The concept of a critical friend has gained a lot of ground in the sector in recent years without there being a clearly acknowledged origin or definitive reference source. There are references to the critical friend being both a person and a process and to the use of the term ‘critical’ meaning key or important (as in challenging a tendency for individuals or organisations to avoid difficult issues) as well as referring to critiquing as a review technique.
The practice is widely used across the UK public sector but, given its obvious alignment with scholarly review processes, it is perhaps unsurprising that it has found favour with many change projects in the education sector.
There are many parallels with the use of mentoring and of coaching as a non-directive approach to support learning by helping learners explore issues and gain a more objective view that can help them find the best solutions for themselves. Coaching puts conversation at the heart of a supportive and developmental process and the coach does not offer advice or make suggestions but facilitates the exploration of issues and possible options in a way that supports autonomous learning.
The practice of appointing a critical friend to work with individual, and groups of, projects has been applied in many Jisc innovation programmes with considerable success. The role of the critical friend in these projects has often gone beyond the facilitation role of a coach to being an independent expert, an advocate for the work of the project, a means of leveraging external networks and a source of suggestions and examples. It goes without saying however that the relationship is unique in each instance and the important thing is for each project and the critical friend to define roles and responsibilities in a way that works for them.
The critical friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.
John MacBeath, Professor of Education Leadership, Cambridge University