Critical Incident Analysis in Teaching

The description and analysis of critical incidents


Even outside the teaching profession, individuals are faced with incidents that require reflective thinking. Reflective thinking is a concept that dates back to the early 20th century. According to Dewey (1933), reflection denotes ideas originating from feelings of uncertainty generated by experienced situations. In simple terms, Dewey (1933) provided a paradigm for problematizing an incident. Schön (1983; 1987) expanded Dewey’s reflection paradigm to provide a practice-based notion of reflection. Schön (1983; 1987) based his theory on two perspectives: reflection-in-action, which is more concerned about thinking through the incident; and reflection-on-action, which is more concerned about contemplation once the practice is concluded. These perspectives have since been considered an important theoretical framework for educators when understanding the contexts of critical incidents. To further refine this theory, Tripp (1993) provided four important approaches for educators to use when analyzing critical incidents. This section presents a descriptive analysis of a critical incident concerning improving teaching practice in students with behavioral issues.

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In this section, I describe through personal experience how Tripp’s approaches to critical incident analysis can be used to critically evaluate incidents through reflective thinking. The critical incident analysis begins by describing the nature of the incident as follows:

During School Experience A, I was placed in a school in Barking and Dagenham. The school had just come out of special measures. The class I was placed in had behavioral issues and their class teacher was quite strict. During week four of my placement, I went to get the class back from their break. Child X was told repeatedly by me to ‘be quiet’. Child X continued to just talk to their self. I then approached the child, and said, ‘X, shut up’ quite firmly, although I did not shout. Child X was stunned and the only reason I realized that I should not have said that is because of the way Child X looked at me. I started a conversation with Child X as we were walking back to class just to make sure they were ok and the child was ok.

Incident Analysis

While advocating for critical thinking, Tripp (1993) stated that when something is wrong we not only need to ask what happened but also what caused it to happen. In this regard, critical incidents have to be analyzed using structured models. Ferrel (2008) defines critical incidents as “any unplanned event that occurs in class, which if reflected on helps teachers to uncover new understandings of teaching and learning” (p. 3). Tripp (1993) provided a structured framework for analyzing critical incidents as described below.

Thinking strategies

Tripp’s (1993) reflective paradigm provides a framework for categorization of critical incidents to allow for different levels of analysis especially about thinking strategies.

Thinking strategy one-‘plus, minus and interesting’

Every incident has both good and bad points surrounding it as well as points that are neither good nor bad (Tripp, 1993). The good points are referred to as plus while the bad points are minus. Interesting are points that are neither good nor bad.


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  • Child X will benefit from the conversation I initiated and understand that it is wrong to disobey the teacher’s instructions.
  • Student X looked at me in a manner that made me realize that I should not have reacted the way I did.
  • I gained firsthand knowledge and experience from the students. For instance, I learned that students are uncomfortable with stern actions from the teacher. I also learned that engaging students in a conversation are the best way to understand their behavioral problems.


  • Child X’s class teacher is always strict when dealing with students
  • Students in this class have behavioral issues. They have very little respect for their teachers.
  • Student X kept on talking to their self even after I repeatedly told him to be quiet.
  • I lost my control when dealing with student X’s behavioral issue.


  • The school had just come out of special measures
  • Student X has behavioral issues, but can be cooperative if handled in a friendly manner.
  • Student X’s class teacher’s strictness has done very little towards correcting his behavioral issues.

From this thinking strategy, three important critical incidents stand out: child X’s misconduct, the class teachers’ strictness as a way of handling poor behavior, and the school coming out of special measures even when students still have behavioral issues.

Thinking strategy two- ‘Reversal’

Reversal, as a thinking strategy, seeks to explore the opposite point of view. In school Experience A, educators of students with behavioral issues (including me) consider such students undisciplined, troublesome, and hard to deal with. However, this viewpoint can be reversed; for instance, student X’s poor behavior provides an opportunity for me to practice my teaching profession, which also entails helping students develop good behaviors. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with behavioral issues are entitled to positive interventions to help them improve their poor behaviors and function in an inclusive classroom (IDEA, 2004).

Does student X’s behavior qualify for intervention under IDEA? Am I providing positive interventions that can help student X change his poor behaviors in my teaching practice? Were the special measures helpful in addressing behavioral issues? Exploring the reverse can help me realize the disparities that exist in my professional values and assumptions. By reversing the viewpoint, am I able to challenge my professional values and adopt a more rigorous viewpoint? The answer is yes. The reverse viewpoint helps me understand that being firm or rather strict is not the best way to handle behavioral issues. From my conversation with the students, it was clear that I was biased in my teaching practice and thus should have approached the incident in a better way. I ought to have understood that I was dealing with a class with behavioral issues and thus needed to handle them in a manner that would help them improve on their poor behaviors rather than make them uncomfortable.

Thinking strategy three-‘other point of view’

While reversal explores the alternative point of view, ‘other point of view’ is more concerned about others’ viewpoints especially participants in the critical incident. Reflective thinker in this case tries to explore the views of participants in a critical incident. For instance, did student X react the way I expected him to? Why did he react the way he did? What were his views about the critical incident in question? What about the views of the other students involved in this incident? What were the views of their class teacher? Finding answers to these questions would help me understand what others think of the critical incidents including what they think of my handling of the incidents. As Grifiths (2008) puts it “learners hold their beliefs to be true and these beliefs then guide how they interpret their experiences and how they behave” (p. 121). It is only after analyzing other points of view that I will be able to make a fair conclusion of the critical incident.

The Why? Challenge

The ‘why? Challenge’ provides another analysis approach that analyzes a critical incident by answering a series of ‘why’ questions. According to Tripp (1993) asking ‘why?’ forces critical reflectors to question their responses to critical incidents. Hence, the ‘why?’ questions challenge my response to the critical incident and allow me to pose this question to my responses; ‘that is how it should be?’ Gibbs (1988) also advocates for the ‘why?’ challenge in his reflective cycle. Using both Gibbs’s (1988) and Tripp’s (1993) paradigms, I can explore the critical incident in a systematic way that helps me realize that my tendency for firm actions against students with behavioral issues may hinder my ability to analyze the critical incident.

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With relation to the critical incidents, the following are some of the ‘why?’ questions.

Why should I be concerned about student X’s conduct?

Because he appears to have behavioral issues


He appears to be disrespectful


He keeps on talking to the other students even after I repeatedly told him to be quiet


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He disobeys my instructions


He prefers to be approached in a friendly manner


He reacts in a manner to show that he is offended when I became more firm with him

The second incident would be analyzed as follows

Why should student X’s class teacher be firm?

Because students in this class have behavioral issues


He believes it is the best way to deal with poor behavior

As for the third incident:

Why did the school come out of special measures even when students still have behavioral issues?

Because it did not solve the intended problem


Students did not change their poor behaviors

Using the reversal thinking strategy, the answers to the ‘why?’ challenge would take the following route.

Why should I be concerned about student X’s conduct?

Because I feel he should be assisted to improve on his poor behaviors


Student X and other students with behavioral issues are entitled to positive interventions to help them improve their poor behaviors


His poor behaviors can affect his performance as well as those of his classmates

The second incident would be analyzed as follows:

Why should student X’s class teacher be firm?

Because he feels students in this class have behavioral issues


They should be assisted to improve on their poor behaviors

These two approaches provide different answers to the ‘why? questions, which challenges the appropriateness of the school’s policy on behavioral issues. According to IDEA, students with behavioral issues are entitled to positive interventions, i.e. motivations and incentives, to help them change their poor behaviors. Following this law presents me with a dilemma; should I be strict when dealing with student X and others with behavioral issues as provided for in the class policy or should I rather be friendly and offer them positive motivations and incentives? In trying to break such dilemmas, Francis (1997) provides reflective algorithms similar to Tripp’s (1993) ‘why?’ challenge. However, Francis (1997) uses the ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ questions instead of Tripp’s ‘why? practice.

It is clear from both Tripp (1993) and Francis (1997) that whatever the approach one adopts, dilemmas are inevitable in the analysis of critical incidents. Hence, the incident analysis must involve dilemma identification and personal understanding of the incident (Louden, 1991).

Dilemma identification

According to Tripp (1993) and Louden (1991), recognizing a situation that appears rather uncomfortable as a dilemma enables one to deal with it more clearly. Tripp (1993) adds that the source of the discomfort does not result from the teacher’s shortcomings, but rather created by the dilemma for the teacher. Dilemma identification as an approach to critical incident identification has further been developed by Wildy et al (2000) who provided a framework for identifying ethical dilemmas in teaching practice. School Experience A can be evaluated as follows using a dilemma identification approach.

Student X had behavioral issues. He was disrespectful and could not stop talking to his classmates even after I repeatedly told him to be quiet. The student, however, believed that there was a better way of handling his misconduct. In trying to be firm on student X, I may have worsened the situation obviously because I felt I must have not handled the situation in the best way and had to find a friendly way to intervene. A question of discipline versus positive motivation arises. Taking what I perceived to be the most appropriate course of action, which would have been to punish student X and let it serve as an example to other undisciplined students, is more threatening as this would have made students feel uncomfortable around me. Taking the alternative approach of providing positive interventions may have worked out, but students may as well feel intimidated when they are unable to improve on their poor behaviors. Besides, the school had just come out of special measures and t taking the alternative action would have meant that I go against the school policy. It would have also meant that I go against the class teacher’s policy on dealing with behavioral issues.

Personal theory analysis

It is the rules inherent within a person that forms the final judgment of a critical incident. When presented with a dilemma, it is the personal theory that will lead to professional judgment and hence make one chose one course of action over another. The dilemmas identified above demonstrate a conflict between professional ethics and rules. My teaching profession dictates that I use positive means to help students develop good behaviors. Hence, my judgment on this incident is that I should use positive interventions to help student X and others change their poor behavior. My judgment is further influenced by provisions of IDEA which also advocates for positive intervention.


“Reflecting on what we do is essential to the development of professional judgment, but unless our reflection involves some form of challenge to and critique of ourselves and our professional values, we simply reinforce existing patterns and tendencies” (Tripp, D., 1993, p. 12).


Everyday practice exposes teachers to a myriad of critical incidents, which requires their reflection and professional judgment. While reflection is important for professional judgment, incidents have to be problematic to test teachers’ professional awareness, challenge their subjective values, and guide objective professional judgment. Tripp (1993) wraps this notion in the above quotation. Tripp goes ahead to warn that reflection is never carried out in a social vacuum hence teachers’ professional and cultural values are likely to affect the process and the eventual judgment. Professional judgment in this case is a judgment that is influenced by new forms of knowledge as opposed to existing assumptions (Richards & Ferrell, 2005).

It is the judgment that is not only unbiased but also contributes to the professional development of teachers. Teaching practice is a complex profession that exposes teachers to new experiences and pedagogical knowledge daily (Kolb, 1984). Even as teachers reflect on their experiences, their judgment is sometimes influenced by their personal and professional values. Unless these values are challenged during the reflection process, we end up enforcing existing patterns and tendencies. Hence, we must endeavor to challenge ourselves and our professional values during the reflection process. It is only through such challenges and critiques that reflection can lead to professional judgment. In this regard, this section provides a commentary on the above quotation concerning the critical incidents described in the previous section.

Reflective practice

Tice (2004) defines reflective teaching to mean ” looking at what you do in the classroom, thinking about why we do it, thinking about if it works” (par. 1). Reflective practice is a relative term with varied meanings (Grimmett & Erickson, 1988; Richardson, 1992). While some scholars take it to simply mean thinking about an incident, others believe that reflective practice is a more organized concept that not only involves thinking about something, but also the associated actions (Loughran, 2002). According to Loughran (2002), the effectiveness of reflective practice is determined by the nature of the problem and the anticipated outcome of reflection. Challenging problems leads to more critical reflections, which can challenge individual values and help teachers develop professionally. Reflective practice is thus an essential tool in the professional development of teachers.

While trying to advocate for reflective practice, Tremmel (1993) compared teaching practice to a journey:

…the way of teaching demands a long journey that does not have any easily identifiable destination… It is a journey that I believe must include a backward step into the self and it is a journey that is its destination. (p. 456)

Tremmel (1993) considered teaching practice as a profession that cannot be carried out without reflection and at the same time full of unclear challenges that demand that teachers critique both their individual and professional values to end up with a professional judgment. It is through these unclear challenges that teachers are forced to challenge their personal and professional assumptions by hunting new assumptions and finally end up with a professional judgment. If there were no unclear challenges, then teachers would simply repeat existing patterns and tendencies. It is through dilemma identification and personal theory analysis that teachers can be more objective and make professional judgments (Farrel, 2008). Dilemmas force teachers to challenge their normal way of doing things and in return seek new horizons of knowledge. This also requires that teachers not only recognize the problematic nature of incidents but also understand their professional awareness. As a teacher, I first need to understand what behavioral issues entail in an educational context and how to deal with the issue in a professional way rather than just jump to conclusions that students with behavioral issues should be dealt with firmly. When analyzing the critical incident above, I would have simply made a judgment based on my values and that of the class teacher’s concerning poor behavior. However, that would have meant that I reinforce existing patterns. It is through my critical reflection that I was able to challenge these assumptions and end up with a professional judgment that children with behavioral issues should be helped to change their poor behavior through positive interventions.

The role of reflective practice in the professional development of teachers

Teachers need to realize professional growth in their teaching practice (Melanie, 2007). This means that teachers should be able to learn from their day to day experiences and become better teachers. It is only through reflection that teachers can challenge what they already know and explore new theories that best explain their experiences (Brookfield, 1987). This calls for critical reflection in a manner that can challenge ourselves and professional values to lead to professional judgment.

According to Day (1993), reflective practice is considered essential in the professional development of teachers for three basic reasons: the nature of teaching, personal development, and growth of teachers as action researchers. Considering the nature of teaching, teachers are not only supposed to teach but also learn in the process of teaching. These two complex processes present various challenges to teachers that can only be solved through reflective practice, which allows educators to meditate on their past experiences and current practices (Grimmett et al. 1990). Such reflection leads to practice improvement and hence professional judgment. Without the challenges, which make reflective practice problematic teachers will blindly follow school programs and reinforce existing patterns and tendencies and hence jeopardize professional judgment (Leitch & Day, 2000).

In terms of personal development, the reflective practice provides a means to greater self-knowledge and challenge (Johnston & Badley, 1996). By analyzing personal theories and values, reflection challenges our responses and opens up our minds to professional judgment. For instance, through my reflection on the critical incidents above, I was able to explore the reversal point of view, which challenged my values and assumptions concerning handling behavioral issues and helped me develop a more professional judgment. Were it not for challenging my values and assumptions, I would have simply reinforced the class teacher’s policy of behavioral issues.

As for the growth of teachers as action researchers, reflective practice shapes teachers to be inquirers of information from within and outside the school setup hence teachers are freed from being mere implementers of theories (Peters, 1985). The incidents thus have to be challenging and problematic to invoke research. It is through such research that teachers can challenge their values and assumptions using new forms of knowledge and hence develop professional judgment. As Brookfield (1995) puts it, the reflective practice provides an approach through which teachers are not only able to examine their teaching practice, but also research on assumptions that influence teaching practice. Hence, reflective practice allows teachers to question assumptions that have been left for granted.

How reflection leads to professional judgment

Asking “what and why” questions give us certain power over our teaching. We could claim that the degree of autonomy and responsibility we have in our work as teachers is determined by the level of control we can exercise over our actions. In reflecting on the above kind of questions, we begin to exercise control and open up the possibility of transforming our everyday classroom life. (Bartlett, 1990, p. 267).

Reflective practice is only effective when teachers can move beyond routine practices and challenge their assumptions concerning a problem by asking the ‘what and why’ questions. While teachers often reflect on their day to day practice, it is the most challenging and problematic incidents that force teachers to move beyond normal routines and analyze incidents in a manner that promotes both learning and professional judgment (Jolly, 1999). Less problematic incidents are likely to be analyzed in a less critical manner that reinforces existing patterns and tendencies.

It is through critical incident analysis that educators can classify incidents as critical and thus choose whether to reflect on them or not. Tripp (1993) dedicated his book to reflection and how it contributes to professional judgment. Tripp (1993) acknowledges that reflection never takes place in a vacuum thus influenced by many factors including ourselves and professional values. Unless we can question these values and assumptions during the reflection process, our reflection may contribute very little to the development of professional judgment. Teachers have to be more critical of their selves when analyzing critical incidents. In this regard, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (2009) states that professional practice is dependent on professional judgment, which is a factor of critical reflection:

Skillful practice, whether of a surgeon, a judge, a teacher, a legal counselor, or a nurse, means involvement in situations that are necessarily indeterminate from the point of view of formal knowledge. Professional practice… [therefore] depends on a judgment to yield an outcome that can further the profession’s intended purposes…. The mark of professional expertise is the ability to both act and think well in uncertain situations. (p. 8-9)

Reflection on critical incidents is thus important for professional judgment and practice. It is how effective teachers reflect on critical incidents that will determine their professional judgment and hence their professional practice. Hence, teachers should consider critical incidents as perfect media for developing their professional judgment. In my view, professional judgment is like a journey whose perfection depends on reflection.

Following from critical incidents analyzed in section A above, behavioral issues present a powerful critical incident that its analysis promotes reflection, pedagogical reasoning, and learning. The dilemma presented by the critical incidents compels me to challenge my values and that of others and take an objective approach in making a professional judgment. For instance, I am forced to challenge my belief as well as that of the class teacher’s that children with behavioral issues should be dealt with firmly. By challenging my subjective assumptions, I can be more critical in my reflection, and analyze the incident in a manner that allows me to generate new knowledge, become more professional and make a professional judgment. Were it not for challenging my personal and professional values, I would have just followed the class teacher’s policy and be strict when dealing with students. This would have been just a repeat of the routine practice and would have contributed nothing to my professional practice. As a teacher, I need to understand that dealing with students with behavioral issues is a challenging practice that if not handled well might jeopardize my teaching profession. I also need to understand that the experiences presented before me by these critical experiences are essential in challenging my personal and professional beliefs and develop myself as a professional teacher.


Tripp (1993) provides a powerful framework for teachers to reason, reflect on, and learn from their day to day teaching experiences. Tripp (1993) informs teachers that they have to be critical in their reflection and challenge their personal and professional beliefs to develop professional judgment. Through reflecting on critical incidents, teachers are transformed from mere enforcers of existing patterns and tendencies to action researchers capable of generating new forms of knowledge. As a teacher, I find Tripp’s quote analyzed in this section powerful as it urges me to be critical when reflecting on critical incidents. It urges me to challenge my values and explore new forms of knowledge when developing professional judgment. Tripp also informs me that it is through reflection on critical incidents that I can develop my professional judgment. I relate to this quote especially after realizing that it is through critical reflection on my school experience A that I was able to question my professional and personal beliefs and made a professional judgment.


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