Critical Friends Groups: The Possibilities and Limitations Embedded in Teacher Professional Communities Aimed at Instructional Improvement and School Reform
by Marnie Willis Curry — 2008
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.
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