Critical Friends Group

In her Educational Leadership article Redesigning Professional Development (Vol. 59(6), March 2002), Deborah Bambino writes, “By providing structures for effective feedback and strong support, Critical Friends Groups help teachers improve instruction and student learning” (25).

When I attended the Klingenstein Summer Institute two summers ago, we learned how to run a Critical Friends Group (CFG). That fall, I began a CFG here at OES with four colleagues. We’ve now met 4 times and have plans to meet twice more this year. It has been one of the best components of my professional development. I have learned about other projects going on at school and gotten to know colleagues deeper on both a professional and personal level.

It can feel different from other interactions with colleagues because it has prescriptive structures and roles, it’s timed, there is a goal, and it is an intentional group of people. I have found that the focused time is the most important aspect for me because there are no tangential conversations or random brainstorming that distract from what I want answered.

Here is the basic format and description of what we do:

1. We follow a tuning protocol from the National School Reform Faculty developed by Joseph McDonald and David Allen. (Sorry I don’t have links – this is all from KSI)

Introduction (2 mins)

  • The facilitator briefly introduces the protocol.
  • Each participant reviews his/her role.

Presenter shares dilemma and asks for feedback (10 mins)

  • The presenter shares the context of the artifact he/she has brought.
  • The presenter explains the learning goals for this assignment.
  • The presenter identifies what s/he needs help with.  What’s not working? What is the dilemma? The presenter tries to frame this as a focusing question.
  • The Facilitator restates the presenter’s focusing question to confirm.

Clarifying Questions (5 mins)

  • Participants ask clarifying questions in order to gather information that may have been omitted from the presenter’s explanation.  Clarifying questions are nonjudgmental and ask for facts: How many days did you spend on this unit?  Was this the first test of the year?

Silent Examination of Artifact—unit plan, lesson plan, student work sample, or assessment (10 mins)

  • Participants now look closely at the work, silently taking notes on where it seems to be in tune with the learning goals the presenter described and how they understand the work in light of the presenter’s focusing question.

Probing Questions (10 mins)

  • Participants ask probing questions in order to give the presenter an opportunity to reflect further on the work and the focusing question: What were you hoping would happen when. . . ?  What are your assumptions about. . . ?  What would you have to change if you wanted to. . . ? What is the connection between _____ and _____ ?
  • Presenter responds to probing questions as they arise.  The goal is for the presenter to deepen his/her understanding of why this unit/ lesson/student work/assessment is a dilemma in the first place.

Pause to reflect on warm and cool feedback (3 mins)

  • Participants take a few minutes to jot notes on what they would like to contribute to the feedback session, thinking in terms of warm and cool feedback.

Warm and Cool Feedback (10 mins)

  • Participants share warm and cool feedback, speaking about the presenter in the third person.  Presenter is silent and may take notes.
  • Warm feedback may include comments about general strengths of the work and how the work presented seems to meet the desired learning goals.
  • Cool feedback may include comments about possible disconnects between the desired learning goals and the work itself, as well as other gaps or problems the participants perceive.  These may be phrased as observations, questions, or suggestions for strengthening the work.

Reflection (5 mins)

  • The presenter responds to the feedback; participants are silent.  This is not a time for the presenter to rebut or affirm each point, but rather for the presenter to think aloud about what s/he learned and what questions remain.

Debrief (5 mins)

  • The facilitator leads a discussion of this tuning experience.  What worked, and what needs work?

The times are quite serious – if it says 10 minutes, it means 10 minutes. Even if the person is “done” explaining, you sit and wait, because they might think of something else they should add or want to say.  Again, the times and the structure allow for a different experience that can be reassuring because you know you will not get interrupted.

2. We each take on a role in the protocol, whether as presenter, facilitator, or ideal team participant.

  • The presenter brings an artifact from their teaching (with copies to share) from a lesson plan that they want to improve. It should be something that needs improvement and is not just being developed. It should not be something that is already polished.
  • The facilitator keeps the protocol and time.
  • The ideal team participant can listen closely and really delve into the dilemma that the presenter has brought.

I know that this is not something I could have implemented without having watched those experienced in it first. I think it is important to have someone who knows how to do it because they buy in to the protocol.

Now that we’ve run this several times, our CFG is thinking of experimenting with the type of presentation given, since some of us have non-teaching responsibilities. Protocols such as “probing questions” might give us another format for talking about other aspects our of jobs that we’d like feedback/support on.

For more information on Critical Friends Groups, see the National Reform School Faculty.

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