What are retros? How do you do them? How can you use them in your classroom?


Table of Contents

What are they?

At a high level, retrospectives are a structured way of reflecting on an experience with the shared understanding that everyone did the best they could and the goal of improving the processes involved. For what I do, we conduct retros every 2 weeks to reflect on what we call a sprint. While it's something used in other fields, it can be a powerful tool for the classroom too. Retros provide a structure reflection and that's what makes them powerful. In the rare instances we do spend time on reflection in the classroom, it doesn't have concrete action steps for moving forward. A retro aims to have specific outcomes for next time making its purpose clearly tied to what comes next and actionable improvement. The tools we use often is EasyRetro; Mike also recommends Padlet.

Prime Directive & Safety Check

Retros start with reading the prime directive. The goal is to ensure everyone understands that the objective is not about blame. The assumption is that everyone did the best they could with what they knew, their skills and abilities, at the time. This underlying agreement is what prevents the conversation from devolving into blame.

The first step in a retro is a safety check. A safety check is a mechanism for gauging the comfort level of the participants. The idea is that if people don't feel comfortable participating, if they feel their reflections and thoughts won't be taken seriously or there will be retaliation for thoughts and opinions that are shared, then they won't want to share openly and the group cannot grow. This isn't perfect system though. It is possible that the safety check passes and there's low participation. If that happens, that's another post altogether, but start with reflecting on what the root cause of it might be. If the safety check fails, again, that's another post, but do not move forward with the retro because the content that comes out of it won't be reliable.

To check out the safety check and prime directive, I've linked to the spot in our Sunday show below.

What went well, what could be improved, shout outs

If a team passes the safety check, then it's on to sharing reflections on the project or sprint. There are many ways to approach a retro - you can google the different styles from coffee cup check ins to race car and boat metaphors. A good starter, in my opinion, is what went well, what could be improved, and shout outs.

Generally, my team spends 10 minutes giving everyone the opportunity to write down things they thought went well, need to be improved, and to give other team members shout outs. The categories are pretty self-explanatory. In the "What went well" category, list the things you feel propelled your team forward. What helped you reach your goal, what processes seemed to improve communication or the end product? In "what to improve," you focus on things that hindered your ability to complete your objective. What systems or areas do you want to discuss ways to improve for next time? Finally, in shout outs, it's a chance to put some shine on other team members. A word of caution on shout outs: they can become a double edged sword. It's as much about what IS said as it is about what is NOT said. If the same team members get shout outs and other team members are consistently left out, it might be worth exploring why that is. What is it that other team members value and would consider worth shouting out?

Combine & Vote

After writing down all the reflections, the facilitator will read through them and combine like ideas. It will be up to the team if they feel like ideas that are similar should or should not be combined. The facilitator can make suggestions, but ultimately, it should be up to the team to decide if two cards should be combined. Once all the cards have been read through and combined, it's time to vote. Each team member will have a number of votes - usually 4-6 but it can be as many as you like. A team member can choose to put multiple votes on the same card or you can set a one card one vote policy. Most of the teams I've been on do multiple votes per card. You can put your votes wherever you like, but the focus tends to be on the "What to improve" column.

Discuss & Action Items

Sort the cards by number of votes. The cards with the most votes get discussed first and you see how many you can get through. There are a couple of approaches:

  • Top 3 what went well + top 3 what to improve
  • As many topics as possible (both columns)
  • As many topics as possible (what to improve only)

Typically, we set a 5 minute timer and discuss the topic. When the timer expires, the facilitator should ask if the team needs more time or would like to keep talking about the topic. The facilitator should remain neutral, listen, and repeat back to the team what they hear while pushing the team toward some action item. Discussing a topic is great, but nothing will change if there aren't concrete next steps for improvement. For the things in "what went well" you can decide on strategies for turning those things up to the next level. If communication was really good throughout the project or sprint, talk about WHY you think it was a good fit and worked well for your team and how you can include that more or evolve to the next level up.

It's likely you won't get to discuss everything, but you have the option of giving team members a chance to call out things that are just burning that they really feel are important. This might work best with older kids, but don't discount younger ones. They might see a big problem spot and if they can articulate or you can help them articulate why it's such an urgent issue, you can put them on the path to solving big problems.

Retros in the classroom

During the show on Sunday we walked through how to do a retro and talked about some considerations for the classroom. I've linked to the timestamp where we start going through the retro demo in the video below.

  • Shout outs can also mean being left out. They may not be a good idea to include depending on your group of learners.
  • The most slimmed down version could be a student self-reflection using just "what went well" and "what to improve" as part of a self-assessment on a project.
  • Use retrospectives to reflect on a lesson or unit.
  • To scaffold the use of retros, make yourself the first focus. Have students practice the format by providing you with feedback.
  • Above all, you know your learners best. Make decisions that make the most sense for them.

webs Twitter

webs was in education for nearly 10 years. she left education and became a software developer. she’s currently a senior product owner at edmentum as well as the founder of studio w on w.