Who Needs Critical Friends? By Patritsia Andrioti

It is true that ‘the art of teaching’ is a complex process that requires certain skills and techniques, and of course the ability to use them strategically and effectively. This ‘skill’, however, of becoming an effective and successful teacher also requires self analysis and feedback from others.

Professional development usually starts with initial training courses (pre-service or in-service) and is followed up with shorter seminars or courses, reading, personal effort and desire for improvement. How do you keep up professionally? How do you ensure your continuing development as a teacher throughout your years of work? Is it time then, you found a critical friend?

‘Critical Friends Groups’ (CFGs) have been successfully organised in state schools in the USA by the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) programme since 1995. The idea is expanding and has recently been adopted by ELT trainers and advisors. The basic idea of CFGs is that by providing deliberate time and structures you promote adult professional growth that is directly related to student learning. Participants at such groups give and receive feedback to improve the day-to-day learning of all students.

 ‘So, how can this work in my context?’ ‘But, don’t we do this already through staff meetings and corridor talk?’ you might be wondering. Well, yes, part of this is done through a school’s regular staff meetings, but the idea of critical friends goes a bit further than this. A critical friend is a colleague who is selected to work with another teacher on an action plan involving classroom action research, with the ultimate aim being the achievement of professional development and effective teaching. This collaboration entails peer observations and debriefing in feedback sessions, but also discussion on material design/use and effectiveness.

Critical friends give feedback 

So what can you gain from peer observations? First of all, having a colleague in your class reduces the tension involved in observations, both for you and your students. Your critical friend knows your material, knows your students (she/he has taught them most probably) and knows the context you are working in, as well as the guidelines given by the school. Her/His ‘assessment’, therefore, taking into consideration all the above, will be much more practical and to the point in terms of your development potential in that particular context. The feedback will of course be non-judgmental, and will not carry the anxiety that formal assessment does.

Moreover, the critical friend idea not only benefits the teacher who is being observed, but also the observer. The discussion following each observation is designed to be a ‘give and take’ situation, where both teachers can learn from each other’s comments. This discussion opens up new perspectives into language teaching and acquisition theory for both teachers, and can prove to be the starting point for exploration and research of your practices.

Critical friends collaborate and find new solutions

Colleagues in such a programme can work together towards creating/designing new material, discussing new techniques that can be incorporated in each other’s classes, and observing and commenting on their effectiveness. They can also discuss and reform procedures and policies as a group, in order to achieve development in their school too.

The popularity of the CFG is increasing. However, this does not mean that the concept is one without drawbacks. A CFG will ideally work in a school where teachers are supported and encouraged to explore their potential; it will also work in a school where there are no tensions between teachers; moreover, it will work perfectly when teachers have the time and the will to cooperate in such a context.

In addition to this, you cannot overlook the fact that observations do cause anxiety and tension, and feedback, however useful and constructive it may be, will involve some judgment on what has been observed. The use of colleague to colleague feedback might reduce some of the tension involved, but on the other hand, it runs the risk of being so gentle, or so harsh, that it might not have the desired results. For example, you might have colleagues who judge from a personal point of view, either that of hostility or friendliness, in which case the degree of objectivity obviously decreases.

To recap, the concept of the critical friend is one of great value which carries a lot of potential for further development and may offer solutions to many everyday classroom problems. The idea, however, should be carefully planned and applied in a context where all possible problems have been anticipated and resolved, and enough preparation has been undertaken. This preparation should include advice on giving advice (i.e. observation debriefing), but also a standardisation of procedures within the CFG. More importantly, it should be seen as a challenging joint venture towards self reflection and development where each ‘friend’ works with the same motivation to see, question and develop.