I didn’t see that coming – how critical friends can help us improve

Screenshot 2019-02-27 19.43.21The critical friend is a recognised feature of school improvement. Someone knowledgeable who is not blinded by institutional bias can point out weaknesses in plans and identify ingredients likely to increase chances of success. The same rationale applies to individuals too – teachers can improve by asking each other challenging questions and by challenging each other’s questionable assumptions.

In Thinking with Bets Annie Duke calls the process of holding ourselves accountable to other people in an effort to improve our practice as ‘truth-seeking’. In a previous life Duke was a highly successful poker player, and in her book she applies her experiences of learning how to make better poker decisions to learning how to get better at decision-making. She offers a number of salient lessons for teachers keen to learn from past decisions so that they make better ones in the future.

Duke notes that when we seek out others to challenge our thinking we are not only tapping into their expertise, but we are also actively taking steps to overcome aspects of our human fallibility, in particular our self-serving tendencies. We are hardwired to take credit for our successes and to look elsewhere for the causes of our mistakes. Exposing ourselves to the scrutiny of others who might see things differently can help us to examine some of the conclusions we reach, often subconsciously.

In the poker world, the practice of taking credit for successes but passing on mistakes is called resulting. Like teachers, poker players often equate the quality of their decisions to the quality of their outcome. So, a successful hand is the result of good-decision making, whereas an unsuccessful hand is the result of poor decision-making, or worse, simply dismissed as bad luck. Think here of the undue attachment we place on students’ results – good or bad. Not only in these instances is the self-serving bias served, but, more importantly, the chance to learn from the decision is lost too.

The differences between success and failure are often very marginal; a good decision one day can be a terrible one the next! Anyone who has ever taught the same lesson to different classes with very different results will recognise this truism. If only the unsuccessful lesson was taught, we might conclude it was a terrible plan and we may even question our teaching. Conversely, if the lesson went well, we could be tempted to take the credit and share our ‘insights’ with others.  But because we experienced both outcomes, we suspect there are more things going on and beyond our control.

Of course, admitting to our errors of judgement and questioning our decisions is painful. But if we slip into resulting we risk missing valuable opportunities to learn from our choices. In cultures where, as Mary Myatt puts it, there is ‘high challenge, low threat’, this opening up of oneself to the feedback of others is seen as healthy and simply part of what it means to improve. Feedback is limited to specific areas of development, so the scope of inquiry and challenge is understood and respected. In this way teachers support each other to get better and a culture of intelligent improvement is normalised.

There has to be ground rules for such collaboration to work properly, though. These rules provide a degree of accountability but also offer a framework in which pairs or small groups of teachers can work together effectively. The person being developed has to be transparent and open to honest feedback and challenge. They have to take responsibility for pinpointing areas of improvement and to share objectivity details of how their decisions pan out. They also have to try and resist the temptation to interpret events in advance of a meeting. This is hard but important, otherwise the process of resulting has already begun before the issues have been laid bare for joint consideration.

In turn the critical friend or friends have to be equally honest. They have to commit to giving accurate feedback within the agreed scope and to ask suitably challenging questions that probe and get to the heart of any potential issues. It is not easy to tell people things they may not want to hear, but providing this is done fairly and within given parameters, it is far more helpful and kind to be honest in the long run. Being a critical friend is not about picking holes in everything, but neither is it about acting as an echo chamber. A critical friend doesn’t have to know everything, but they need to know how to ask the right questions and to encourage others to be truthful with themselves.

Who we approach to act as a critical friend is important. Whilst it may be tempting to gravitate to a buddy in the department, it may be wiser to choose someone else. In Being and ExistenceSartre explains that when we approach someone for their genuine and ‘objective’ advice, we are in fact enacting decisions that have already been made. We choose what we want to hear. Even though we are clearly not discussing the notion of abandonment in an existential world, the point remains: working with familiar faces may reinforce our current thinking, rather than challenge us to be better.

In Thinking Small, Service and Gallagher, two members of the Behavioural Insights Team, outline some of the psychological explanations for why working with others and sharing our insights with partners or groups can be a powerful way of improving. They cite various examples of how voluntarily holding ourselves accountable to other people helps us to be more committed to change and therefore improvement. Groups like Alcoholic Anonymous and Weight Watchers, for instance, work because everyone in the group sees themselves as effectively accountable to each other. They operate on the basis of trust and shared goals – individuals commit to being open and to the changes that the process of openness teases out.

Seeking out a critical friend is ultimately about taking control over your own development. It is about recognising that we all have limitations and ways of seeing things that are not always accurate or the full picture. It’s about targeting specific areas of our practice and drawing upon the experience and perceptions of other people to help us improve them. It is not an exercise in self-flagellation; teaching is tough enough and there is always more that can be done. The point is not whether we can improve or not, but how can we bring about sustained improvement in a sustainable way.

Useful questions and prompts to critical discussions

Learner

  • X happened the other day when I did Y. What do you think?
  • What do you think about me trying X next lesson?
  • Could you look through Y and tell me whether you think it addresses Z?
  • Have you ever experienced X in a lesson? How did you deal with it?
  • Do you think that over the coming weeks X would be a good strategy for dealing with Y?
  • During the lesson I noticed X, Y and Z – what do you think they might mean?
  • Student X and Y do not seem to understand Z. How would you help them?
  • My reasons for X are Y and Z. Do you think these are the right reasons?

Critical friend

  • What were you feeling at this point? How might these feelings have affected your decisions?
  • What is the evidence for your feelings? Might that evidence offer a different explanation?
  • Have you considered Y and Z?
  • What was the outcome of the other students?
  • What might be the consequence of X?
  • Talk me through your decision-making process.
  • If Y happened instead of X, would you still feel the same way? What would be different?
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