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Critical Friends Groups: Catalysts for School Change

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"Finding the time to cultivate new ways of examining student work and relating to colleagues is difficult but well worth the effort," said teacher Deborah Bambino of her involvement in a Critical Friends Group, or CFG. Perhaps you've heard the buzz about CFGs! This week, Education World takes a close-up look at CFGs -- what they are and what they hope to accomplish. Included: Comments from teachers who have found CFGs to be an invaluable professional development tool.

As a science teacher, Deborah Bambino had been teaching the metric system for years. She used posters, lab activities, and work sheets -- all the right materials. But no matter what she did, her students still didn't grasp the importance of using metric measurements in science projects. Things changed dramatically when Bambino engaged her students in what she calls "the conversation about their own learning." The students told her what they didn't understand about metrics, and she adjusted her teaching accordingly.

What inspired Bambino to open a dialogue with her students was her participation in a Critical Friends Group, or CFG. A relatively new innovation, a CFG consists of 8 to 12 teachers and administrators who agree to work regularly together to define and produce improved student achievement. Each group has a coach who has been trained to help the group members focus on how to improve their teaching. The National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) program sponsors the training of Critical Friends Group coaches.

The NSRF has this to say about CFGs: "CFGs are the product of a simple idea: providing deliberate time and structures to promote adult professional growth that is directly linked to student learning."

How Does CFG Feedback Help?

"I now recognize student voice as a key ingredient in my planning and work," Bambino said. "I was concerned that my students weren't grasping the concepts behind the lab activities we were doing in class. I didn't think the students were being reflective. My CFG watched a video of my lab class and pointed out the missed opportunities for guided reflection. After their feedback, I was able to build in reflection with another section the next day."

Bambino, a teacher at Central East Middle School in Philadelphia, summed up her thinking about CFGs this way: "Making my teaching and thinking public has empowered me as a teacher."

The Evolution of CFGs

"Our CFG program emerged from both academic research and the field," Faith Dunne, co-director of the NSRF program and a key person behind the concept of CFGs, told Education World. "In 1995, when we began the program, Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert's research on the effectiveness of professional learning communities had just been published, adding weight to the scholarly work produced by Judith Warren Little, Ann Lieberman, and Lynn Miller, among others. At the same time, practitioners with whom we had worked in several programs sponsored by the Coalition of Essential Schools were pushing for a 'grass roots' program that would address questions about student learning goals and ways to achieve them at the school level. In the first year we trained coaches from CES schools exclusively. After that we expanded our focus to schools affiliated with a number of school reform initiatives. By 1999, we had coaches from a wide variety of schools; their common commitment was to the development of a professional collaborative culture."

At first, teachers say, a commitment to a CFG can be difficult. Teachers usually work in isolation, rarely discussing with other teachers what doesn't work in their classrooms. CFGs provide a safe, nonjudgmental place where teachers can have their work sympathetically critiqued.

A Foundation of Trust

"Building the foundation of trust that is necessary to begin truly sharing not just your best work, but the work or problems that trouble you as a teacher is hard work and takes time," said Bambino. "Finding the time to cultivate new ways of examining student work and relating to colleagues is difficult but well worth the effort."

"Keeping the commitment to the work" is the most difficult aspect of participating in a CFG, Carol Nejman told Education World. Nejman is a former special education teacher who is now principal of C. W. Henry Elementary School. "In a teacher's life there are always a thousand things to do and not enough time to do it all. Disciplining myself to take the time to meet with colleagues on a voluntary basis was difficult at first. Later, the work became so invigorating I couldn't stay away."

Because of what she learned in a CFG, Nejman actually changed her approach to teaching. "One of the biggest changes in my practice," she said "was having students give me feedback on lessons, learning, and class activities. I figured if colleagues could use protocols to examine my work, why shouldn't students have the same opportunity. Allowing student voice to help me plan curriculum was a major leap for me."

What Goes on in a CFG?

"Participants in CFGs learn to work with peers in a collegial fashion on issues of teaching and student learning," Faith Dunne said. "Since school practitioners have a history of working in isolation, collaborative work requires the development of skills such as peer observation, close examination of teacher and student work, giving effective feedback, and the creation of new knowledge (in Peter Senge's sense) through collaborative effort. Coaches of CFGs -- and, ultimately, participants -- learn how to facilitate group work as well as how to balance their roles as both leader and coparticipant."

Dunne also zeroed in on how the CFG experience translates into the classroom. "CFGs examine their own classroom work, looking both at the match between teaching techniques and assignments and what students produce," Dunne said. "In addition, participants look at the link between classroom activity and publicly stated learning goals. Therefore, there is immediate transfer from the classroom to the CFG and back again as teachers revise their work based on the feedback they get from peers and try out the new version in the classroom."

Additional CFG Resources

National School Reform Faculty
This is the home page of the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF), a network of more than 5,000 teachers and administrators "devoted to improving classroom practice and rethinking school leadership." Click Critical Friends Groups for information on CFGs.

Last Updated: 12/9/2016