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Establishing a Collaborative Professional Development Team Using Critical Friends

Establishing a Collaborative Professional Development Team Using Critical Friends


In this lesson, students determine how, when, and with whom to develop a collaborative professional development plan using the critical friends protocol

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Hello there and welcome. In this lesson, you will learn how to determine how, when, and with whom to develop a collaborative professional development plan with, using a process called critical friends. Let's get started.

Have you ever heard the expression, the truth hurts? I would like to modify it by saying the truth can be uncomfortable. A classic example of this is if you should lose some weight, but just keep avoiding it or denying it. Your clothes are tighter, you avoid mirrors, or you make excuses. Then something happens that gets you to take action.

Maybe you see an unflattering photograph of yourself, or a friend or a loved one says something to you. Whatever the case, it can be awkward or uncomfortable. But ultimately, it is facing the truth and deciding to do something about it. A critical friends group is a safe way to experience this when it comes to our teaching.

You don't have to go it alone. That is a phrase we need to keep repeating to ourselves when things get dicey or overwhelming. This includes teacher professional development as well. Depending on the time of year or the content, taking time for professional growth can feel like a heavy burden when you're doing it alone.

However, in a professional learning community, groups like critical friends are professionals working together to help one another and even provide mutual support towards collaborative professional growth. These communities can also be responsible for shaping professional development activities and providing teachers with feedback.

Usually, the larger PLC is a more formal group, so this is why many schools break out into smaller ones, including critical friends, for collaborative purposes and to reflect on professional development. They are less formal than PLCs, and are often much more personal, with only about four members. This means that when they get together, teachers can structure their meetings in a way that will meet the individual needs of the teachers and their students.

So now that we've mentioned it a few times, just what is a critical friends group, and how can it be best practice in establishing professional development collaborative teams? Although smaller, a critical friends group has a lot in common with other PLCs. For instance, through discussion and analysis of curriculum, they can identify students' learning goals.

Reflection on their professional practice. I know teachers that have recorded themselves teaching, then watched themselves and discussed the lesson with their critical friends group. It's an extremely bold and brave move, but the impact can be incredible.

Together, a critical friends group can examine student and even teacher work to determine the progress toward meeting the selected goals. I have been involved in lengthy discussions over a single math problem-- again, a positive and very powerful experience. Being in a non-evaluative setting means you can provide and receive honest feedback from peers that will lead to improved instructional practice and work toward your professional growth goal.

There are a couple of distinguishing characteristics of a critical friends group that I would like to point out. The first is that a critical friends group should be a challenging environment. And that is meant in a good way. Members are encouraged to challenge each other in order to improve their instructional practices. This is done by having deep and reflective dialogue with one another. They do so by asking the hard questions. This helps all members to openly and honestly reflect on the work they do, and the impact that they have a student learning.

The second characteristic is that they are run by a very specific protocol. The guidelines that are established are put into place to promote meaningful communication, lead to problem solving, and ultimately enhance your practice. There are a few different protocols that can be used, and are usually facilitated by an instructional coach. You will want to base your decision on which works best with the goals of the group.

A key point to remember is to avoid groupthink. We have all seen groupthink, because it happens all the time in traditional PLCs. It's when at a meeting, for the sake of either avoiding confrontation or to keep things moving, everyone agrees to what's being said, even if it's unwise to do so. In a critical friends group, this doesn't happen, because members agree to challenge each other and follow specific protocols that lead to vibrant and thoughtful conversations.

I will end this lesson with a critical friends example that could be used as part of a collaborative professional development plan. And this time, I will draw from the arts. A team of elementary music teachers district wide are all in different schools and on different schedules, so they don't have the opportunity to meet in person often. However, when they do get together at the beginning of the year planning session, they come to the realization that they would all like to encourage their students to be more creative, but don't know how to do that.

The group decides to each try something new, and will meet again in a month and share out with the others using a critical friends protocol, which involves each member to take on the role of either a presenter, facilitator, or discussant. Difficult questions are asked about each music teacher's lessons, which cause reflection and later revision to the practice. These teachers have taken a huge step in their professional development, because they were able to share openly in this safe and supportive environment.

Let's go ahead and summarize. We began by looking at collaborative professional development, and how working together can lighten the load and increase the impact of our efforts. Next, we defined critical friends and described some characteristics associated with this very specific type of PLC. And finally, an example of what a critical friends group might look like and work on.

And here is today's food for thought. If you've never been a member of a critical friends group, which part of it would you look forward to most? Which part would you be anxious about?

To dive deeper and learn how to apply this information, check out the additional resources section associated with this video. This is where you'll find links targeted toward helping you discover more ways to apply this course material. Thanks so much for joining me. Have a great day. We'll see you next time.

Notes on "Establishing a Collaborative Professional Development Team Using Critical Friends"

(00:00-00:13) Intro

(00:14-00:53) Time To Make A Choice

(00:54-01:54) Collaborative PD

(01:55-02:53) Critical Friends

(02:54-04:16) Characteristics

(04:17-05:16) Example

(05:17-06:09) Summary/Food For Thought

Additional Resources

NSRF Protocols and Activities

This National School Reform Faculty resource provides a comprehensive overview of critical friends protocols and how to implement them for collaboration.

Critical Friends Protocol Overview

This Buck Institute for Education video is an overview of using the critical friends protocol to provide teachers with feedback for professional learning and growth on their project based lesson designs.