Many years ago, when I first started teaching online, a few colleagues and I decided to get together and form a learning community around online instruction. We were all relative novices in the online teaching space but we chose to enroll each other into our online classes to give each other a peek into the types of structures and activities we were employing with our online students to engage them and help them learn. Stepping into their online classes, I was able to see how they organized content, built interaction into their courses and situated the students for learning. Even though the group was relatively small, I learned a lot about teaching and learning from watching my colleagues teach. In fact, I stole a lot of ideas and strategies from them that I still incorporate into my online classes today. My hope is that they may have learned a strategy or two from observing my courses in the process as well.
Truth be told, the benefits of the group wasn’t limited to the ideas we stole from each other. While we each picked up strategies that improved our teaching, the most beneficial part of the group came from the spirit of inquiry that we had fostered in our group. We shared articles, discussed ideas, and worked to expand our work with students and improve our teaching. It was a shared mission, built on trust and professional development.
While we never explicitly used the terminology, my colleagues and I had created a Critical Friends Group (CFG). In a CFG, small groups of educators gather together to improve their practice through collaborative learning and inquiry. The term “Critical Friends Group” may in some ways connote a community based on negative evaluations or criticism. In the CFG framework, however, “critical” is used to denote the essential and powerful nature that the collaborative enterprise can have over an educator’s development and practice. Formed as reflective, democratic spaces, CFGs are built on trust, mutual respect and a shared objective of improving instruction from collaborating with peers. Although my colleagues and I formed our CFG to improve our online teaching, Critical Friends Groups are traditionally formed to examine and improve face-to-face instruction. As our group observed the online classes of our peers, a face-to-face CFG would incorporate classroom observations to give constructive feedback to those educators participating in the group. These observations could be paired with group discussions on practice, ongoing reflective journaling and selecting readings to spark innovation and professional growth.
While most schools mandate some observational processes for faculty, these institutionally governed observations are usually normalized by individual departments or by Faculty Senates. Rarely do these observations offer the tailored feedback that individual faculty along the developmental spectrum need to improve. In a CFG, however, the group develops the norms that dictate observations, feedback and other support procedures and can better tailor them to the individual needs of the educators involved.
I realize that the idea of a Critical Friends Group may sound intimidating to some educators. The key to remember, however, is that the ultimate goal of the group is the professional development of the instructors involved. When I worked with my CFG partners on improving our online instruction, I found the process tremendously rewarding. The community helped me grow professionally and it certainly improved my online teaching. If you’re considering starting a Critical Friends Group, check out the National School Reform Faculty website for some tips.