A Critical Friends Group® community represents the basic unit of support for educators engaged in improving school culture and increasing student achievement. Each CFG® community generally includes six to twelve peers who commit to meeting at least once monthly for two hours, to collaborate with the aim of increasing student achievement through improving their practice.
Not just for classroom teachers, Critical Friends Group communities can also be composed of administrators, or of non-teaching staff. While some CFG meetings are formed around a specific grade level, subject matter, or long-term focus, it has been our experience that the most successful Critical Friends Group communities have diverse membership. Very different vantage points often provide previously unconsidered perspectives.
A means of communicating with others by observing and describing their work without judgement, but with positive intention. Although most feedback is typically evaluative in nature, descriptive feedback is literal, non-interpretive, and nonjudgemental. It is geared primarily towards revealing perspectives the observations the presenter may not have noticed, ending in a deeper understanding of the work in question instead of evaluation. “This is what I see…” for example. Descriptive feedback is throughout observation protocols and protocols like the Issaquah, where the group is instructed to simply share “What I hear the presenter say.”
In general terms, a facilitator is someone who takes responsibility for initiating, maintaining, monitoring, and concluding structured group activities. The main role of a facilitator is to maintain the integrity of the process and attend to the needs of the participants while being as unobtrusive as possible. Specific to the NSRF organization, we train individuals to become “coaches” who skillfully facilitate protocols and activities in and outside of Critical Friends Group® meetings. We differentiate CFG Coaches from National Facilitators, who are certified to train other individuals to become coaches. We know it’s confusing, but we prefer that you refer to your coaches as coaches and not as “facilitators.”
In education, the idea of fairness and meeting the specific needs of specific individuals without regards to ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status or other markers of difference. Equity is not the same as equality, but a matter of accommodations to every student based on need. Another aspect of equity is the philosophy that all individuals have a right to basic functioning literacy and numeracy.
A problem that seems to defy any satisfactory solution. In NSRF terms, a dilemma used with a protocol must be one in which the presenter has some ability to change or directly influence the matter (i.e., budget choices at the district level are probably beyond reach of our dilemma protocols).
Important group activity to elicit participant reactions, thoughts, and responses to a protocol or activity. Usually begins by asking the presenter to speak about the content and insights gleaned, then asking participants to speak about the process itself and what was learned by following the protocol. Third, the coach may ask everyone to consider how they might use the protocol or activity in their own work. Debriefing can be initiated simply by asking, “What happened?” and “How did we feel about it?”
Through research and experience, we’ve learned that learning expands dramatically in the debrief process, when participants reflect in the moment about what they just experienced.
A person with whom one has developed a trusting relationship, who uses NSRF protocols and structures to ask questions intended to offer a new perspectives and encourage development of new thoughts. The conversations are usually about the work, not the people doing the work, and the atmosphere is one of mutual trust and encouragement.
A theory about knowledge and learning which asserts that learners construct their own understanding of the world around them based on their experiences. Constructivist teaching is student-centered and attempts to create learning contexts in which students actively grapple with big issues and questions instead of being passive recipients of “teacher knowledge.”
An older NSRF activity (now updated and referred to as “Transitions”) in which groups begin work sessions or meetings by providing every member time to reflect and/or share thoughts that might distract from or interfere with the work at hand. The object is to speak about these distractions so they do not interfere with the work that is about to begin. More about process than content, Connections/Transitions gives each person in turn the opportunity to speak and be heard or keep silent and reflect.
May also refer to NSRF Connections, the organizations bimonthly journal.
The NSRF® Compass Points Activity provides a clear, easy way to identify the working styles of members of your group, suggesting accommodations that may improve chances of success for a particular project. Conducting this activity early in the formation of a Critical Friends Group® community allows everyone the common language of what “being a North” (or any other compass point) means in terms of propensities and intentions, and helps depersonalize situations that may otherwise result in conflict and hurt feelings.
Using the NSRF activity called The Zones of Comfort, Risk, and Danger allows a group to develop a common shorthand to facilitate later conversations related to learning and stressors. In your comfort zone, you find it easy to listen to others and to speak based on your knowledge and experience, but you may not be attentive enough to learn much. In your Risk Zone, you’re in an uncomfortable but fertile place for learning, open to new perspectives and consider options or ideas previously unconsidered. In your Danger Zone, you are unlikely to be able to learn because your attention is focused on surviving literally or metaphorically. Being aware of your own zones and those of others around you is imperative in adapting your interactions with them for best communication. As a CFG coach, watch for cues of any group members, particularly those presenting a piece of work, approaching their danger zone and use appropriate facilitation and feedback skills to help them return to their risk zone.
Relationships among professional peers characterized by mutual respect among equals and a shared responsibility for improved practice. Collegiality is a step forward from “congeniality” but not quite as effective as “collaborative.” Collegial people tend to be willing to help others, but not always willing to vulnerably request and accept help on their own deepest challenges, as is done in truly collaborative Critical Friends Group® communities.
Communities of educators that can be defined by mutual respect and a high degree of professionalism among equals. “Collegial” should be differentiated from “congenial” (i.e. friendly but possibly avoiding conflict, and therefore superficial) and from “collaborative” (which is more actively involved in mutual support).
Separate from athletics, a person trained to support, encourage, and challenge a student or colleague to precisely identify their problem and then develop next steps and solutions on their own (without telling them what to do). Coaches assist others by selecting frameworks for communication (protocols), asking the right sorts of questions in the right order, all while avoiding judgment and their own propensity for offering solutions. Also, a CFG Coach is one who has completed the NSRF five-day Coaches’ Training and is certified to lead a CFG community, but NOT certified to train others to become CFG Coaches.
Questions about facts and details around a presenter’s piece of work, dilemma or situation, which the presenter answers so the questioner can understand more completely and proceed with the protocol. If a question requires much more than a few seconds of thought or research before being answered, it may be a “probing” question. Clarifying questions are not judgmental or evaluative in nature.
The degree to which a group supports a particular idea or initiative. Buy-in is usually a function of the degree to which the idea(s) to be “bought” are understood and approved of by those who are being asked to “buy” them. People will tend to buy-in when they have been invited to consider, reflect, and provide input as partners in the process instead of being told what they are to “buy.”
A term borrowed from business, best practices are other people’s experiences that led to near-optimum results, from which we can borrow or adapt to increase our own possibility of success.
Objects that are generated by human craft or agency. In NSRF protocols, artifacts created as a result of the learning/teaching process become useful indicators of what may or may not be happening in our classrooms.
Assessment of student abilities that attempts to go beyond standardized testing. Options include assessment in which students are active learners and questioning thinkers. Alternative assessments are considered “authentic” when their context, purpose, audience, and constraints connect in some way to real world problems and situations; for example, learning how to change a flat tire and then being assessed by actually doing it.
Norms: when members of a group consciously or unconsciously hold a set of assumptions that define what is “appropriate/good” and “inappropriate/disallowed” behavior. Some norms are never spoken but still very much empower and disempower particular group members, shaping the culture of the group.
Within Critical Friends Group® communities, we speak of “agreements” rather than norms because we encourage groups to make agreements consciously and collaboratively, to articulate them, and to post them for later reflection rather than having “norms” imposed upon them. You can call them what you like, but we strongly urge you to use our activity to develop your list openly, and then revisit it routinely.
When teachers know their students’ learning styles, current level of knowledge, and skills, the teachers may adjust or adapt their teaching practice accordingly, without lowering their standards. In CFG training, we learn about others’ working styles and recognize simple adaptations that help us work together more effectively.
A recent movement in education that varies in definition but generally addresses learning and thinking skills such as:
- critical thinking and problem solving,
- creativity and innovation,
- contextual learning,
- citizenship, and
- information and media literacy.
Critical Friends Group® coaches’ training and NSRF® protocols have always focused on several of these skills, so CFG® coaches have a great toolkit to use and model for students in the classroom and in meetings, and can embody each of these skills in their practice.
Whole school change can occur when a critical mass of personnel in the school are engaged in reflective practice such as CFG work intended to improve teacher practice and student learning. The school community is engaged in modifying the organization, structure, and culture of the school in order to support the improvements.
One of the foundational protocols in Critical Friends Group® work. The Tuning Protocol is used to “fine-tune” almost any sort of document after it is completely drafted or while it is in progress.
Groups of three (triads) or pairs (dyads), often used to divide a larger group into smaller units to accomplish a particular task, to save time, hold the group’s attention more precisely, and avoid other problems when sharing in a larger group.
In classrooms, text protocols provide variety to more traditional ways of discussing a chapter or shorter piece of text, and allow modeling of 21st Century Skills including collaboration and critical thinking. In meetings, text protocols can be an efficient way to share information, reveal controversies, encourage open discussion, broaden perspectives, or quickly narrow a text down to its essence.
Team-building processes and experiences are commonly undertaken to construct and/or strengthen relationships between group members who have a common task and who need each other to accomplish it. Trust-building exercises aim to increase reliance on the integrity, character, and/or abilities of the members of a group and to increase confidence in their ability to care for one another. These exercises have a place within the development of a specific Critical Friends Group community, but mainly during the creation of the CFG community and only occasionally at later times. Ongoing CFG meetings effectively build team trust and maintain it through continued attention to the group’s Agreements and each participant’s willingness to uphold those agreements and question others in their regard when necessary.
In NSRF terms, outcomes produced by a student, generally consisting of artifacts (writing or tangible products of projects), classroom behavior, and/or performances (records of classroom behavior or assessments). See Looking At Student Work. CFG work uses other protocols (Tuning, for example) to work with content produced by an educator for students, such as lesson plans, rubrics, assessments, etc.
A measure of an individual student’s or a class’s attention to the task at hand during a lesson or program of study, demonstrated by students asking more than routine questions and by producing work more than perfunctorily. Student engagement also is reflected in each individual’s longer-term personal commitment to their own learning, not necessarily applied consistently in every lesson, every day.
A more or less organized attempt to improve schools, recently co-opted by conservative government officials and corporations. The first major milestone in the current generation of education reform appeared in 1983 with the publication of the report A Nation at Risk, outlining the poor state of affairs within the K-12 environment, from low basic comprehension rates to high dropout rates. This document became the call to arms for administrators and policy makers and ushered in what became known as the first wave of education reform.
The organization, structure, and practices deliberately carried out to create a school climate. It also includes the spoken and unspoken norms established and followed by everyone, from students through faculty, staff, and administration.
Teaching characterized and shaped by an ongoing personal and collective conversation aimed at improving teaching and learning. Reflective practice involves teachers talking specifically about what they do and why they do it, citing evidence, research or theory. The teachers talk about where the “why” came from (something they read, learned at a conference/workshop, heard from another teacher, learned during their training, learned in the CFG meeting, etc.). Reflection is ongoing, not a one-time revelation that “sets” a teacher’s pedagogy for life. Critical Friends Group® communities act as an ongoing, reliable structure for all members to maintain and constantly challenge their own reflective practices.
A process which involves quiet, mental concentration and careful consideration both individually and collectively for the purpose of generating new learning, and/or deeper understanding.
Structured processes or guidelines to promote meaningful and efficient communication, problem solving, and learning. Protocols used within a group that shares common values, permit an honest, deeply meaningful, and often intimate type of conversation which people are not in the habit of having, building skills and culture needed for successful collaboration.
Questions that attempt to “push” a conversation deeper, add to, or challenge ideas or perspectives being considered. They are often used to explore the underlying assumptions of a particular argument or line of thought. When presented with a really good probing question, the person being asked does not have a ready answer and is inspired to think about that question further. Probing questions should move a person from reaction to reflection.
Assessments in which teachers evaluate a student’s skill level by asking them to perform tasks that require the skill. The student must use his/her knowledge to do something in a variety of ways, demonstrating the scope of knowledge the student possesses rather than simply testing the accuracy of their response on a selection of questions.
Separate from evaluative observations, the NSRF® organization offers protocols that provide structure for the observation of classrooms and other scenes. Some protocols are designed for the benefit of the person being observed and others for the people doing the observing. Providing clear structures and a plan makes any observation feel safer and produce greater results.
Norms are a set of assumptions held by a group’s members defining “appropriate/good” and “inappropriate/disallowed” behavior. Some norms are never spoken but still very much empower and disempower group members, shaping the culture of the group. Within Critical Friends Group® meetings, we speak of “agreements” rather than norms because we encourage groups to make agreements consciously, articulate them, and post them for later reflection rather than having “norms” imposed upon them. You can call them what you like, but we strongly urge you to develop them openly and revisit them routinely.
A number of protocols aimed specifically at reviewing work produced by students with a variety of goals, and from a variety of perspectives. (An example of a LASW protocol is the Collaborative Assessment Conference.) These protocols allow other CFG members a direct observation of the student that’s not intrusive in the classroom, and that avoids relying solely on an individual teacher’s perspective on the situation. In NSRF terms, Student Work is produced by a student. Other work produced by educators for their students would be reviewed using other NSRF protocols, such as Tuning.
A group of learners who come together to further common interests. Learning communities may also be characterized by trust, sharing, participation, fellowship, reflection, and continuous learning and improvement. Learning Communities are differentiated from Critical Friends Group® communities because they’re generally less structured and do not necessarily require the level of trust in a CFG™ community. But a specific CFG community might act as a Learning Community if it is organized around a common interest.
A pedagogy connected to constructivism in which learners create and pursue questions of their own design. We have one protocol for teachers to help them make changes in their practice, linked to Inquiry, and a more complete definition and graphic called Cycles of Inquiry.
A question that will direct a group’s or a particular person’s attention toward the aspect of the dilemma or piece of work most important or troublesome to the presenter. For most protocols, a CFG coach will pre-conference with the presenting group member to identify and craft an appropriate focusing question to ensure that the protocol will result in the desired outcome for the presenter. Understanding a focusing question clearly helps the presenter accept feedback and the other participants avoid wasting time.
Key to receiving feedback well is learning to create and declare an appropriate focusing question, so the responses you receive will be most helpful. NSRF protocols create structure that benefits both the people giving and receiving feedback. Receiving feedback well is a skill which must be learned and practiced, and is taught in CFG training. Receiving feedback requires emphasis on active listening and controlling the reactive, often defensive reflex which can interfere with our ability to reflect and learn.
A process that is often solicited (formally or informally) by colleagues in need of a particular type of information related to their work. NSRF CFG training and protocols offer specific guidelines for effective feedback that is constructive and avoids the felt need for a defensive response. Giving constructive feedback is not easy and it does not come naturally to many, so it is imperative that people are trained in this skill before they are asked to give feedback in a protocol. Effective feedback skills must be learned and practiced, and work best in a context of trust and mutual respect.