.

During the learning activity

  • While the learning activity is taking place, look out for things you can draw on in the debriefing; this may be a student comment, idea or questions. Then you can directly ask a student or group for a contribution in a debrief.

In the debrief

  • The teacher must promote discussion – it will not happen otherwise. This is a teacher-led activity and the teacher must manage it to ensure that all are involved and a few do not dominate.
  • The teacher must ensure that everyone listens to others.
  • Use open questions. Do not have preconceived ideas of the answers and be willing to take a risk with questions that you do not know the answer to.
  • Give plenty of positive reinforcement and feedback to students. They will probably find the activity challenging and need encouragement.
  • Look for extended answers. Encourage students to ‘go on’ if they pause. Do not settle for one-word explanations.
  • Give the students plenty of thinking time to respond – don’t be afraid of silence. Get them to discuss in pairs if nothing comes up.
  • Ask students to comment on, add to, or evaluate others. Could it be improved on?
  • Collate ideas from the debriefing as you go along. Use the whiteboard to note ideas as the discussion evolves. Connect new thinking that emerges to other contexts in order to consolidate and generalise learning. You might build this up into a spider diagram or concept map.
  • Use your whiteboard notes to recap at the end and summarise the main points for the students to take away from the debriefing.

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary school: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, p. 82.
  • Leat, D. (1998) Thinking through geography. London: Chris Kington Publishing, p. 162.
  • Nichols, A. (2006) ‘Thinking Skills and the role of debriefing’, in Balderstone, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Write a detailed evaluation of a debriefing session that you have undertaken. It could be for an enquiry, fieldwork, thinking activity or role play.
  • Focus on each of the points listed above to evaluate what you achieved.
  • Record what you learned from it, and whether you would approach it differently next time.
  • Discuss this with your mentor.