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Educator Effectiveness

February 2020


What research is available on Critical Friends Groups, a specific model of teacher professional learning?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on Critical Friends Groups, a specific model of teacher professional learning. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Burke, W., Marx, G. E., & Berry, J. E. (2010). Maintaining, reframing, and disrupting traditional expectations and outcomes for professional development with Critical Friends Groups. The Teacher Educator, 46(1), 32–52. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Districts across the country are currently adopting models of professional learning communities (PLCs) as a means for improving teachers’ instructional practice and student achievement. This evaluation research case study shares the 3-year history, development, and challenges of a district-wide implementation of Critical Friends Groups (CFGs), a particular format for PLCs. Using Argyris and Schon’s (1974) theories of action framework, the authors identify teachers’ espoused theories about a contextually situated CFG initiative and examine teachers’ conceptualizations about the ways in which their work influences the progression and effectiveness of this professional development model. Findings from this study suggest that the degree to which the CFG implementation model is integrated with other school improvement initiatives, specifically those that address teachers’ professional development, dramatically influences how key stakeholders conceptualize and draw the necessary connections to their roles in improving instructional practice and addressing student achievement and learning.”

Carlson, J. R. (2019). “How am I going to handle the situation?” The role(s) of reflective practice and critical friend groups in secondary teacher education. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(1), n1. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This qualitative study was designed as a single-case study of a small, public, teacher education program in the Midwest. The author conducted a study on the perceived role of a ‘critical friends group’ (CFG) in the development of beginning secondary teacher candidates’ understandings and practices of reflective practice. Three main types of data, including course assignments, participant interviews, and observations were collected and analyzed. Findings from three (3) focal participants reveal characteristics of reflective teaching from the reviewed literature observed within and across the cases examined here. The perceived importance of the CFG varied on a case-by-case basis, with some experiencing the CFG as friendly, but mostly uncritical, and others remaining indifferent to the arrangement. Additionally, the author elaborates on three broad lessons learned and reinforced through the investigation into the local, including: 1) Critical reflection can and does occur in beginning TCs’ practice, 2) CFGs led to informative learning, but not transformative learning, and 3) Designating a group ‘critical friends’ is neither a guarantee of critical thinking or friendship.”

Curry, M. W. (2008). Critical Friends Groups: The possibilities and limitations embedded in teacher professional communities aimed at instructional improvement and school reform. Teachers College Record, 110(4), 733–774. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Background/Context: This study builds upon research on teacher professional communities and high school restructuring reforms. It employs a conceptual framework that draws upon theories of ‘community of practice’ and ‘community of learners.’ Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study analyzes how teachers’ professional inquiry communities at the high school level constitute a resource for school reform and instructional improvement. Setting: This research focused on a reforming, comprehensive urban public high school with site-based management. Population/Participants/ Subjects: This study investigates the practices of six school-based oral inquiry groups known as Critical Friends Groups (CFGs), which were selected as cases of mature professional communities. Twenty-five teachers and administrators participated as informants. Research Design: This research involved a video-based, qualitative case study. Data Collection and Analysis: Data included observations of CFG meetings, interviews with teachers and administrators, and document collection. Analysis entailed coding with qualitative software, development of analytic cross-CFG meta-matrices, discourse analytic techniques, and joint viewing of video records with informants. Findings/Results: The author explores four particular design features of CFGs—their diverse menu of activities, their decentralized structure, their interdisciplinary membership, and their reliance on structured conversation tools called ‘protocols’—showing how these features carry within them endemic tensions that compel these professional communities to negotiate a complicated set of professional development choices. Conclusions/Recommendations: The findings demonstrate how the enactment of design choices holds particular consequences for the nature and quality of teacher learning and school improvement. Although CFGs enhanced teachers’ collegial relationships, their awareness of research-based practices and reforms, their schoolwide knowledge, and their capacity to undertake instructional improvement, these professional communities offered an inevitably partial combination of supports for teacher professional development. In particular, CFGs exerted minimal influence on teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge. CFGs would benefit from regular and systematic metacognitive and process-oriented reflections to identify how their collaborative practices might optimally advance their ‘bottom line’ goal of improving teacher practice to increase student achievement. Additionally, high schools might pursue multiple and complementary CFG-like professional development opportunities in subject matter departments and interdisciplinary grade-level academy teams.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Fahey, K. M. (2011). Still learning about leading: A leadership Critical Friends Group. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 6(1), 1–35. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This case study examines how a group of early career school leaders used a particular model of professional learning, the Critical Friends Group (The School Reform Initiative, 2010), to continue to learn about leading. More specifically, this study offers an in-depth look at how the use of a structured conversation or protocol, designed to build collaborative professional communities in schools, supported the learning of these principals. The study describes the context in which the Critical Friends Group (CFG) occurred and then considers (a) how the group used a CFG protocol to collaboratively learn about an ongoing leadership dilemma and (b) how participation in this collaborative learning model informed the members’ leadership practice. The intervention described in this paper was originally only intended as a short term support for aspiring leaders who were seeking their first administrative positions. It has grown into something more enduring. This case study offers a step in understanding a complicated, multi-year process of leadership development.”

Fahey, K., & Ippolito, J. (2015). Variations on a theme: As needs change, new models of Critical Friends Groups emerge. Journal of Staff Development, 36(4), 48–52. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Critical Friends Group, a highly articulated model of professional learning, posits that, in order for teachers to learn together in ways that change their practice, the content and nature of their conversations must change (National School Reform Faculty, 2012). The content needs to change from externally driven agendas that address (in a cursory way) their most immediate problems to sustained and rigorous examination of student work, their own teaching practices, and the fundamental assumptions that guide their work. Not only what teachers talk about, but also how teachers talk needs to change. What’s more, the Critical Friends Group model holds that, for adults to do the challenging learning necessary to transform schools, they need to learn to be reflective, expose and explore fundamental assumptions, give and get feedback, and hold each other accountable for implementing what they have learned. However, talking and learning in this way often goes very much against the grain of how schools typically operate. While the Critical Friends Group model has been part of the professional development landscape for years, this article shares new iterations that point to the continued power, versatility, and utility of Critical Friends Groups balancing the tension between collaborative and individual adult learning, which is particularly difficult in an era of increased standardization and accountability.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Kuh, L. P. (2016). Teachers talking about teaching and school: Collaboration and reflective practice via Critical Friends Groups. Teachers and Teaching, 22(3), 293–314. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Reflective practice has potentially positive effects on an organization’s capacity to focus on student learning and teaching practices. In an effort to comply with policy and provide teachers with opportunities to reflect on their practice, districts, schools, and teachers have turned to various models that feature collaborative experiences. One such model is the Critical Friends Group (CFG), focusing on the improvement of practice and learning experiences for children, using protocol-driven structured conversations. This article examines the mechanisms that support and sustain reflective practice within a community of practice and utilizes Wenger’s three dimensions of practice—mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire. The study followed a CFG in an elementary school using ethnographic case study methods to conduct a close examination of CFG meetings, protocol use, and analysis of teacher interviews. The propensity to ‘look out’ at school-wide issues vs. looking in at classroom practices, perceptions about feedback on classroom practice, and using protocols to guide conversation emerged from the data as prominent mechanisms in communities of practice. CFG facilitators and coaches, as well as participants must be explicit about the purposes of their work and protocol use alone does not ensure a focus on student learning and teaching practices.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Smith, D., Wilson, B., & Corbett, D. (2009). Moving beyond talk. Educational Leadership, 66(5), 20–25. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “It’s easy for professional learning communities to become stalled at the stage of collegial discussions about improving teaching practice. The authors explore what spurs communities to progress beyond talk to collective action that brings change. Smith, Wilson, and Corbett participated in the creation of teacher learning communities in urban school districts in New Jersey as part of a five-year project that included facilitator trainings by the National School Reform Faculty. Through observations and interviews with participating teachers, they identified six conditions that led to deeper learning and successful collaboration in these learning communities: a pre-existing supportive culture, time to meet, satisfying processes, voluntary participation, support from principals, and a cadre of trained facilitators.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “critical friends group”

  • “national school reform faculty”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-;experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.