Lesson IdeasTeaching Strategy

How to Use Premortems to Teach Critical Thinking: Advice for Tech Teachers

What is a “Premortem”?

If you don’t work in the software industry, you might not be familiar with the term premortem. A premortem is a strategic planning technique that can help software teams anticipate potential problems or risks in a project, and work to solve them before they happen. It differs from a post-mortem, which examines issues after they’ve occurred.

The premortem process teaches proactive problem-solving and critical thinking skills that can be transferred into multiple academic subjects and life experiences. The premortem may take more than one class, as the exercise is designed to engage students in thinking about multiple types of scenarios. This process can be used for any projects, but is most useful for complex projects.

Atlassian, a company that creates tools for software-engineering teams, has made a great premortem playbook that tech companies can use to run their premortems. Definitely check it out to get an understanding of how the process is used in industry.

Using the Premortem in your STEM classroom

Step 1: Set the Stage for Learning and Define the Scenario

When you first teach students about the premortem process, start by explaining what a premortem is and why it’s important. Ensure that your students understand that this exercise is about proactive problem-solving, rather than placing blame or being negative. Highlight that it is important for students to imagine what could go wrong so that they can design solutions to address potential risks.

For the most effective premortem, you will need to clearly define the project the students will work on. Once this has been defined (perhaps in a class before the premortem class), you can ask students to imagine a scenario where it’s some months into the future, and their assigned project has failed spectacularly.

Step 2: Brainstorm Failures; Share and Categorize the Failure Scenarios

Once you have explained what a premortem is and clarified the project scenario, you can set aside time for individual and group brainstorming. First, ask everyone in the class to independently list all the reasons they can think of that might have led to the imagined failure scenario. Encourage each student to be as specific as possible. Give students 5-10 minutes for this activity, and adjust based on their level of engagement and response. Post-it notes listing one scenario per post-it would be quite helpful in this exercise.

Once students have their post-its with imagined failures, you can ask students to go share their list with their group. This might be best done as a “round-robin” so that one student does not dominate the discussion. As students share, ask them to categorize their brainstormed failure reasons into themes. For instance, some reasons a project might fail could be categorized under “communication,” “technology,” “budget”, or “external factors.”

Step 3: Rank Failure Scenarios and Develop Mitigation Strategies

Once each group has a comprehensive list of failure scenarios that they have categorized, they then rank the failure scenarios by their likelihood of occurrence and their potential impact on the project. This will let students focus on the most critical potential issues as they develop their projects.

For the top-ranked project issues (stick with two or three issues),  ask students to brainstorm potential mitigation strategies. Mitigation strategies are the proactive steps students can take now or during the project development to either prevent the issue from occurring, or to lessen its impact if it does happen.

Step 4: Assign Responsibility and Document Everything

If students are working in teams, then they should assign a person who will be responsible for ensuring that the mitigation strategy is implemented.

As students wrap-up their brainstorming and risk-mitigation session, make sure they document all the potential failures, their categorizations, and the mitigation strategies.  They can do this through writing a document, taking a photo of their brainstorming board, or any other method that records the artifacts from the session. This documentation will serve as a reference throughout the project, and can serve as a reflection point for both teacher and students throughout the development process.

Step 5: Review the Plan Periodically and Get Feedback

Once students begin working on a project, they can become immersed in the details of development and forget their premortem documents. As the project progresses, give students specific time to periodically review the pre-mortem document. During the review, they should check on the progress of the mitigation strategies and see if any new potential failure ideas have emerged.

After the project is completed,  give students the opportunity to look back at their premortem. Did the issues they anticipated actually arise? Were their mitigation strategies effective? This feedback can be invaluable for improving the pre-mortem process and for future projects. It can also be used as a summative assessment of project work.

Final Thought

Remember, the goal of a pre-mortem is not to be negative! Rather, through this process, students learn to anticipate challenges, and to create plans to address the challenges before they become serious problems. This work helps students develop predictive skills, and create more coherent solutions for the problems they are asked to solve.

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