Critical Friends: Building a Culture of Collaboration

“… a critical friend is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. A critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues.” — The Glossary of Education Reform

Being critical friends means that we can depend on our colleagues to help us reach our potential. We all serve as critical friends (and really, aren’t these two words synonymous?) who push our practice, help one another see bright spots, and offer resources and a clear path for steps to quality teaching and learning. And while critical friends are who we are for each other, it’s also what we do. Critical Friends is one of many protocols we engage in to provide feedback aimed at improving project design, quality of instruction, and deeper learning experiences for our students.

Why we give feedback

A phrase that I often hear in my work supporting schools is “the culture of the students will never exceed the culture of the adults in a building.” Engaging in the Critical Friends protocol requires a professional culture that is grounded in a shared sense of ownership. It requires a staff that deeply respects one another and can uphold professional norms when engaging with one another. What Critical Friends requires, it also generates — a culture of collaboration. Once a staff is able to successfully collaborate, then they are ready to become a learning organization that can grow together in their practice.

When we give feedback

Critical Friends is an opportunity for learning and growing and it’s something that we hope happens often. Many teachers find it useful to engage in this protocol during “the ideation phase,” where perhaps they have a limited brainstorm or a seedling of an idea for a lesson or project. Colleagues can provide useful next steps, in addition to perhaps altering initial ideas and plans. Some schools use a “post-mortem” approach, where the staff member who received feedback in the ideation phase returns later with a debrief of the project and general reflections on teaching and learning, as a result of ideas generated by colleagues.

teachers collaborating

While bookending a lesson or project with Critical Friends feedback is a highly effective strategy, there isn’t always enough time in a staff meeting to devote to this process. I have seen plenty of schools who creatively seek out and receive synchronous and asynchronous feedback. Teachers may choose to exercise agency and post their project idea, lesson plan, or problem of practice on a sheet of poster paper with the feedback carousel protocol situated next to it, in the staff room. At any given time a colleague may write down their thoughts or ideas, and before we know it a graffiti wall of goodness has begun!

For schools that are more comfortable engaging with technology, Google Docs provides a nice place for teachers to share ideas and provide feedback. I have also seen plenty of schools utilize Google Hangouts for small (sometimes ad hoc) groups to connect and provide one another feedback during lunch breaks or after school. In short, any time is a good time for critical friends!

More ways to give feedback

The Critical Friends protocol is just one of the many ways colleagues can engage in conversation about teaching and learning. Here are some of my favorite resources for providing collegial feedback:

As schools begin to engage with various protocols, some find that there isn’t any one particular protocol that works for them, rather a modified version or a hybrid of protocols work best for their needs. The video below shows a great example of a modified protocol that has been deemed useful for teachers at their site. If you are interested in developing your own protocol, I highly recommend reading The Power of Protocols to consider what structures best support your needs.

I encourage you to seek out colleagues to help you be your best by soliciting their feedback. I also invite you to become a critical friend.

Jennifer R. Pieratt, Ph.D., is a School Development Coach for New Tech Network (NTN). Prior to her work with NTN, she was a founding staff member at High Tech High North County and taught 7-10th grade ELA and Social Science. You can read more about Jenny’s work and support for the Deeper Learning Movement at http://reimaginingedu.com or follow her on Twitter @JennyPieratt.

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