Author Archives: Rachel Braun

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.


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!


Lunch & Learn #3: Navigating Your Work at the TI

At the TI Research Associate Program’s third Lunch & Learn, we discussed navigating work at the TI. Our session began by acknowledging that regardless of our roles, we all operate within the context of the TI as a workplace. Therefore, we all: 1) contribute to achieving the TI’s overall vision “to lead a community of innovation, research and excellence in post-secondary teaching and learning” (Taylor Institute, 2015:7); 2) operate using the TI’s guiding principles (transparency, flexibility, and collaboration); and 3) support the TI’s educational development and scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) initiatives while reflecting on our practices with a commitment to continuous improvement.

To model the TI’s message of reflection, I will use the example I outlined during our session, Rolfe’s framework for reflective practice (Rolfe, Freshwater, & Jasper, 2001):

Level 1: “What?”

  • What happened? We had a lot of material to cover! We followed-up on the Academic Blogging Roundtable, voiced a call-out for TA Orientation (Fall 2016) volunteers, contextualized the TI as our workplace, outlined strategies for working with educational development and SoTL research, experimented with Bernice’s project management task sheet on Excel, and considered the gains of cultivating a reflective practice in your role(s).
  • As a facilitator, what was I trying to achieve? What did I expect? I went into the session knowing that many of the terms I was going to use are regularly reflected on and problematized by educational development and SoTL practitioners (especially by those who  coined the terms/concepts!) At the beginning of our session, I communicated this with the RAs with the intention of putting our subject (the TI as a workplace) to the center or our attention and discussion. This approach was modeled off of Parker Palmer’s “The Community of Truth” (Palmer, 1998: 102), as kindly recommended to me by one of our RAs doing a PhD in Education. To provide us some additional structure, each section had five elements: 1) “Who does [SoTL]?”; 2) “How do they do [SoTL] and what questions do they ask of themselves and their work?”; 3) “What kinds of resources and expertise does the TI offer?”; 4) “What are important external resources?”; 5) a discussion question.
  • What was our response? We had a very detailed discussion! As our subject became more nuanced and complex, so did the RAs contributions.

Level 2: “So what?”

  • Why does it matter? I hope this session made the structure, organization, and operations of the TI more discernible for the RAs. All the concentration and thought RAs put into the session represent their deep commitment to their work and learning. As we learn more about what we do in our work role(s), we are also learning about how we work and why certain topics/questions/activities are so important to us. I hope that as we continue to discover more about teaching and learning in higher education in our work at the TI, such pieces will continue to take shape in our aspirations for ourselves and higher education more broadly.

Level 3: “Now What?”

  • What am I going to do from now on? If I could do this session again, I would: 1) conduct it earlier in the Program curriculum than L&L #3; 2) reuse Palmer’s approach; 3) focus the content on educational development/SoTL work and practicing reflection, and assign a different L&L to project management/research tools; 4) invite TI staff/faculty member to be a guest speaker on one of the topics.


Educational Development Unit. (2015). Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, Educational Development Unit: Strategic Plan, 2015-2018. Calgary, AB.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D., & Jasper, M. (2001). Critical reflection for nursing and the helping professions: A user’s guide. New York: Palgrave MacMillian.

Lunch & Learn #2: Mapping RA Development



This was the first (and messiest) whiteboard we created together. All misspellings are mine.

On July 12, our Lunch & Learn focused on mapping RA’s development – the knowledge, skills, or abilities transferable across academic and workplace contexts that RAs bring to and gain from their roles. After a brief overview of the definitions and examples from the tip-sheet, Identifying RA Knowledge Skills Abilities, we applied our reflective and critical efforts to this Worksheet – Mapping Your Development. However, after 10 minutes it was clear that RAs wanted to push the content and processes of this material even further. As everyone shared many questions and anecdotes, I took a whiteboard and mapped out what the landscape of “transferable” knowledge/skills/abilities might look like as we were talking. It was messy and scribbly process, but Tiffany was a great sport as we questioned, critiqued, unpacked, and evaluated her graduate and RA work as our common example! After reviewing our work, everyone grabbed their own whiteboards and engaged in the exercise for themselves. I went around the room offering any help I could, and made note of the guiding questions each RA found helpful for in their individual positions. In the last 15 minutes, everyone shared their work with the group, gave each other feedback on other ways to think about their points, or mentioned a knowledge, skill, or ability they had forgotten to write down.

Our Final Mapping Process

The final product of our mapping process was as follows:

  1. Draw a line across the middle of the whiteboard. Next, draw a large square in the middle of that line.
  2. Label the top half of the whiteboard “Grad school” or “Academics”, and the bottom half “RA” or “TI”. In the top right-hand corner, draw a box labeled “No”. This section helps you distinguish what you are doing from what you are not, e.g.: one RA is looking at theories of gender representation using the works of Erving Goffmann, but is not looking at the works of Judith Butler. Writing “Butler” in the “No” section therefore prompted them to think about what makes Goffmann ideal for their project.
  3. Use the following guiding questions to fill in your “Academics and “RA” sections: What am I studying and working on now? What theories and methods am I using to collect, organize, and analyze data? Where (and when) does the data come from? Which courses have been the most exciting for me? If I was pursue an MA or PhD, what would I study? Further questions and insights will arise in this process. The most important thing is that you write down all points that come to mind even if they don’t make sense or seem to connect to anything else. Add or edit anything in the “No” section as you go.
  4. Step back from the board, look at everything you have written, and ask yourself the following guiding questions: What stands out as most important? What are common titles, verbs, or pursuits? Write all common points in the center box, and reflect on it as a small representation of your many transferable knowledge, skills, and abilities in your current academic and RA roles.


The first surprise was that this Lunch & Learn took an intense and exciting direction I had not planned. However, I was so thrilled at the hard work the RAs put into their tasks that I’m grateful for the detour. They were completely fearless, bold, and open!

Individual RAs also reported surprises regarding how they think about their work, e.g:

  • One RA realized she was a coach (in interest and in job title) in both her academic program and RA positions
  • One RA reflected on his interests in cosmology as abstractly reminiscent of institutional organization and campus outreach programs
  • One RA was excited to see his MA research align with his ongoing interests in educational development and user experiences of educational technology