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Critical Friends Groups

"When teachers get together and apply their combined knowledge and experience to the challenges of teaching and learning, amazing things can happen!" (Allen & Blythe 2003)


Kate Nolan, Director of Re-Thinking Accountability for Annenberg Institute for School Reform captures a typical moment of a typical teacher working with a typical group of students:  "Suppose we could look into a teacher's brain and understand its swirling chemical language. We would witness a sophisticated procedure unfolding in the blink of an eye:   

  • Does Marie understand the connection between what she's saying and the lesson we just worked on?
  • What does Jamal's brilliant grasp of these ideas mean given what I know his project will look like?
  • How will we ever cover the whole textbook?
  • Why is Kelly so blue today?
  • Mikhail is working on an essay (it looks like it is going well).   What will I challenge him with next?
  • Is the public address system with its constant interruptions sidetracking anyone?
  • Keira is ready for the next steps, but how can I help her?”   

Sound familiar?   As teachers we make difficult instructional decisions while we juggle informal data and questions with evidence about what students know and what must be taught.   Think about the ways we are expected to navigate quickly and effectively through the changing tides of our classrooms.   Since student work is the real window into our classrooms, let's think of collaboratively looking at student work as the anchor needed on a regular basis.  


Undoubtedly most teachers identify with the above scenario.     Historically teaching has been an isolated profession.   School structures encouraged teachers to spend almost all of their time alone in their classrooms with their students.   New practices in peer observation and teacher study groups are working to break down isolation, to build a professional learning community and to encourage collaboration.


The collaborative, public examination of student work by teachers, administrators, parents, and community members offers a useful tool for improving teacher practice, and thereby, student achievement.   This process enables participants to share and reflect on ways to develop new, improved classroom practices and environments that support learning while encouraging common expectations for student achievement.  


The MCES Collaborating for Students' Success (CSS) program aligns with the Critical Friends Group (CFG) program developed and researched by the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF). Formed in 1995 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, NSRF has established twenty-eight Centers of Activity and trained more than 10,000 coaches in facilitative leadership to establish collaborative, reflective cultures in schools and districts.   The protocols, trainings, coaching, and establishment of CSS (CFG) groups offers a systematic and sustainable approach to school reform.   We feel strongly about the benefits of this program and "its ideas and practices that rely not on changing school structures or variables, but on drawing out the developing educators' unused talents and latent abilities." (Phi Lamba Theta, Educational Horizons 2005)  


MCES is training its sixth cohort of principals and CSS Coaches (staff-selected teacher leaders who model facilitative leadership assisting teachers' study groups) to collaboratively and reflectively look at student work as a means of improving teaching and learning.


The research indicates that as a result of participating in teacher study groups such as Critical Friends Groups or Collaborating for Students' Success CSS (CFG) Groups, teachers are more thoughtful about connecting curriculum, assessment, and instruction.   Classrooms move from being teacher-centered toward student-centered thus creating higher expectations for student learning!


Why Look at Student Work Collaboratively?   Student work is at the center of what we do and shows us how students are thinking, the extent of their factual knowledge, and the connections they are making, while driving us to make data-driven decisions with built in accountability for our results.   


Teachers learn more about best practices, standards of instruction, standards of assessment, and perhaps most importantly, making better sense in navigating through these changing tides and in answering the questions we have about the, Kellys, Maries, Mikhails, Keriras and Jamals in our own classrooms.   Please contact MCES at 517-780-9814 or for CSS professional development at your school site.

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