Maintaining engagement and motivation can be daunting for any educator. Teachers are encouraged to model risk-taking and implement new approaches to keep learning fresh, authentic, and meaningful. Physical education teachers are often entrenched in impossible situations: large class sizes, limited resources, scheduling shortcomings, lack of support, etc. Keeping a positive learning environment throughout the school year can be extremely difficult, no matter the situation. Often times, teachers want to make changes to their program (new unit, instructional model, grading policy, procedure, etc.) but the risk of failure is too great and could set them back even further.
Last summer, while reading Daniel Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, I came across an idea intended to help business projects succeed. Rather than waiting
until a project has died to perform a postmortem autopsy and identify what went wrong, a “PreMortem” is the hypothetical opposite. At the beginning of the project, it is communicated to the stakeholders that the project has failed miserably. An article in the Harvard Business Review describes the genesis for this idea as coming from a research group in 1989 finding “that prospective hindsight – imagining that an event has already occurred – increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.” By identifying what did go wrong from the beginning, individuals can be mindful of potential problems before it’s too late.
The steps of a PreMortem are extremely simple. In a business setting, managers or team leaders are encouraged to dedicate at least two hours for the process. Obviously, a physical education teacher would not dedicate this much time. I would recommend between 12-15 minutes total. Below are the steps I followed in the pre-mortem process:
- All students are aware of the upcoming situation (it doesn’t have to be anything groundbreaking. A new term, unit, initiative that has begun or will begin soon.)
- All students are present, focused, and uninterrupted (we all should know by now that moderate to vigorous exercise will increase engagement and focus so make sure the students have engaged in aerobic activities before the PreMortem).
- One student is the dedicated as the note taker. A marker and dry erase board/butcher paper work best.
- Present the students with the scenario (the project has failed). This takes a little bit of acting to really sell it well. For me, we had just finished a successful team building unit that the students really enjoyed. I used the current positive vibes to bring out the seriousness of what was to come. Something like… “I’ve really enjoyed facilitating this unit. You are using each other’s strengths and getting along quite well. It is fun to watch how hard you are working and how well you are solving some of the problems and challenges of the unit. But, I have to get serious for a moment… (pause for effect) I’ve looked ahead to ______(February) and things are awful. The ___ unit is a disaster. Fighting and arguing is at an all time high. The locker rooms are disgusting. Students can’t stand coming to P.E. anymore. I have run out of patience… I dread coming to class. I can’t wait for the day to end.”
- Brainstorm every possible problem that could have occurred. All ideas at this point are written on the board no matter how unlikely or ridiculous (within reason, remember time is of the essence in P.E.).
- From the list, circle the top ones that are most likely to happen. Focus on the show-stoppers. Discard the problems you have no control over.
- Brainstorm solutions. Make a new column on the dry erase board or new butcher paper. Create proactive solutions for the problems listed.
- Create a plan to follow through. Use your professional judgement to display and/or revisit the list of problems and solutions so that students maintain ownership in the process.
I have been extremely pleased with student responses in my classes since implementing the PreMortem protocols. A positive learning environment has led to stronger bonds between classmates; students who would not have otherwise felt comfortable with risk-taking have routinely pushed through their comfort zones. I encourage other physical education teachers to try this activity out to gauge long and short term results. Please let me know how it goes!
Here are some additional resources to clarify the pre-mortem process: