A critical friend is typically a colleague or other educational professional, such as a school coach, who is committed to helping an educator or school improve. A critical friend is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In short, a critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues.
In education, the term critical friend was introduced in 1994 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which began advocating a teacher-led approach to professional development called critical friends groups or professional learning communities—groups of educators who meet regularly, engage in structured professional discussions, and work collaboratively to improve their school or teaching skills. (It should be noted that some educators may not consider critical friends groups and professional learning communities to be strictly synonymous, and they may define both the terms and purpose of the strategies differently.) The National School Reform Faculty is widely considered to have popularized the term critical friends group.
The term critical friend, however, is also used more broadly outside of professional learning groups. The role of a critical friend is, generally speaking, based on the recognition that both professional and organizational improvement can be impeded when people and groups avoid facing hard truths, emotionally difficult subjects, and frank assessments of their own performance. At the same time, the critical-friend role is also based on the recognition that people will tend to continue avoiding hard truths, emotional subjects, and frank assessments of performance if these issues are not handled constructively, supportively, and professionally. For these reasons, critical friends—whether they are colleagues in a school or outside professionals—are believed to play a valuable role in helping educators improve their school or their teaching.
For a related discussion, see school coach.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.