Extending epistemology for programme evaluation – can After Action Reviews become spaces for critical reflection?

Categories: Action Research, Evaluation, Other

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The MethodSpace focus for October was on Action Research, and we are continuing to share posts on these participatory methods. November is Academic Writing Month with a 2020 focus on Publishing Trends (and what they mean for academic writers.) You can find the unfolding series of Action Research posts through this link, and you can find the AcWriMo posts through this link. We also featured Evaluation in October 2019, and you can find all of those useful posts here.

The term After Action Review (AAR) is becoming more common in the world of development evaluation, particularly in programmes that focus on evaluation as a formative learning process. As structured and facilitated learning moments, AARs take many shapes always built to support a specific team in a specific moment on their journey. Across such a diversity of practice how do we understand the evolution of the AAR as a method with an action research orientation?  Being mindful always of the risk of instrumentalising and co-opting participatory methods, there is danger that AARs become an empty programme ritual, remaining at the surface and failing to achieve critical reflection and so falling short of their intention of pushing for deeper change in our practice.

As the evaluation and learning team of two large complex, multi-partner projects using research to address development challenges, we have been applying the AAR method while adapting to virtual COVID working with partners across the world. As action researchers we have been thinking about what critical reflection means within a programme AAR process and whether and how they can open up a second person inquiry space.

The context of our work is two large research for development programmes:

  1. CLARISSA is an action research innovation programme focused on reducing the worst forms of child labour in supply chains in Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. CLARISSA takes a people driven approach to adaptive management;
  2. Tomorrow’s Cities is an interdisciplinary research programme aiming to reduce disaster risk for marginalised people in urban contexts through working in equitable partnerships and co-production with municipal and other city stakeholders in Kathmandu, Istanbul, Nairobi and Quito.

In both programmes, we co-designed and co-facilitated AARs with teams in each location to address questions such as ‘how do we organise across diverse partners to do research for development’ and ‘how are our ways of working supporting our end goals of (i) tackling the drives of the worst forms of child labour  and (ii) reducing disaster risk for marginalised urban communities. The design of the workshops intended to create a second-person action research space (within the team) through building on our third-person action research (engaged research with change agents on the issues themselves).

Having just completed a series of AARs, in the following video, we take the opportunity to reflect on how they worked and whether and how we were able to facilitate critical reflection in the second-person mode. Chiu’s (2006) framework of reflective practice that builds on Heron and Reason’s extended epistemology (1997) has helped us make sense of our own experience. While some aspects were designed into the process—such as experiential reflection through sharing what has been done and enabling individual and collective reflection on the specific practice—other aspects were harder to enable. For example, the research emphasis of the conversations and positionality of most participants led to formal structured knowledge presented instead of using creative expressions which communicate what we intuitively grasp (representational knowledge).. Addressing power relationships between partners supported propositional collective knowledge, made possible through partnerships evaluation methods, such as application of a self-assessment rubric. An emphasis on actionable learning was our avenue for building practical reflection although this worked to varying degrees. We reflect on the challenges and opportunities of on-line facilitation and conclude that we have, as ever, much more to learn and we need to be braver with critical reflection and confronting power in future AARs.

We hope you enjoy the video!


Chiu, L. F. (2006). Critical reflection: More than nuts and bolts. Action Research4(2), 183-203.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (1997). A participatory inquiry paradigm. Qualitative inquiry3(3), 274-294.

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