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Critical Friends

1. Why do we need the Critical Friends Group?

Critical Friends Groups help teachers improve instruction and student learning by providing structures for effective feedback and strong support.

The Critical Friends Groups are designed to
• Create a professional learning community
• Make teaching practice explicit and public by “talking about teaching”
• Help people involved in schools to work collaboratively in democratic, reflective communities (Bambino)
• Establish a foundation for sustained professional development based on a spirit of inquiry (Silva)
• Provide a context to understand our work with students, our relationships with peers, and our thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs about teaching and learning
• Help educators help each other turn theories into practice and standards into actual student learning
• Improve teaching and learning

2. What is CFG?

At the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) web site, CFGs are defined as a professional development initiative that focuses on increasing student achievement through professional learning communities. Critical Friends Groups use protocols and activities that result in meaningful and efficient communication, problem solving and learning. A Critical Friends Group generally range between six to twelve teachers and administrators who commit themselves to two years of learning to work together with the aim of establishing student learning outcomes and increasing student achievement.

McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead (1996) define that “……..critical friends (also termed ‘critical colleague’ or ‘critical companion’) who may be one or more of the people you are working with. These critical friends should be willing to discuss your work sympathetically. You and your critical friend(s) choose each other, so you need to negotiate the ground rules of your relationship. This person can be your best ally, and you must never take him or her for granted. As well as expecting support from your friend(s), you must also be prepared to support in return. This means being available, even in unsocial hours, being able to offer as well as receive advice, even if it is painful or unwelcome, and always aiming to praise and offer support” (p.30).

Recently, Bambino (2002) involves in a Critical Friends Group which helps people involved with schools to work collaboratively in democratic, reflective communities. The work involves friends who share a mission, offer strong support, and nurture a community of learners. Bambino finds that Critical Friends Groups have been the catalyst for changes in the teaching, learning, culture, and climate of learning communities in a great variety of schools.
The Critical Friends process focuses on developing collegial relationships, encouraging reflective practice, and rethinking leadership. This process is based in cooperative adult learning, which is often contrary to patterns established in work environments. It also addresses a situation in which many leaders find themselves – trained to work as independent units; certified as knowing all that is needed to know; feeling like the continuation of professional learning is not essential to the creation of an exciting, rich, learning environment; and that they are simply supervisors in the leadership role.

3. How does a critical friends group work?

The Critical Friends protocol are:
(1) peer observations;
(2) tuning a teaching artifact using the Tuning Process;
(3) consulting about an issue using the Consultancy Process.
Each activity in the Critical Friends group contains elements of careful description, enforced thoughtful listening, and then questioning feedback – which may well be the basic elements of reflection. The feedback arrived at through the discussions also has been grouped in these ways: “Warm” feedback consists of supportive, appreciative statements about the work presented; “Cool” or more distanced feedback offers different ways to think about the work presented and/or raises questions; and “Hard” feedback challenges and extends the presenter’s thinking and/or raises concerns. In general, this process utilizes time limits and agreed-upon purpose and norms help reduce interruptions in discussion and the rush-to-comment approach that our busy lives seem to promote.
The basic format for collegial dialogue is the same for each protocol: facilitator overview; presentation of observations, work or issue; clarification questions; feedback/discussion by participants (discussants); presenter reflection; debriefing of process. The questions and issues that presenters offer typically spring from feelings of concern, from moments in work without closure, and from issues they have not been able to find a solution through solitary thinking. The focus in our workshop will be on the Consultancy Process.

References :
Bambino, D. (2002). Critical Friends. Educational Leadership, 59(6), 25-27.
McNiff, J., Lomax, P. & Whitehead, J. (1996). You and your action research project. London: Routledge.



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