The power of “debriefing”

Using Outdoor Ed techniques in the classroom

David Gregory is a specialist Outdoor Education instructor who has also worked in schools and as a teacher and form tutor. Here he suggests a powerful technique used on outdoor courses and trips could be applied in class to really good effect.

What it is

De-briefing is an essential part of Outdoor Education which takes place at the end of the day. You gather together as a group and reflect on the day’s activities – perhaps around the fire. It’s a valuable tool for students to be able to think and reflect on the challenges they may have faced and the way in which they were able to work through each challenge, either as an individual, or as a group. De-briefs are guided activities, in which the teacher sets the scene and the framework then allows each student to contribute in a safe, supportive and confidential environment.

Timing the debrief

You don’t always have to wait until last thing. Sometimes, straight after a challenging activity is the perfect time to do it. I remember one canoeing expedition:  we were in the middle of a heavy storm and the decision to press on had been made by the students, so we pressed on for another hour and a half into camp. When we got there, there was an urgency to get a fire going, get food and get warm. Once we’d done all of that and everyone was warm and dry, we ran a de-brief, talked about the decision-making process and the fact that the group was bold enough to push through and make a hard decision. So timing can be really important.

Debriefing in school

When I had a tutor group in a regular classroom, it worked differently in that the subject matter might not be about what had just happened, but could be about a “hot topic” such as bullying, or about how the group was managing with exams or assessments. It was always something more than just “have you got your homework done? “. So using the same principles of debrief as used in Outdoor education, helped me engage with students. The challenge is finding the right topic and the right moment, but when you do, it can be very rewarding from a teaching and learning point of view.

Sharing authentic experience

One of the recent debrief questions I posed to a group, made me think and reflect on my own experiences. Whenever I run a debrief, I’ll always frame the question, then provide an example from my own experience before asking the students to share their thoughts and feelings about the topic or issue. This isn’t just about story telling though. This is about relationship building and whilst you’re not telling them your life story, you’re giving them a glimpse at how you think and feel.

This can be a very powerful way to engage everyone in what can be, at times, a very challenging, yet positive conversation and educational tool.
The right story for the right group can have a powerful effect and change the classroom relationship for good! I can’t tell you which story from your life will result in this, but I can say that being honest and genuine is a wonderful relationship building tool and can help you teach some of the most important lessons in life.


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Difficult questions; honest answers

The most nerve wracking experience of my teaching to date was when I was working for a school and one of the kids had googled my name. This revealed a number of newspaper articles about bullying which occurred to me years ago when I was at school. Even though the articles weren’t bad, it exposed a huge vulnerability of mine. The thoughts that ran through my mind were horrible and I felt totally exposed because of what had happened to me.

However, in the end, rather than shy away from this, I tackled it head on! I spoke with the Year 9 boys (the entire year in fact) and was open and honest with them about what happened to me and the fallout from the experience at school and after school. There were masses of questions thrown at me and I answered every single one honestly and openly. The positive and supportive response from the students was totally unexpected. I went from thinking my career was over, to ending up with really positive long-lasting relationships with that year group. It actually made every class I taught so much easier than ever before.

Over to you

So what is it from your life? What is it from your experience that you can share which will help your students face the challenges that life throws at them? This is where the debrief becomes so powerful. It’s not just about asking questions to fill in time or getting the kids to think and reflect a bit: it should also challenge you, as the teacher and instructor.

If you’re not facing your own challenges head on, how can you expect others to? Sharing parts of your own experience is a valuable tool in conveying real meaning during a debrief.



David Gregory is an experienced outdoor education teacher from Australia who’s worked on various domestic and international programs for over 16 years.

David’s planned and led outdoor education programs are for students from primary age, through senior school.


He is the author of Fight to the End a novel about bullying in schools. (Click the title to order).

For more about David’s work see:







Feature Image: Pixabay

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