Critical Friends Group protocols deepen conversations in collaborative action research projects


Source: Educational Action Research, 29:1, 133-148

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article reports on a subsidiary field of interest in Critical Friends Group discussions that arose out of a Collaborative Action Research (CAR) project.
In 2017, four junior secondary teachers (Y7-9) volunteered to be involved in a CAR project facilitated by two teacher-educators at Bethlehem Tertiary Institute, New Zealand.
The project was run over a 6-month period, comprising the middle two school terms.
The teacher participants were asked to self-select individual inquiry foci which they would investigate to enhance their teacher practice for increased student learning.
To facilitate the CAR process, the four teachers met, as a group, with the teacher-educators each fortnight for 4 hours.
During this time, they were supported through the Action Research process (identification of a research question, collection of data, planning, teaching, and reflecting, in a series of cycles).
Additionally, they were engaged in; collegial discussion around their research, team building exercises to support building trusting relationships, reading literature pertinent to their individual inquiry, and being mentored with ideas to trial relevant to their research.
Critical Friends Group discussions were implemented halfway through the 20-week CAR schedule to support the key elements of ‘challenging existing ideas’ and ‘engaging in collegial critique’. This occurred at the point where the teachers had clearly established their research questions, collected initial data, read current literature, planned a course of action, and begun to implement practices that would enhance student learning.
This was about the time that teachers were beginning to come across challenges to implementing their ideas, or the desired impact of their practice on learners was not being realised.
Critical Friends Group discussions were included with the intention of promoting robust and pedagogically rich conversations about the problems teachers were facing, encouraging the group to look for ways to improve teaching skills for enhanced student learning.
Guided by the overarching research question ‘How might the CAR process affect teachers’ professional practice and student learning?’, the teacher-educators’ main intention was to identify key conditions that assist teachers to undertake CAR.
This has been found to have a greater impact on professional learning and student achievement than traditional forms of professional development, such as one-off workshops or listening to inspirational speakers (Dana and Yendol-Hoppey 2014; Feldman 1994; Timperley 2011).
The teacher-educators were active in supporting the teachers to inquire into their practice, as they researched the effectiveness of this support.
A range of qualitative data was gathered throughout the 6-month period, including; audio recorded semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, reflective journals, end of term reports, and facilitator’s notes taken during the CAR meetings and Critical Friends Group discussions.
Data was analysed by identifying central themes, looking for patterns of behaviour and responses, and looking for relationships to gain an understanding of the important issues (Green and Thorogood 2004).
The key conditions, derived from the data, for enabling effective CAR were; teachers being able to self-select their Action Research topic (effective catalyst for professional development), mentoring (external experts), quality collegial critique (Critical Friends Group discussions), reflection, regular release time, professional reading, sustained planning, and developing trusting relationships through team building exercises (Gibson and Blake 2019).
These key conditions were likewise found by Timperley et al. (2007) to support professional learning in a variety of professional development opportunities.
The overall findings of this research are discussed in Gibson and Blake (2019).
This article, therefore, explores in depth, collegial critique in the form of Critical Friends Group discussions using data from the overarching initial research.
It provides educators with an understanding of the positive experiences gained by participants during Critical Friends Group discussions, and the way in which these discussions support professional learning within CAR.
This article examines the practice, and professional benefits of incorporating Critical Friends Group discussions into the CAR meetings by deepening conversations about teacher practice.

Having the Critical Friends Group protocols inserted into CAR meetings, helped give purpose to the collegial conversations, and shift congenial conversations, characterised by conflict avoidance, to deeper inquiry evidenced by challenging of assumptions and offering of expert suggestions.
The vulnerability of the presenter was reduced by building relationships based on trusting the participants to help solve self-selected dilemmas, and the vulnerability of the group participants was reduced by removing the opportunity for defensive remarks.
The safe environment experienced allowed for much deeper conversations to occur as professional ‘friends’ were able to give and receive collegial critique without it being offensive or provoking a defensive response.
Because the presenter was not engaged in the conversation, the capacity to focus on ‘listening to understand’ was strengthened and further increased the depth of the knowledge gained.
Additionally, the use of CAR as a cycle of inquiry in which Critical Friends Group protocols were only one component of the professional learning enabled the teacher-educators to provide additional literature, and mentoring which worked to overcome the issue of conversations being limited by the pedagogical content knowledge available to the group.
In-class observations worked to both identify issues with teacher practice that were undiscovered, and to push teachers to implement the ideas from Critical Friends Group discussions.

Dana, N.F., and D. Yendol-Hoppey. 2014. The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research: Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn through Practitioner Inquiry . 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Feldman, A. (1994). “Teachers Learning from Teachers: Knowledge and Understanding in Collaborative Action Research”. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA: University of Massachusetts.
Gibson, A., and J. Blake. 2019. “Improving Teaching Practice and Student Learning through Collaborative Action Research: A Case Study of an Effective Partnership Programme Involving Teacher-educators and Four Middle School Teachers.” In Progress in Education 55 vols. edited by R. Nata, 39–77. New York, NY: Nova Science.
Green, J., and N. Thorogood. 2004. Qualitative Methods for Health Research. London, England: Sage.
Timperley, H. 2011. Realizing the Power of Professional Learning. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press
Timperley, H., A. Wilson, H. Barrar, and I. Fung. 2007. Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration [BES]. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Updated: Jul. 15, 2021