What is it?
After Action Review is the short answer.
Why do we do them?
Because we have to.
Because we’re supposed to.
First Sergeant said to.
Because I like to hear myself talk.
The correct answer should be to give the students (soldiers, cops, whoever) feedback on their performance, to facilitate learning and to make them better.
As a young infantryman I hated AARs, I felt like they were just a waste of my time. I would rather be training, or eating, or sleeping, or playing grab ass. These, many moons later, I feel quite differently about it. I honestly think that AARs are only slightly less important than the actual training itself, but only if done correctly. Over the years it has become clear to me that most people simply don’t know how to conduct an AAR. I don’t recall ever being given specific training on how to conduct one. And if you ask me to sit through one like I used to have to endure, I’ll still think it’s a waste of time. An AAR gives the students time to reflect on what happened, what they did, what they did well, and what they could have done better. That being said, how can we as instructors best facilitate the AAR? Is it good enough to ask for “three ups and three downs” (sustains and improves)? I certainly don’t think so. How do I know that there are three and only three things they did well? Why would I limit myself to three if they did four or five or ten things right? Wouldn’t I want to reinforce all the good stuff in a new student? And do I need to waste my time talking about sustains with a seasoned group of guys who already know what they did right? And what about improves? Again, why would I limit myself to such a rigid system? What if I didn’t recognize where or how to improve because I’m too new to doing this and I literally don’t know what I don’t know? I personally prefer to talk through it chronologically. This allows you to hit it all. Good, bad, and ugly.
As you talk through each phase, even each individual action, it gives you a chance to get inside a student’s head. Why did you do it that way? Did it work the way you wanted it to? Looking back on it would you have done anything differently? This brings me to another point. It’s more expedient to tell a student what they did wrong and how to fix it. But I find that the student gets more out of it when you let them figure it out for themselves. Use Socratic (method) questioning to guide them to the answer, but don’t just give it to them. If they simply aren’t getting to the answer you want, try asking them if doing it this other way might not have yielded the results that they wanted. The reasons for this are several. Firstly, if you are confrontational in your approach, your student might get defensive and simply shut down. They will no longer be able to receive your message. Being confrontational or belittling in the way you point out errors can also undermine your credibility as an instructor. Lastly, by asking them to self assess you make them think critically. You are forcing them to analyze the situation removed from the time constraints and stress. You give them a chance to really digest it in a controlled setting. You are proverbially teaching the man to fish.
Now let’s talk about filming the training. This can be difficult. You need to have a camera to do the filming with. You need a person dedicated to running the camera (this is very important as this person will be tied up filming, they really can’t be a safety or OIC). And you will need a place to watch the videos and conduct your AARs. I can tell you though that the payoff is immeasurable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a student tell me “I didn’t do that” only to have the video prove them wrong. In a stressful situation, like a rapidly evolving training scenario, perception can be drastically different from reality. It is such a fantastic thing to be able to show the student exactly what happened (“See? You were 20 yards from your partner. You were effectively in your own gunfight.”).
*On a technical note, if you are the camera guy you have some work to do. If you are outside you’ll have to navigate terrain, keep the action of both the students and role players/OPFOR in frame, and stay out of the way. Don’t impede the students or give away the locations of the role players. There will be times when the students can’t see what the role players are doing, but you can. So you’ll have to capture that for the AAR. There will be other times when the students will be spread out so you’ll have to try to capture what you think is the most important. Again keeping the AAR in mind when deciding what to capture.
It is very important to gauge your students. What level were they at going into it at? How much ego are they bringing to the table? What’s their background? Are they well rested? Are they there because they want to be, or because they have to be? The answers to these questions should inform how you approach each student to reach them. But it can also change the content of your feedback. Guys that have a solid foundation, are fit, rested and eager to learn can get both barrels as it were. Don’t pull punches. Critique the smallest points of possible improvement. But on the other end of things, you might have a student who would be completely overwhelmed and shut down if you got that far into it. Even the most receptive students can reach a point where their glass is full and it’s time to take a break. Pat McNamara says that training should be performance based, not outcome based, and I agree with this. My goal would be to bring each student as close to perfection as possible. But each students’ journey will be unique; my job is to make sure that I give each student the best instruction possible for them. To give them the best shot at improvement. And for some guys that means putting them in the shallow end with a flotation device. But as long as they are better at the end then they were at the beginning, I’ve won.
Now let’s talk about adult learners. Some of them will be sponges ready to soak up whatever knowledge you give them. But that’s not where the challenge is. Many of them will have a set of beliefs that have become dogma. So it’s not good enough to just say “This way is better.” You need to be able to tell them why it’s better. And you may have to be able to say it a couple different ways to get through to the student. Sometimes you may just have to walk away from a particular topic or technique. But sometimes (like in the case of engaging the safety on your rifle when you come off the sights) you may have to get very persuasive to make sure that everyone is on board. Of course in most situations I could fall back on “because I said so,” but I’d rather have a disciple than a guy who only does it when I’m watching.