At the 12th Annual Reforming Schools Summer Institute sponsored by Houston A+ Challenge, keynote speaker Doug Reeves spoke about the importance of leadership for improving learning. All institute participants received copies of Reeves' recent books, The Learning Leader and Reframing Teacher Leadership.
In his research, Reeves has found that advice from a colleague is far more influential in changing teacher practice than other forms of professional development such as professional reading or taking college classes. In his keynote address, Reeves stressed the importance of collaboration, colleague-to-colleague advice, and personal relevance for creating effective professional development initiatives.
Doesn't that sound like a Critical Friends Group? For over a decade, CFGs have been improving teacher practice and improving student learning by bringing teachers together and share their best thinking about issues the teachers themselves think are the most relevant. If you are looking for a new framework to develop systemic support for teacher leadership, take a look at Reeves' Reframing Teacher Leadership.
In Reframing Teacher Leadership, Doug Reeves also highlights the importance of empowering teachers to develop their own action research projects to collect evidence about their own teaching practices. The Peeling the Onion protocol can be used to help an individual or team develop research questions. This protocol is designed to help us peel away the layers of a dilemma or challenging situation in order to address the deeper issues that lie underneath the surface of our initial wonderings. The facilitator should keep to the times strictly and gently remind people when they are giving advice too early.
Dear Donna: Several people from my campus were trained to be CFG coaches this summer, and we are very excited about getting groups started at our school. Do you think it is better to arrange people in groups according to what they teach or is it more effective to mix everybody up? – BRAND NEW COACH
Dear BRAND NEW COACH : Before you make a decision about how to arrange people in your school's Critical Friends Groups, figure out what the purpose of CFGs will be on your campus. Are you implementing CFGs to reduce isolation and build a more positive school-wide professional culture? If so, mixing up the faculty will help you reach your goals. Do you want the groups to focus on improving teaching in the content areas? Then it may be better to arrange the members by department so members can bring more expertise to the table when you look at student work.
Teachers College Record recently published an article by Marnie Curry from the University of California, Berkeley, titled Critical Friends Groups: The Possibilities and Limitations Embedded in Teacher Professional Communities Aimed at Instructional Improvement and School Reform that sheds some light on this issue. Curry found that interdisciplinary membership—mixing everybody up, as you put it—had these positive effects:
- Strengthened schoolwide communication
- Contributed to cross-curricular coherence and cross-fertilization
- Curtailed teacher isolation, and
- Fostered shared professional commitments and collective responsibility for student learning.
However, her study also showed that interdisciplinary membership "oriented teacher learning toward general pedagogy rather than toward content or pedagogical content knowledge." It seems that secondary science and math teachers, especially, wanted to share student work with other teachers who had a deep understanding of the content.
Perhaps, you could implement a hybrid system where some groups are interdisciplinary and some are arranged by grade level or subject area. You can read all of Curry's article at the National School Reform Faculty website, http://www.nsrfharmony.org.
Finally, don't feel like you have to make this decision by yourself. Consider what the rest of the faculty thinks as well. Will the faculty have a voice in how CFGs are implemented or will it be just another top-down professional development initiative that gives lip-service to teacher voice? Let me know what you decide. I would like to find out more about how different campuses in the Houston area have implemented CFGs.
If you have questions for Dear Donna, send them to CFGCoach@houstonaplus.org. Donna Reid is a Houston-based National CFG Facilitator and a consultant with Houston A+ Challenge.