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Working with a critical friend

Page 127 discusses the concept of a “critical friend”. Costa and Kallick (1993) define a critical friend as “a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critique of a person’s work as a friend” (page 50). They outline a process for conducting conferences between a critical friend and a learner. In brief, the process they suggest proceeds as follows:

  1. The learner describes a practice and requests feedback.
  2. The critical friend asks questions in order to understand the practice described and to clarify the context in which the practice takes place.
  3. The learner sets desired outcomes for this conference, ensuring that he or she is in control of the feedback.
  4. The critical friend provides feedback on what seems to be significant about the practice. This feedback should provide more than cursory praise; it should provide a lens that helps to elevate the work.
  5. The critical friend raises questions and critiques the work, nudging the learner to see it from different perspectives.
  6. Both participants reflect and write. The learner writes notes on the conference, thinking about the points and suggestions raised. The critical friend writes to the learner with suggestions or advice that seem appropriate for the desired outcome.

Case 6: Being a Critical Friend

Barbara was concerned that although she knew and believed in the theory about critical friendship, she was not enacting it in her practice. Gillian is herself in role as a critical friend to Barbara, and her beliefs about the role are reflected in the ways in which she supports Barbara.

In their first conversation (see video Clip 1), Gillian helped Barbara to articulate her personal theory about the role of a critical friend, particularly around the concept of challenge. She then prompted her to compare that to her actual theory-in-use as revealed in a video of Barbara’s practice, before co-constructing future practice that would better match Barbara’s beliefs about her role as a critical friend.

In their second conversation (see video Clip 4), Gillian helped Barbara to identify shifts in her practice and the learning that enabled those shifts. She then helped Barbara to think about where she wanted to go next. As she did so, she continued to model the critical friend role, building their relationship by offering challenge in a supportive way that enabled Barbara to take ownership of her own learning.

See also the learning stories:

Recommended reading

Swaffield, S. (2004). "Exploring Critical Friendship through Leadership for Learning". A paper within the symposium Leadership for Learning: The Cambridge Network. 17th International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI), Rotterdam, 6–9 January.
Swaffield explores the origin, use, and definition of the term “critical friendship”. She then uses a range of activities from Leadership for Learning: The Cambridge Network to illustrate facets of critical friendship.

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