The Basic Components of Team Building – Debriefing

This is the most important component to a quality team building session, because this is where all your hard work will bear its fruit. During the debriefing students will discuss and reflect on the events of the activity and connect what is learned during the team building game to their classroom, home and personal experience. There are a few important ways to debrief that will make a huge difference. “Setting the Environment”, and “Leading the Debriefing,” are discussed in more detail here.

Setting the Environment

These tips are not the only way to set the environment, but are fantastic tips to doing it well. Students that are all in a circle, at peace with each other, and who have clear guidelines about how they should participate, should be ready for a healthy discussion.

  • Debrief Immediately Following the Activity: It’s critical that the debrief happens right away, as students will forget what took place, what they were thinking at the time, and how they felt about what happened. 
  • Diffuse Hostility: If any hostilities remain after a heated team building activity, address these issues away from the whole group, quickly. Do this prior to beginning the debriefing if possible.
  • Sit in a Circle: Floor, ground, chairs, etc. Make sure all participants are sitting the same way and at the same level with each other including you, the facilitator.
  • State Your Expectations: This needs to be done again, and this time be specific as to what you want students to say, what kind of feedback is acceptable and how to respect each other while giving feedback.
  • Guide the Energy: Don’t be the focus of the conversation.  This is the student’s forum to talk. The instructor should ask leading questions and carefully guide the dialogue toward the debriefing goals.

Leading the Debriefing

In order, these are the parts to a fruitful debriefing: 

1st – State the goal.

Begin by asking a volunteer to state explicitly what the goal of the activity was. The answer should be an oral account of exactly what took place. Examples; “we moved carpet squares around to fit everyone on them without touching the ground,” “Our group had to squeeze though holes in a rope web.  We could only use one hole once. And the last person was allowed to go over the top.” Asking this question helps to separate out what happened and why it happened. One good response is all that is needed here, so don’t call on several people for this procedural question. 

2nd – What went well?

Have a few students comment now on what did go well. Ask for the responses to stick to exactly what physically took place and not why it went well just yet. Examples; “We completed our goal.” “ We did more than I thought we could.” “Everyone made it safely to the other island” “Nobody was eaten by the sharks in the water”

3rd – What didn’t go well?

Ask now for what didn’t go well and again ask that the responses stick exactly to what physically took place and save responses about why until the next question.  Examples; “David was eaten by sharks.” “We ran out of time before we could finish.” “We didn’t complete our goal.”

4th – Why did it happen this way (good or bad)?

Now that the parts of the activity have been dissected, questions can be posed about why the activity took place the way that it did. Pose a direct question to the group about how or why the activity did or didn’t go well. Remind students about respectful responses and keeping positive attitudes about others. Try calling on people who have yet to speak up in the conversation and get as many people involved in this phase as possible. As students respond, request a direct answer to the why part. Don’t let them simply restate something that occurred either good or bad.

Often, it will take extensive digging by the facilitator to get down to the bottom of the why question. Be persistent, and look to extract an answer that is a correctable behavior that can be considered. It’s beneficial to dig up both types of examples, positive or negative. Applaud examples of excellence and look to your group to help come up with corrective plans for the negative examples you have come up with. 

5th – What skills were needed for success?

Much of the events and reasons behind them have been discussed, so its time to begin discussing the skills needed for success to occur. Ask about what skill is being discussed if the students have yet to mention it. Examples include: Teamwork, communication (listening, speaking clearly and completely) effort, respect, commitment, encouragement, etc. Ask what those skills look like, sound like and feel like.

6th – Relationship to the Classroom

Finally, relate the event that has been discussed to the classroom. Ask how this event is similar to class, or how this skill benefits the classroom. Look for specific common or recurring examples in class. Now is also a good time to set a goal for this skill or announce that you will be looking for this to take place in class. Write the goal down in a public place in your class for display. Revisit this goal from time to time when a few free moments in class present themselves. 

Debriefing Note

A good length of time to complete this can vary depending on the group and the situation, but a minimum of 10 minutes is likely needed to a maximum of 30 minutes. Try not to debrief groups larger than 25, because the larger the group, the smaller the percentage of students who will likely participate. The ideal sized group is anywhere from 8-12, but often these numbers are hard to arrange in a classroom setting.

These are the major steps for the debriefing. Now, take this example conversation about how a debriefing may take place.

Debrief Example Starting At Number 4

Teacher: Who can tell me about Jessica falling from the carpet square?

Matt: It was because Jessica wasn’t holding the hands of the person across from her.

Teacher: Why didn’t she hold that persons hand?

Ivan: It was because she didn’t know whose hand to grab.

Teacher: Why didn’t she know who’s hand to grab? Jessica?

Jessica: I didn’t know because no one told me what to do.

Teacher: Why didn’t Jessica know?

Lynne: Well, we were all moving quickly and many people didn’t know what to do.  We were doing Lisa’s idea, but only some of us even knew what that was.

Teacher: Is this true guys?

Class: Yeah. (coming from several students at the same time)

Teacher: What skill is used here?

Lena: Being Nice?

Jacob: Communication?

Teacher: Yes! Communication is what I’m thinking of too. What can be corrected to avoid this communication gap?

Jessica: If we stopped for just a few seconds to all listen to the plan, then we could all work together.

Ivan: If we ask each other if we know what to do, then we can help if someone doesn’t. 

Teacher: Great! Now, can someone give me an example about how this may play a role in our class?

Matt: Yeah, when we begin a new lab experiment and we are figuring out what to do, we need to make sure everyone in the group knows what’s going on. 

Ivan: When we have members who don’t know what is going on, they usually just sit around and don’t help the group, making others in the group mad at them or do too much work.

Teacher: This is great information. I hadn’t even considered that your small groups might have communication problems. Why don’t we make a goal for our next lab? Let’s have everyone know exactly what is expected of him or her. After the lab, we will talk like this again and see if our emphasis on communicating made a difference.  Sound good?

Matt: Yes, that sounds good, but how will we be sure everyone knows what to do?

Teacher: Well, why don’t we take five minutes next class to make a plan, then we can give our plan a try. How does that sound to everyone? Let’s vote thumbs up or thumbs down. 

Class: Cheers and jeers. Vote results: 20 thumbs up and three thumbs down. One undecided with a thumb somewhat sideways.

Teacher: Why three thumbs down?

Lena (one of the three who put their thumb down): Because I don’t think five minutes is enough time to create a good plan.

Teacher: OK, we will take the time needed to do it right.

Teacher: Well, we are about done for today, though there is much more we can learn from what we did here today. Who hasn’t spoken and would also like to sum up what we learned? Peter?

Peter: So, we had a problem involving Jessica, but it wasn’t her fault. The problem was that when not everyone is communicating well, a small group might have a problem doing what they are supposed to do.  Now we are going to try getting everyone involved in the next science lab and see if we can improve.

Teacher: Thanks Peter, you did a great job and everyone did as well.  I see that a few are not interested in this idea, so we will hear from them first when we meet again.

We now know the basics of good team building sessions. We can set our expectations, create a quick and easy frame and debrief with confidence. The next chapter will go over the actual facilitation of the activity, bringing all the pieces together.


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