What are some of the most common complaints you’ve heard about professional development? I’ve heard:
- This is not applicable to my class/subject/grade level/students/etc.
- My time could be better spent grading or planning.
- I already know this.
- This is so theoretical. How does it actually apply to my classroom?
One of my favorite solutions to these conundrums is a Critical Friends Group (CFG), developed by the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF), where the entire faculty is split up randomly into groups of four to six teachers. They do not need to be of the same grade level or subject area. In fact, having a heterogeneous group often brings out more creative ideas and helps build connections across typical school silos.
During each meeting, participants follow a timed protocol adapted from one created by the NSRF: One member presents a classroom challenge that they are experiencing, and their peers ask clarifying and probing questions that help the presenter think deeply about the problem and reflect on possible paths forward.
The consistency of the group members helps build trust so that teachers can truly be vulnerable and share in the strengths and talents of one another. That’s the beauty of a CFG: It is grassroots professional development that harnesses the capacity already present in a school. Our fellow teachers are our greatest resource.
The protocol facilitates deep listening because it requires silence from participants when one person is speaking, forcing everyone to truly hear rather than plan their response. Time restrictions encourage everyone to be concise and to the point rather than talking just to take up space.
Critical Friends Group tuning Protocol
These are the steps of the protocol:
- Presenter introduces their problem and a variety of artifacts they have brought along to deepen participants’ understanding of the classroom context. Everyone else is silent.
- Participants ask clarifying questions, scratching the surface of the problem.
- Participants silently explore the artifacts, jotting down thoughts and further questions they have. Artifacts might include student work, lesson plans, assessment ideas, etc.
- Participants ask probing questions to help the presenter think more critically.
- Participants give warm and cool feedback about the presenter in the third person. Presenter listens without responding.
- Presenter reflects on the feedback and plans for the future.
Everyone has a fair opportunity to speak and be heard. Participants share their expertise and wisdom, and the presenter comes away with crowdsourced ideas for improvement. Other members often end up with lots of ideas that they want to apply to their own classrooms, since, typically, the presenter’s problem is relatable for everyone.
I first learned about this protocol at the Klingenstein Summer Institute for Early-Career Teachers, and later I adapted it for the faculty at our school.
I recently participated in a CFG where the presenter asked for support with “Peter,” a physics student who was struggling on tests.
Peter wanted to do well, believed he understood the content, and paid attention in class, yet he continued to make the same mistakes on formative assessments and exams. He latched on to a wrong idea and, no matter how many times he was marked wrong for it, continued to make the mistake.
The presenter brought a variety of the student’s assignments and tests as evidence. As we engaged with the protocol, we probed: “How does this student study for tests?” “When you return work, how do you talk about his mistakes?” “Does he see patterns in the mistakes he has made?” “What has worked for him?”
We learned that the student was a meticulous note taker. He studied by rewriting notes and formulas over and over again. He latched on to physical examples, and he wanted to be a pilot.
From these probing questions, solutions began to arise organically: Engage with Peter in mistake analysis where he tracks and reflects on his mistakes in a spreadsheet. Help him generate examples related to airplanes to help him connect to the concepts. Provide graphic organizers to better arrange concepts and develop new frameworks beyond memorization. Encourage him to practice retrieval without his notes. Everyone left bubbling with new ideas, even though we didn’t have Peter and didn’t know anything about physics.
What Makes CFG So Effective?
- It’s always applicable to the presenter, since they bring a real challenge. The problem often ends up being relevant to all of us, regardless of content area, grade level, etc. We can all contribute to the conversation by reflecting on our own experiences.
- Time feels valuable. We connect with our colleagues and learn from each other. The students are real, and the challenges are relevant right now.
- The presenter brings an issue that they don’t have a solution to. At the very least, they learn some strategies to try, and often everyone walks away with a new idea. Those who already know feel validated because they get to share their expertise.
- The entire conversation is focused on application and solutions rather than theory. Our students are on the line.
I hope you’ll try this, either as a schoolwide initiative or simply with a small group of teachers you trust. I promise that it will be time well spent.