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


  • 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?

Can Checklists Improve Teacher Development?

Screenshot 2016-01-31 13.31.04I am lucky enough to observe lessons. I get to see the full gamut of age and experience, from trainees and NQTs to more experienced and senior colleagues. I am under no illusions that observing others teach is both a great privilege and a great responsibility – deciding upon what and how to feedback is, I think, one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of my role in leading on teaching and learning and professional development. If I’m honest, in the past I perhaps haven’t always got this right!

Any feedback I now give when I observe, which I don’t always offer if I don’t think I have anything constructive to add, I try to make tentative and suggestive – you might like to consider X or try Y, which may lead to Z. And so on. I try to be aware of my own biases and so instead pose questions to encourage teachers to think about different possibilities, and where alternatives (that are not always necessarily any better) may lead.

The purpose of these observations is to gauge the quality of teaching across the school. It is never about the individual teacher or the individual lesson, but rather about reaching some kind of understanding of the typical learning experience for students. Obviously, this is part of an overall picture, which is largely driven by summative overviews by heads of departments, subject specialists who work with their colleagues every day. There’s also triangulation against department-led learning reviews, something I wrote about here, and a cross reference with student outcome data over time, which is in itself problematic.

This post is not about using lesson observation for evaluation. The flaws in appraising teacher quality this way are widely recognised, though perhaps not always universally applied. This post is more about thinking through how observation can be used as a tool for highly targeted professional development. Whilst our long-term goal for observation is along the lines of the Leverage Coaching model outlined here by Harry Fletcher Wood – a subject-based approach in which colleagues focus on micro improvements to their subject pedagogy – there will still be a need for tightly focused observation protocols to support specific aspects of pedagogy.

For quite some time I have been fascinated by the idea of checklists as articulated by Atul Gawande, particularly how they might work to help improve teacher performance in the form I described earlier. I am not referring to the arbitrary tick-box guff that characterised the worst excesses of the Ofsted era, where schools worked backwards from outstanding criteria. This was about accountability and fear. What I am interested in is how simple checklists, of the kind used in the aviation and, more recently, medical professions can support targeted forms of individual development: professional learning that is built upon trust and transparency rather than on throttling growth.

Now, I realise there is a great deal of difference between the worlds of aviation and medicine and the world of education. Unlike passengers on a plane or patients in a hospital, students are not going to die as a result of our errors and mistakes. They may not always make the right kind of ‘progress’ or even particularly like our lessons, but they will always go home at the end of the day, and almost always that bit wiser, that bit more knowledgeable. Boredom, or missing out on a grade by a few UMS marks, is just not the same as having the wrong limb operated on or crash landing into the sea! We can always do our jobs better, but we do a pretty good job nonetheless.

But if we put aside the obvious life and death difference, we start to see that there are some important similarities between these professions. I am guessing that Harry’s new book on the subject of the application of checklists in education will make a much more elegant and informative argument than I can here, so for now all I want to say is that what links the pilot to the surgeon to the teacher is the way in which each of these jobs involves dealing with extreme complexity and that each professional must make hundreds of decisions every day, many of which are responsive and in the moment.

In my observations I see the myriad of decisions that teachers make each and every lesson. Where to stand? What to say? Who to ask a question? When to collect in homework? How to deal with a tricky situation? These are the just some of the many instructional and behavioural choices that we make all the time. Given the sheer complexity of the classroom, we are likely to make mistakes along the way – forget what we wanted to say, miss out part an important part of an explanation or do that thing we know always makes a situation worse.

Here are just some of the things that I have seen teachers do, many of which I frequently do myself, even though I consciously aware of their potentially negative impact:

  • Not giving a student time to respond to a question
  • Letting a student opt out of answering a question
  • Repeating back to a student the very answer they have just given
  • Not making it clear to students what they are required to do
  • Talking over students as they are trying to write / make / think
  • Reading every word from a PowerPoint slide
  • Putting far too much on a PowerPoint slide
  • Using a PowerPoint slide when there really is no need
  • Using complex vocabulary that students don’t understand
  • Using simplistic vocabulary that is not helping students to understand
  • Going to help students immediately after setting up a task
  • Spending time on a task when students don’t have the requisite knowledge
  • Having a one to one conversation with a student in front of the class
  • Using a coloured board pen that the students cannot actually read
  • Going through every answer when only one or two questions caused a problem

Could a series of well put together checklists help to guard against some of these simple mistakes, whether acting as prompts at the planning stage or as useful aid memoirs during the lesson when the complexity of the classroom leads us to make silly mistakes? My contention is that they probably can, and furthermore that a focused set of checklists for different aspects of teaching and classroom practice could provide well focused observation prompts for targeted coaching. It seems to me eminently possible that a school can agree upon some essential components of certain facets of great teaching – explanation, modelling, etc. – and use these to help develop staff.

It is with this intention that I have recently started working with a group of second year teachers. The plan is to work with them over a number of weeks to design some prototype checklists for possible use later on across the school. We will undertake some reading around key areas, and then meet as a group to share our insights, such as what makes for a great explanation, or what do we know is likely to work when modelling work with our students. From these discussions we will design draft checklists that we will then test in the field and refine as a consequence of our experiences.

Once we have a few of these checklists and we get a sense of whether they actually work, we will then seek to share them more widely across the school. Over time I think that this approach could help to raise understanding of effective pedagogy, as well as provide a useful, largely objective tool to aid teacher development. An individual can identify an area they would like to improve upon, and then use the checklist to pinpoint specific areas of feedback they would like to receive from a second pair of eyes. By narrowing down the focus to these targeted areas, the observer can make notes on specific aspects of the teacher’s actions or the learners’ behaviours. The checklist provides the common ground between the two, which can then be the driver for other forms of CPD and resourcing.

Below is a draft of our first focused observation checklist, which relates to effective teacher explanations. It unashamedly borrows from the relevant chapter of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s great book, Making Every Lesson Count, as well other resources that have helped shape our school’s understanding of the ingredients for good explanations. I stress: this is not intended as a set of prescriptions, but rather as a set of prompts for building up levels of expertise in a given area of pedagogy. Nick Rose has designed similar tools to support teacher development here, again looking at what kind of observation protocols can help improve teacher development and mitigate against some of the issues surrounding observer bias and potentially overwhelming classroom complexity.

Screenshot 2016-01-31 13.31.38

Anyway, as ever, I am interested in any thoughts or feedback that I can use to improve upon this idea further. It is not the endpoint, but rather the beginning of what I think could be something our teachers find extremely helpful. I had intended to wait for the publication of Harry’s book before I posted, as I suspect that he will offer a range of excellent ideas that will force me to go back to the drawing board. Oh, well!

Thanks for reading.