Critical Friends in Self-Studies

A few of you have asked me to revisit the concept of critical friends. I would like to share my facilitation notes from that specific Lunch & Learn session:

Think about one person in your professional, academic, or teaching lives that fits this description. They…

  • Act as a sounding board for new or difficult ideas/concepts.
  • Support and challenge you in your efforts to improve your work and achieve your goals.
  • Provide constructive feedback and empower you to look at your development in new ways.

Without saying who this person is, what stands out as about them? What do you do together? What do you talk about?

Costa & Kallick define a critical friend as “trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critique of a person’s work as a friend. A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working toward [and they are] an advocate for the success of that work” (1993:50).

We find them in many different contexts and roles:

  • Educational: They can contribute as peer editors, peer mentors, brainstorming companions, co-learners, co-assessors, etc. (Costa & Kallick, 1993).
  • Professional: They can work instrumentally with the goal of professional or administrative development specifically in mind (Costa & Kallick, 1993).
  • Teaching: They can collaborate in groups of two or more to explore a specific topic of teaching practice or methodology (Schuck & Russell, 2005; Fletcher, Chroinin & Sullivan, 2016).

With these components in mind, what is unique about a “critical friend”? What might not be a “critical friend”?

As Schuck and Russel (2005:108) describe, critical friends are essential to self studies for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s difficult to assess one’s own practice and reframe it – We cannot escape subjectivity.
  2. By nature, personal practice develops in tandem with personal beliefs and perceptions of “good practice” – A critical friend engages us in a co-construction of knowledge.
  3. Changing, growing, evolving, transitioning, etc., is often difficult, even more-so if we don’t have means to ascertain if these changes have improved our practice (or not) – Without both affirmation and challenge, we tend to stick with what’s comfortable.

“[A critical friend in self-studies] champions the co-construction of knowledge through collegial inquiry, conversation, and collaborative reflection within a climate of mutual vulnerability and risktaking, trust and support (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1991; Bullough, Knowles, & Crow, 1991)” (Fuentealba & Russel, 2016).

Self-studies using critical friends share often have these focal points:

  • Changes in practice: Replacing old habits with new ones (Schuck and Russel, 2005).
  • Changes in assumptions: Assessing the relationship between what we say and what we do.
  • Exploring values: Considering what is most important to our development.

What might get in the way of a critical friendship?

  • Personal friendship and shared values/assumptions provide a strong beginning, but do not guarantee a strong critical friendship (Schuck and Russell, 2005:119-120)
  • Might there be anything else?

How might we be a good critical friend to others?

  • Be a good listener.
  • Reach out to people to ask “how are you doing?” – Be the one to “ask them out on a critical friend coffee”
  • Part of the process is organic – let it happen!
  • Kicking them in the butt (at strategic times!)
  • Be OK with feedback (both giving and receiving).
  • Be very honest and frank – but consider their feelings.
  • Clarify their needs – sometimes people just want to talk!

To bring our session to a close, I would like to invite you all to take a moment to acknowledge a critical friend in your life. Be it a note, United Way Gold Star, in-person statement of gratitude, or something unique to your friendship. Their value goes well beyond what we can capture in research.


Costa L. Arthur, and Bena Kallick. (1993). “Through the lens of a critical friend.” Educational Leadership, 51:2. 49+.

Fletcher, T., Chroinin, D, N., & O’Sullivan, M. (2016). “Multiple layers of interactivity in self-study of practice research: An empirically-based exploration of methodological issues.” In Dawn Garbett and Alan Ovens (eds.), Enacting self-study research as methodology for professional inquiry (19-26). Herstmonceux, UK: S-STEP.

Fuentealba, R., and Russell, T. “Critical friends using self-study methods to challenge practicum assumptions and practices.” In D. Garbett & A. Ovens (Eds.), Enacting self-study as methodology for professional inquiry. (227-234). Herstmonceux, UK: S-STEP.

Schuck, S. & Russell, T. (2005). “Self-study, critical friendship, and the complexities of teacher education.” In Studying Teacher Education 1(2): 107-121.

W2017 Lunch & Learn #1

This Tuesday, we launched the Lunch & Learns (L&L) for W2017! Over sandwiches, we introduced the RAPID Program’s W2017 Portfolio activity, outlined L&L topics, and dove into our first materials.

In this session, the goal was for RAs to reflect on the RAPID self-studies research question in relation to the guiding questions of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and Educational Development (ED).

To begin, we outlined Dr. Nancy Chick’s four elements of SoTL (Chick, 2015):

  1. Asking meaningful questions about student learning, and about the teaching activities designed to facilitate student learning.
  2. Answering those questions by making relevant student learning visible to gather evidence of thinking and learning, and then systematically analyzing this evidence.
  3. Sharing the results publicly to invite peer review, and to contribute to broader bodies of knowledge on student learning.
  4. Aiming to improve student learning by strengthening the practice of teaching (one’s own and others’).

Then we asked: What kinds of questions might a SoTL approach ask? In Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (2000), Pat Hutchings presents a taxonomy of four types of questions integral to SoTL research:

  • “What works?” questions. Seek “evidence about the effectiveness of different [teaching] approaches” (4).
  • “What is?” questions. Seek to describe (but not evaluate) the effectiveness of different teaching approaches, and how different students learn (4).
  • “Visions of the possible” questions. Ask about goals for teaching and learning that are yet to be met, are new to the faculty member asking the questions, or are innovative to teaching and learning in a specific discipline (5).
  • “Theory building” questions. Ask how to build theoretical frameworks for SoTL similar to frameworks used in other disciplines (5).

From here, we inquired into how Educational development (ED) creates the conditions supportive of learning and teaching (Leibowitz, 2014). We specificially drew on McDonald et al (2016: 8) definition of educational developers as sources of expertise in teaching, student learning and development, and change management on three levels:

  1. Group (faculties, departments, programs, etc.)
  2. Institutional (University of Calgary)
  3. Sector (higher education)

Once again, we asked ourselves what kinds of questions might this work ask. McDonald et al outline three key questions to educational development research. How do I…(adapted from McDonald et al, 2016: 8-9):

  1. …Document, reflect upon, and evaluate the effectiveness and impact of their practice?
  2. …Bridge disciplinary, teaching and learning center, and institutional contexts?
  3. …Trace career paths over time and assess ongoing professional development needs of themselves and others?

Split off into two groups.

  • Think back to the guiding questions for SoTL and ED. They are listed at each whiteboard to help you.
  • Discuss with each other to make note of: As RAs, what concepts, questions, or ideas come to mind as the most interesting to you?

The results were as follows:


  • Sharing results broadly = key
  • Improve student learning – is it really changing or is it still in the system of teaching?
  • Shifting lens from students (or only student learning) to practitioners/practitioners praxis, efficacy, etc.


  • Openness to change in general and reaching at those who might otherwise not come
  • Dissemination of knowledge and building community
  • Evaluation
  • Acting as a bridge


Chick, N. (2015). “A scholarly approach to teaching.” Retrieved from:

Hutchings, P. (2000). “Introduction: Approaching the scholarship of teaching and learning.” In Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 1-10. Stanford: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Leibowitz, B. (2014). “Reflections on academic development: what is in a name?” In International Journal for Academic Development 19:4, 357-360, DOI:10.1080/1360144X.2014.969978

McDonald, J., Kenny, N., Kustra, E., Dawson, D., Iqbal, I., Borin, P., & Chan, J. (2016). Educational Development Guide Series: No. 1. The Educational Developer’s Portfolio. Ottawa, Canada: Educational Developers Caucus.


Adventures on the Research Assistant Ship Part 2

What is your compass?

I would say to anyone in graduate school in Education, “you need to attend at least one TI workshop during your time here” and if you are just visiting campus, “you need to pass through these walls.” During Congress 2016, I attended one such workshop: an introduction to the teaching dossier, presented by Berenson and Kenny. That workshop made me wish that I had paid more attention to some of the activities that I had done with my students over time – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Reflexivity is an important part of growing as an instructor and an academic, something Forbes (2008) refers to as “constructing and reconstructing” the research selves. My understanding of what it means to grow as an instructor has been amplified by my discovery of SoTL at the TI.

To understand SoTL better, not just as an initiate, but also as a prospective practitioner, I had to ask myself, what is my compass? What do I use to navigate the particularities of this kind of scholar-ship? The autoethnographic lens is unavoidable as I am interpreting much of what I am learning through the lens of my foundational education experiences as a student and instructor. This takes me back to one of the questions which framed my contributions to this blog and the theme of foundations: How might understandings of SoTL inform how K-12/secondary school educators prepare students for post-secondary contexts?

Step away from the desk (for a while at least)

While I was participating in a TI activity, during orientation week (September, 2016) and I was listening to other TI staff speak about their work, I had an epiphany about one of the many reasons that SoTL exists. SoTL recognizes that students need instructors who are open to working and re-working pedagogies, because student populations are not homogeneous.

My former port-of-call, the community college

At my former work-station, a community college, some instructors usually teach within several academic programs, from undergraduate, associate degree, post-secondary certification, or teaching certification programs. That organisational structure gives instructors a sense of what students at certificate levels need for readiness in higher education programs. We often discussed what we believed students needed prior to tertiary level education. We didn’t always agree with basic matriculation. Perhaps that is why I am so interested in what SoTL offers K-12/secondary school teaching. The ways that students are learning in higher education are shaped by the foundations and if these foundations are wobbly then it makes learning in higher education more challenging for students and instructors. I am not suggesting that instructors don’t need to put in the work to help students learn in higher education and it should all be done in K-12/secondary school teaching. On the contrary, I think it is a joint effort.

SoTL provides understandings/opportunities to understand and improve teaching and learning, that overlap with some of the goals of these intermediate tertiary education programs at community college-type institutions.


However, the other aspect of SoTL that is not addressed by these intermediate tertiary education programs is the element of “scholarship.” SoTL nudges instructors into being learners and that is an important disposition in formal education contexts. As I sought to understand SoTL better and I looked at the texts which shaped the foundations of the scholarship, Boyer (1990, p. 24) struck a chord with me:

Great teachers create a common ground of intellectual commitment. They stimulate active, not passive, learning and encourage students to be critical, creative thinkers, with the capacity to go on learning after their college days are over. Further, good teaching means that faculty, as scholars, are also learners.

That concept of the teacher as a learner does not imply that instructors should come to teaching, uninformed. Boyer (1990, p. 24) adds further that “well-prepared lectures surely have a place,” but that “teaching, at its best, means not only transmitting knowledge, but transforming and extending it as well.” The implication of his argument is that when instructors are open to learning about learners, they “will be pushed in creative new directions” (Boyer, 1990).

I found that Bernstein (2000, p. 4) reinforces that idea of the instructor as learner, with the assertion that “the goal of SoTL is to have every teacher treat every course as an opportunity to learn how to create better learning environments and generate richer educational experiences.” For me, that hearkens to Dewey’s (1938) recommendations regarding the importance of creating meaningful “experiences” for learning to take place.  When instructors take an active interest in understanding how students are learning, when they recognize that they too have much to learn about their students then it becomes a matter of we are all in this together. Teachers can become allies, not distant authority figures, who are unrelatable to students. So one of the ways that SoTL can inform what K-12 educators are doing – SoTL urges instructors to become learners themselves.

Building a dossier; not research for research’s sake

The concept of the dossier has made me reflect on past practices, past mistakes, and the implications for future teaching practice. That is why I wish I had paid some more attention to the specifics of my practice over the years, and not just gone through the motions of talking about triumphs and failures in water-cooler conversations with my colleagues, or rote professional development day lamentations or applause. Not so much for a portfolio in order to market oneself, but so that I could apply an inquiry approach to my teaching practice, from a consideration of evidence gathered over time. I find a strange convergence between the idea of the dossier and how I see SoTL urging instructors to become scholars. SoTL could invite instructors (secondary school, community college, higher education) to think of teaching practice as a dossier in progress – a professional space where one can harness expertise, articulate what constitutes good practice, but continue to probe and investigate teaching and learning.

SoTL could inform how K-12/secondary school and community college instructors see themselves as scholars and learners, poised to add to the discussions in educational research. No doubt that it is happening already, in blogs and other formal and informal publications. Yet, because SoTL points to research that is not just for the sake of a research portfolio, but evidence about what is actually going on in the “classroom,” SoTL takes time to think about learners’ needs. It opens doors for instructors to build compassion for students, not as a case of, you need to perform, get good grades, graduate, so that the institution has good records that it is meeting its goals, but more of a question of how can I help you to meet your learning goals. Boose & Hutchings (2016, p. 7) convey some of that sentiment when they assert that “the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning asks for a kind of care and attention that requires time.”

The compass

Student success has been my compass. However, I have a tendency to measure that success by student pass rates, on external exams. I should know otherwise, that success is not always about that final exam grade, or the numbers that graduate on time, but sometimes that random email from a past student, reflecting on the strengths of time at the institution, valued even more in retrospect; or the student who continues to be involved in theatrical productions even though he pursued a career far removed from literary studies; or the student who reconnects because she has continued an avid reading life and wants to share something; or ultimately the student who comes back to say, the foundations at the community college, really prepared me for university. These encounters, that fill me with joy, tell me I never want to stop teaching, just as I never want to stop learning, because there is soul in it all.

From where I’m looking, SoTL opens the possibilities for soul teaching and learning.

Disclaimer: The concept of a teaching dossier is more complex than is suggested here. For further information about dossiers see:


Bernstein, D. (2010). Finding your place in the scholarship of teaching and learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 4(2). doi:

Boose, D. L., & Hutchings, P. (2016). The scholarship of teaching and learning as a subversive activity. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 4(1). doi:

Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

Forbes, J. (2008). Reflexivity in professional doctoral research. Reflective Practice, 9(4), 449-460. doi: 10.1080/14623940802431523

Congratulations, Galicia!

A HUGE congratulations to Galicia on completing her guide on cognitive development!! As Nancy stated on the TI email, “[The] idea is that the more we know about how our students think about knowledge (what it is and who has it), the better equipped we are to help them learn, to recognize where and why they struggle, and to identify ways of helping them move through struggle toward greater understanding.  This is the fundamental idea of the research on students’ cognitive development.”

Read the Guide on the TI website here:

Excellent job, Galicia!