As part of my job as an IT release manager, I continually look for ways to improve the efficacy of our organization.  I evaluate where processes need to change, where they work, and how we can best adapt for a more successful future. To do this, one of the most important tools I have is the Retrospective (capital ‘R’ is intended).

We have just more-or-less survived the strangest school year ever and it may well be worth the time for each of us to conduct retrospectives within our own families.  By interviewing family members, we can gain valuable insight into the kids’ positive and negative experiences this past year.  These insights can then be applied as we create education plans for our children for next year.

Doing a retrospective is more than simply asking “so, how was it?” (The universal answer being “okay, I guess”).  The goal is to tease out some deeper, more introspective responses.  This is especially fun to do with gifted kids because of the unexpectedly insightful answers they tend to provide. The purpose of this article is to help those who don’t have experience with conducting retrospectives get started.


1. Use a tool, write it down

A retrospective is more structured than a simple interview, although the two have many similarities. As part of setting up your retrospective, you need to decide how you want to capture and preserve this feedback.  In the session I just did with my family, I used MS Word and typed their comments as we talked. Depending on your kids’ ages and preferences, though, there are other tools you can use:

If you’ve got multiple, fast typists in the family who really enjoy interacting via chat, you could look at a free tool like Idea Boardz: The benefit here is that everyone can contribute content directly as you go, leaving you (more) free to facilitate the discussion.

For young children, you can use approaches that allow them to express themselves with less writing. One possibility would be to brainstorm with them a bunch of statements about different aspects of school, like “learning to read”, “recess with friends”, “specialist time”, etc. These can then be spread out on the floor and the kids could be provided with color-coded sticky notes.  The colors could represent “In person - Worked well”, “Online - Worked well”, “In person - Didn’t work”, “Online - Didn’t work”. At this point they can begin to color-code each of these facets of their school experience.  As they do, proactively ask them why they coded each and what could be done to make it even better for next year. Transcribe their responses as closely as possible.


2. Prepare your structure in advance

The typical retrospective breaks feedback into three overall categories: what went well”, what did not go well, and action items. In my retrospectives, I always include a fourth bucket: kudos. I make a concerted effort to have team members recognize their colleagues for their contributions. From this origin point, we can adapt the structure to better fit capturing rich insights from your kids as they reflect on an experience far more complex than the recent sprint in an IT project. Here are some overarching questions and some potential follow-up questions to consider asking in your school year retrospective. Please do not limit yourself to things on this list. Chase down any and all other leads possible:

Root Question Potential Follow-up Questions
What seemed to work/not work well for you with online learning this year? - Why was [this] so effective/ineffective?
- How does [this] compare with when you were in school physically?
- What would [this] look like for next year if they were to do it perfectly?
What was the greatest thing one of your teachers did this year as part of your online learning? - Is this something you think other teachers could replicate?
- Action Item: Will you send a short ‘thank you’ email to the teacher?
If you were giving serious advice to the school board for next year, what would you tell them to do? If they can’t do [x], what is the next best thing they could do?
If you were giving advice to a student just starting remote learning for the first time, what would you tell them to do? What would you tell them to avoid doing?

3. They are ALWAYS right

The goal here is to get your family’s insights and understand their experiences. If they say something you disagree with—or is even demonstrably fallacious—that’s okay. You’re getting a peek into their experience. How they perceive events is critically important information and finding the times when their interpretation of events is off base is one of the most valuable gems you can find. If you get defensive or contradict them, they may shut down and you’ll lose your very best information.


Me: “What was something you noticed about the amount of time required to complete assignments that could be improved?”

Child: “Well, in school my teacher would answer questions, but you never helped me with anything, so it all took a lot longer.”

Me (thoughts): I spent at least two hours last night sitting next to you helping you focus on that writing assignment, made sure you actually read the full set of instructions, coached you through your writer’s block and even helped with mechanical edits. I even brought you snacks!

Me (spoken): “Okay, so what sort of questions did you have that weren’t answered? What would be a good way the teacher or I could have helped you find answers to your questions?”

4. Ask everyone (including yourself)

When doing a group session, it is important to get each family member commenting on each others’ comments.  The key here is to a stir discussion without debate (or in the case of my children, an all-out brawl). I have found an effective way to solicit responsive feedback on each other’s comments by calling the next person by name, requesting that they expand on the previous comment, and then allow them a little time to formulate a response.  If you get a response that refutes or contradicts the initial feedback, paraphrase their comment back to them with qualifiers like it being their observations in their experience. Careful facilitation is necessary to enable family members to reply and expand on each others’ comments without conflict.

After others have commented on a topic, feel free to give your own feedback--you survived the school year, too! If you noticed something that was left out, feel free to add it in at the end and get your family’s comments on your own observations.


5. Use the information!

While a retrospective can help everyone vent a bit about the stress of a bizarre school year, venting is not the purpose. The real benefit behind doing the retrospective is to inform your future decisions. Statements released by the OSPI and individual school districts have been clear in their message that the 20-21 school year is not “business as usual”.  As districts continue to explore hybrid learning models, knowing what works and does not work for your child may be the key to ensuring your child succeeds--and even thrives--in school.