Tell me if this sounds familiar at all: you plan a nice activity, give your learners detailed instructions, double check that they got them, put them in groups to start the activity … but you see a hand raised, you call on the student, and inevitably, they go: ‘What do we have to do?’

And here’s another fun one: you have a student who never speaks in class whenever you do whole-class activities; then, the moment you put them in a small group and all of a sudden, they’re chatting away so much that you wonder whether there was a personality swap at some point.

I know I am not alone in having experienced these, and many more, little ‘incidents’, which often prompt the question ‘but why?’



This is part of reflective practice, something I draw on extensively in my teacher training activities. Specifically, describing and reflecting on this kind of event is called critical incident analysis and it can be a valuable, if under-used, tool of reflective practice and teacher development.


What are critical incidents?

Brookfield defines a critical incident as a ‘vividly remembered event which is unplanned and unanticipated’ (1990:84). This may occur in or outside a class and more broadly during a teacher’s career. Crucially, Tripp explains that it is not the incident in itself that is important but rather our interpretation of its significance. He says that critical incidents are ‘mostly straight forward accounts of very common place events that occur in professional practice which are critical in the rather different sense that they are indicative of underlying trends, motives and structures. These incidents appear to be “typical” rather that “critical” at first sight, but are rendered critical through analysis’ (2011: 24–25).

So, going back to my initial example, it is certainly unplanned that after giving them detailed instructions and double-checking they understood them, students would nonchalantly pop up and ask again what they have to do. This is part of what makes the event memorable, but the key part that makes it so significant is that despite putting in what I thought was good work, I hadn’t succeeded in making my instructions clear. If this was the case, then why was it?


Examples from the research

There is relatively little research on critical incidents in the ELT field; however, one study from Farrell (2008) gives us some useful insights. He did research with 18 Singaporean trainee teachers, who kept a journal recording critical incidents in their practice at secondary school.

I think there are two key takeaways from this study. The first is that the main areas on which the incidents focused were language proficiency, class participation and behaviour. Although the author himself explains that it is difficult to categorise these incidents, they give us an important insight into what are probably priorities for these teachers, since critical incidents are explained in terms of their significance. The second takeaway is that the majority of the incidents reported related to negative events rather than positive ones. This is unsurprising but meaningful: why is it that we give more significance to negative events than positive ones in our teaching?



Why should we analyse critical incidents?

In his review of critical incidents for professional development, Joshi (2018) gives a number of good reasons for analysing critical incidents. Some of the main ones include to evaluate established routines and practices; to make teachers aware of their beliefs (which, as I discussed in Why we should explore and evaluate teachers’ beliefs an be tacitly held) and, I would add, how they impact their teaching; to create opportunity for action research and to provide a resource for teachers (i.e. if teachers record critical incidents, these records can be used as resources in teacher training and development courses).


How can we analyse critical incidents?

If critical incident analysis sounds like something you might like to try, there are various suggestions for how you can go about it. Thiel (1999) recommends taking four steps:

  1. Self-observation: monitoring one’s teaching and recording instances of potential critical incidents. This may take different forms, such as journals, videos or audio recordings.
  2. Description: writing a detailed account of the incident.
  3. Self-awareness: looking at the incident from every possible angle to explain the way in which it occurred and why.
  4. Self-evaluation: evaluating the changes to one’s practice due to the incident.

Aside from this, Nick Howlett also has three interesting suggestions for critical incident analysis techniques: thinking strategies (e.g. identifying the pluses, minuses and interesting points about a classroom situation), asking a series of why-questions about the incident and idenfitying dilemmas.

Have you ever used critical incident analysis? What incidents do you remember vividly from your classroom experience? Let us know in the comments!



Brookfield, S. D. (1990). The skillful teacher. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Farrell, T. S. C. (2008). Critical incidents in ELT initial teacher training. ELT Journal, 62: 3–10. Oxford: Oxford Academic.

Joshi, K. (2018). Critical Incidents for Teachers’ Professional Development. Journal of NELTA Surkhet, 5: 82. Nepal: Nepal English Language Teachers' Association (NELTA) Surkhet.

Thiel, T. (1999). ‘Reflections on critical incidents’. Prospect, 14: 44–52. London: Springer

Tripp, D. (2011). Critical incidents in teaching (classic edition): Developing professional judgement, Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.