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.

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