Critical Friends Groups have the power to radically change the culture of a school

Guest post by Penny Preen-Kynigou, Part 1 of a two-part post

So how can we initiate Critical Friends Group® (CFG®) communities in such a way that they take root?  Many participants in my CFG Coaches’ Trainings have ambitions to deliver immediate results in their schools the following September.

“How can we engage our colleagues and get them on board?” they ask. What they really want to know is, “How can we create the conditions for successfully establishing a lasting CFG culture?”

The answer seems to revolve around these 4 key factors:

  • building fluency and expertise in facilitation
  • expanding social capital among colleagues
  • enlisting administrative support
  • spreading the good word

I suggest you look at the process as a series of gradual incremental steps taken over time, in two distinct phases. The initial phase is the creation of a pilot CFG community. The second phase is rolling-out the CFG concept to the wider school community. Taking incremental steps both acknowledges the complexity of the task and respects the perspective of the ‘late majority,’ those who prefer to wait and see, as they have seen initiatives come and go.

During trainings we brainstorm ideas on how to seed and germinate systemic change and create the specific conditions needed in order for it to put down roots. In this post I will share a compilation of suggested ‘baby steps’ around the pilot phase. I’ll write more about the roll-out phase soon!

1: Start small.

Build your expertise inside your comfort zone.

Experiment in your classroom first. Build confidence in leading collaborative activities, develop fluency and expertise in facilitating CFG activities, by trying things out in this safe space. For example, Transitions can be a meaningful way to help younger students transition from the excitement of the playground back to class. Chalk Talks are an elegant and structured way to gather feedback quickly and quietly from students, from upper elementary onward. Text protocols can help older students collaborate to find new meanings in complex text. By beginning with the simplest protocols, you can build confidence before tackling more complicated ones.

After each use of a protocol, ask your students, “How did that go for you?” and listen as they debrief. Their feedback will be invaluable in improving your facilitation technique.

2: Create a market. 

Let your students be your ambassadors.

Engaged students are happy students. They will be quick to spread the word to their friends. Soon students will be asking their teachers, “Will we be doing the activity that Ms. X’s students did?” When colleagues inquire what you are up to, you can willingly share the activity, and, as your confidence grows, maybe even invite them to observe a class.

As you establish a comfort level with a range of activities, you’ll simultaneously develop a reputation as a cool teacher amongst the students and as a generous and non-threatening colleague amongst your friendly peers. Altogether, you have created a social capital start-up fund.

3: Seek an ally.

“It takes one to light the candle and one to shield the flame.”

Working alone is an uphill struggle, so seek out a colleague who can become an ally: someone who is interested in the work, who is eager to explore more activities, and who can join you in planning to take this a little further…

4: Recruit a cohort.

If you’ve completed CFG Coaches’ Training, jump into creating your pilot ‘Core CFG community’ and provide a forum for implementation, practice, and support.

A ready-made core of trained coaches already exists, if you were sent as a team to CFG training. Otherwise, invite friends, interested colleagues and the known innovators/early adopters on campus to try out a CFG pilot. You do not need many, but those who self-select to join you will be committed and enthusiastic and bring positive energy to your start-up.

After you’ve done a few Tuning Protocols, share facilitation amongst yourselves, even among those who haven’t completed training. This develops fluency with protocols in the others as they benefit from the mutual support and learning CFG work offers. As these participants begin to bring change in their own classrooms, their students will spread the word, and they, in their turn, will begin to share ideas and experiences with colleagues and administrators. Bingo! Ripple effect!

If common professional time for your Core CFG group to meet is not forthcoming, consider investing personal time to hold Core CFG meetings off-campus in a casual setting (named “Pints and Protocols” by a cohort in Michigan last summer). The laughter, friendship, and support generated in meeting others with a shared passion for teaching will itself lighten your load and make your school a more welcoming place to work in.

6: Enlist administrative support.

Inform them, involve them …and then ask!

Share the outcomes of your classroom implementation and key research findings with your administrative team. Float the idea of a CFG pilot at your school. Seek support for sharing CFG activities in the context of the whole faculty, and for formally opening the pilot group to volunteers across the school. Envision together how a roll out of CFG groups to the wider faculty might be offered as a PD option.

If you were sent with a group to training, the person who coordinated the training is obviously your go-to person. Having invested in bringing the training to your school, they will be especially eager to hear about your classroom implementation of CFG activities/protocols, and how you have already begun to share those with interested colleagues. This would be the right moment to approach the idea of finding common professional time for your Core CFG group to meet.

7: Share the good news.

Share testimonials, prepare a report, and publicize the work.

Spread the word to colleagues via participant testimonials and word-of-mouth. Encourage participants to share specific gains with their administrators during end of year evaluations. Examples such as brainstorming new units, refining existing curriculum, looking at data, reviewing specific students’ work, or problem-solving dilemmas of practice make it evident how powerfully CFG groups can support teachers’ professional development.

Gather participants’ feedback through anonymous surveys and publish a formal report of outcomes, so that progress can be appreciated. In fact, any kind of publishing, whether it be in an in-house magazine, at the district level, or in the NSRF’s Connections blog, shares the good news, gives recognition to those involved and helps your pilot initiative to become more firmly rooted.

The Power of Piloting

Framing the introduction of a new initiative as a pilot project is helpful for all. Pilot projects are low stakes, unthreatening, a mere ‘toe dip,’ and can be conducted with little loss of credibility. They allow for the organizers to work out the wrinkles in ‘beta version’. They give an opportunity for the ‘early adopters’ to develop expertise and let the good news trickle out, and scope for the ‘late majority’ to observe and become familiar with the initiative. Most importantly they give time for administration to evaluate potential on the small scale and plan for ‘built-in and not bolt-on’ wider implementation that will last. And for protocol aficionados who have not yet been trained as coaches, it gives you plenty of successes to justify getting trained.

Guest post by Penny Kynigou, NSRF International Facilitator from the American Community Schools of Athens. Penny teaches fifth grade and is the co founder and co-coordinator of the ACS Athens Collaborative Learning Community, a Critical Friends forum for professional reflection, creativity and growth. She also runs her own professional teaching blog and can be found at bloggingthelearningcurve.wordpress.com. She may be reached at pkynigou@gmail.com.