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Critical Friends

Critical Friends

Author: Trisha Fyfe

In this lesson, you will learn about some common coaching techniques that are used in professional learning communities.

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Welcome. I'm Trisha Fyfe. And in today's video lesson, I'm going to be talking about the topic of critical friends. As we learn about this topic, we will work toward several learning objectives. And together, we'll use the following three questions to guide our learning in this video lesson.

What are professional learning communities, or PLCs? What are critical friends groups? And how are both of these important groups used in education?

Let's start off by talking about professional learning communities, PLCs. These groups of educators have some common characteristics. They're focused on student learning. They have a culture of collaboration. And they're oriented on results. This is according to the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. You can find more information at

Let's go through each of these characteristics in a little more detail. First, professional learning communities have a focus on student learning. Maximizing student learning by means of instructional improvement, incorporation of technology, authentic assessment techniques, or other various strategies are the main goals of a professional learning community. Focus can be on overall student learning, maybe grade level goals. Or they can focus on smaller groups of students, such as, maybe, the ELL or ESL population within a school. They can even focus on just one single student when needed.

Professional learning communities need to have a culture of collaboration. The group setting involves both teacher and student learning. Lesson plans, materials, instructional strategies, technology, different needs for student support, developing common assessments-- all of these need collaboration in order to be successfully discussed and worked through.

Professional learning communities are results oriented. A professional learning community focuses on results that can be gained. Assessment results are reviewed often to determine what is working and what is not working in the classroom.

A critical friends group is a particular kind of professional learning community. Like the traditional PLC, a critical friends group meets to identify student learning goals, reflect on their professional practice, and examine teacher and student work to determine the progress toward meeting all of these selected goals. A critical friends group has these distinguishing characteristics.

First, members challenge each other to improve their instructional practices. And they do this by engaging in reflective dialogue. Members ask each other the hard questions. And this is done to help members in this group be open and honest in their reflection on instructional practices and how these practices impact the student learning.

Meetings are run by protocol. And this protocol is a structured set of guidelines that promote communication, problem solving, and enhance learning. Different protocols can be used depending on the goals of the group. Most of the time, the protocol is facilitated by an instructional coach.

The goal of this type of group is to avoid groupthink, which sometimes can occur in traditional PLCs. This happens when these groups are unstructured and not overtly committed to an approach of challenging each other. The group maybe begins to think alike. And there's no new innovative ideas.

Let's talk about protocols for critical friends groups. There are a variety of protocol categories that are promoted by the school reform initiative, which gives structure to a critical friends meaning based on the focus of the meeting. These include, among others, investigating teaching, learning, assessment, reviewing data, addressing professional challenges, and observing others.

Within each of these categories, there are various protocols that have been developed. In today's video lesson, we'll focus on a few different protocols included in the category of observing others. First, we have the collaborative ghost walk protocol.

In the ghost walk, group members determine the focus for the walk first. Here we focus on the questions what do we hope to see, what evidence are we looking for. Individuals in this group silently walk through the school, recording the evidence. Then the group reconvenes and compares their expectations that they were going to focus on with the evidence that they collected.

Next, we have the first classroom visit protocol. And this is where one teacher comes up with a question, a burning question, that they would like to learn about. This question is generally related to a challenge in the classroom. The teacher visits another teacher to collect information, observe, and gain insight.

Before the observation, the teachers talk. And the teacher with the burning question would tell the teacher what they are looking for and what ideas and information on this particular issue or question would they like to observe. An example of a burning question might be a teacher that is having a hard time with technology integration in a specific content area of their class. They might tell another teacher that is really good with technology integration that they're having this issue and look for ideas and information about integrating technology and get some tips from this other teacher. The goal would be for the first teacher, who's having the problems, to gain some insight and observe another teacher in action.

The last protocol we'll talk about today is the peer coaching observer as coach protocol. And this is where two teachers agree to develop a peer coaching partnership. The teachers meet before the observation where the teacher being coached gives the observer an idea of what to look for during the observation.

The observer conducts the observation. And then they meet as the observer reports on what was observed. This is all done objectively. The teacher can then reflect and plan on how to improve and make changes as needed based on those observations. For more information on critical friends protocols, a great resource for you is I encourage you to take a look at this website.

Let's talk about what we learned today. We looked at the following questions, what are professional learning communities, what are critical friends groups, and how are both of these important groups used in education. Today I discussed professional learning communities and critical friends groups. And I defined the characteristics of each of these groups for you.

Remember, professional learning communities are a group of teachers that are focused on student learning, have a culture of collaboration, and are focused on results. A critical friends group is a type of professional learning community. And this group engages in reflective dialogue and uses protocols throughout the process. We talked about some sample protocols for these groups, such as the ghost walk, first classroom visit, as well as the peer observer protocol.

Now that you're more familiar with these concepts, let's reflect for a moment. Which of these characteristics of professional learning communities and critical friends groups do you feel you are most successful at performing, or will be most successful at performing? What are the benefits to using professional learning communities and critical friends groups?

Thanks for joining me today in discussing the lesson critical friends. I hope you found value in this video lesson and the concepts we talked about. And I hope you're able to apply these ideas about professional learning communities and critical friends groups to your own teaching relationships.

Now it's your turn to apply what you've learned in this video. The Additional Resources section will be super helpful. This section's designed to help you discover useful ways to apply what you've learned here. Each link includes a brief description so you can easily target the resources that you want.

Notes on “Critical Friends”


(00:00- 00:27) Introduction/Objectives

(00:28- 01:00) What are PLCs?

(01:01- 01:35) PLCs: Focus on Student Learning

(01:36- 01:59) PLCs: Culture of Collaboration

(02:00- 02:15) PLCs: Results-Oriented

(02:16- 03:37) What are Critical Friends Groups?

(03:38- 04:12) Protocol: Critical Friends Groups

(04:13- 06:30) Example of Protocol: Observing Others

(06:31- 07:20) Recap 

(07:21- 08:16) Reflection

Additional Resources

All Things PLC: About PLCs

This website is a useful resource from Solution Tree. The site includes articles, templates, and planning tools for implementing Professional Learning Communities.

​NSRF: Frequently Asked Questions

This is the National School Reform Faculty site that reviews Critical Friends Groups and their relationship to Professional Learning Communities.