Posted by: Lena B. | December 10, 2010

Fostering Development of Expertise through Critical Friends Group (CFG)

By Nazli Dirim

Kyriacou (1998) in his book called Essential teaching skills emphasizes how “the art of successful teaching” is related to “developing decision-making skills and action skills” (p.1). He lists the three key characteristics of the nature of teaching skills as follows:

  1. They involve purposeful and goal-directed behaviour.
  2. Their level of expertise is evidenced by the display of precision, smoothness and sensitivity to context.
  3. They can be improved by training and practice (p.2).

Among the key characteristics mentioned above, the third item particularly captures my attention.  The concept of improvement through training and practice is essential and might encourage teachers to take a step forward for their professional development. I am an advocate of the idea of continuous engagement in the development of expertise in the field of teaching. As teachers, we play important roles in the learning outcomes of our students and therefore, we need frequent training and practice. In addition, this continuous interest in professional development through training and practice is likely to improve the quality of education in our institutions.

The need for further professional growth or development of expertise in teaching can be explained by the concept of “flow” I experience when I teach. The term introduced by Csikszentmihalyi refers to “an experience of sustained pleasure that he found to be reported by artists of all kinds, athletes, scientists, mountain climbers and many others, when they were absorbed in an activity…” (as cited in Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993,  p.103).  Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) point out the resemblance of flow with the process of expertise in their book called Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. The experience of flow is likely to encourage us to be more active and determined to take the initiative to continuously raise the quality in our teaching.

This paper focuses on fostering development of expertise through Critical Friends Group (CFG). The first part of the paper introduces the definition and characteristics of expertise and experts, skill acquisition and development of expertise. The second part focuses on CFG and a small project I conducted using this model at the Language Centre of the University of Turku where I am currently working as a visiting language instructor.

Definition of expertise and expert

In the cognitive sciences, the concept of expertise is defined as “a well-organized body of accessible and useful domain-specific knowledge, which an agent draws upon and adds to, in effectively solving complex problems (Chi et al. 1982; Ericsson & Lehmann 1996; Ericsson & Smith 1991; Glaser & Chi 1988 studies cited in Hakkarainen, Palonen, Paavola & Lehtinen, 2004, p.17). Bransford, Brown and Cocking (1999) define the same concept as being “able to think effectively about problems” in particular domains (p.19). Following their definition of expertise, it is essential at this point to understand who they consider as experts. Bransford et al. (1999) identify experts as the ones who “have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment” (p.19). Tsui (2003) who carried out a study on expertise in teaching sheds a light on the concept and elaborates on identification of expert teachers and the development of expertise. In her description of experts, Tsui (2003:1) states:

When we say people are experts in their profession, we expect them to possess certain qualities, such as being very knowledgeable in their field; being able to engage in skilful practice; and being able to make accurate diagnoses, insightful analyses, and the right decisions, often within a very short period of time.

Johnson (2010) who also focuses on the domain of teaching defines an expert “as someone who is particularly skilled in a specific area, and the study of expertise looks at what characteristics experts possess, what procedures they follow, and how they differ from non experts” (p.217).

However, when it comes to giving a definition of expertise and experts in the field of teaching, one must be careful as the definitions of these concepts are rather relative. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) emphasize the difficulty of identifying expert teachers by indicating “everyone can and does teach in some fashion” (p.6).  Berliner (2001) also draws our attention to the difficulty on the definition of expert teachers due to the “lack of objective criteria” and the possibility of several factors affecting teachers’ performances such as the conditions of the workplace.

Another key issue is the importance of understanding cultural differences. A teacher who may be thought as an expert in one culture may not be appreciated in another one. Alexander’s (2001) research elaborates on this issue and gives a better picture on how perceptions change from culture to culture. Berliner (2001) also supports the significance of taking the cultural differences into consideration when identifying expert teachers. Tsui (2003) too, shares the same concern on how cultural differences may affect what is described as expertise and expert teachers. Rich (1993) reminds us that “[n]ot all expert teachers are cut from the same cloth” (p.146). He thinks some teachers may easily shift their pedagogical expertise to novel situations and environments and adapt quickly whereas some others may not be so comfortable with the change.

Characteristics of expertise and expertise

In the previous section, various definitions of expertise and experts from the well-known researchers related to the field were introduced. To further clarify the concept, this section will first give a general introduction regarding the attributes of expertise and experts and then focus on the field of teaching.

Understanding the concept of expertise is crucial because it gives us insights and creates awareness on how experts think and go through the process when they solve problems. Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) refer to this stage as the “Hamlet model of decision-making – the detached, deliberative and sometimes agonizing selection among alternatives – is the only one recognized in much of the academic literature on the psychology of choice” (p.28). However, Johnson (2005) refutes Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) and argues that ‘agonising selection among alternatives’ is a trait of non-experts. Tsui (2003) in her study, stresses on the fact that expertise has attracted the attention of researchers’ from the field of education and focuses on the concept of expertise in the domain of teaching and identifies the characteristics of expert teachers. She points out that some teachers can reach their students’ minds and predict the problems they may have. Such teachers know how to maintain their students’ attention. Tsui (2003) also states that these teachers have a way of teaching which seems effortless and fluid which comes as automatic due to their experiences.

Based on the research on expertise in teaching, Berliner (2001:472) lists the “validated prototypical set of features of expert teachers”.

  • expert teachers excel mainly in their own domain and in particular contexts;
  • expert teachers develop automaticity for the repetitive operations that are needed to accomplish their goals;
  • expert teachers are more opportunistic and flexible in their teaching than are novices;
  • expert teachers are more sensitive to the task demands and social situations surrounding them when solving problems;
  • expert teachers represent problems in qualitatively different ways than do novices;
  • expert teachers have faster and more accurate pattern recognition capabilities;
  • expert teachers perceive more meaningful patterns in the domain in which they are experienced; and
  • expert teachers may begin to solve problems slower, but they bring richer and more personal sources of information to bear on the problems that they are trying to solve.

Skill acquisition and development of expertise

“Probably no one is naïve enough to believe that there could be some general method, encapsulated in a book with a money-back guarantee, which would enable one to by-pass novicehood in any chosen field and go directly to being an expert”  (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993, p.16). I think this sentence expresses straightforwardly the difficulty of going through the process of expertise. Amirault and Branson (2006) in The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance introduce the short history of theories and models in the field of educators and expertise and how the acquisition of expertise became a theme of interest particularly among cognitive psychologists, whose attempt was finding out the reasons for better human performance. Ericsson (2006) emphasizes the term “deliberate practice” which requires learner’s full attention in order to surpass the boundaries and reach the defined goal. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) emphasize that Dreyfus and Dreyfus “provide the most thoughtful elaboration of the conventional view, [and] identify five stages of progress toward expertise (p.17). “As human beings acquire a skill through instruction and experience, they do not appear to leap suddenly from rule-guided ‘knowing that’ to experience based ‘know how” (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986: p.19).  Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) studied how people in different domains including adult learners of a second language acquire the necessary skills and observed a common pattern in all cases which they call the five stages of skill acquisition: Novice, advanced beginner, competence, proficiency and expertise. Since developing one’s skills takes time and commitment, it is essential at this point to consider how one can improve his/her skills using certain models. As teachers, we are fortunate because we work with people who we can cooperate with and learn from. Bowman and McCormick (as cited in Vo & Nguyen, 2010, 207) “content that collaboration among teachers is a valued and often necessary factor for effective schooling because it fosters expert instruction”.

Critical Friends Group (CFG)

“The Critical Friends Group (CFG) brings together teachers at all levels of experience to prompt and support one another’s professional growth” (Franzak, 2002:259).

Commonly used protocols involve looking at student work in which a teacher brings a sample of student work and presents the work along with a focusing question. Members of the group then take turns describing and hypothesizing about the work while the presenting teacher takes notes. After several rounds of comments, the presenting teacher shares what she found useful in the conversation. Then the group debriefs the entire process. Protocols used for peer observation involve two teachers using a predetermined format and focus for observing each other’s teaching. Problem-solving protocols open with the presenter asking a question about a specific dilemma. Participants then ask probing questions and discuss the problem among themselves while the presenter takes notes until the discussion is finished,  at which point the presenter shares what she heard that was useful or important for her dilemma. All CFG protocols use specific turn-taking rules, and the feedback given is observational, not judgmental. (Franzak, 2002:261)

Bambino (2002) expresses how the lessons in a coaches’ training program for building collaboration and reflection among colleagues —a Critical Friends Group (CFG) have changed her life.  She further explains that CFG focuses on several protocols which may help teachers to collaborate and reflect in order to improve both the student outcomes and the teachers’ work. Bambino (2002) highlights the concept as “critical” because educators are faced with challenges in order to improve the way they teach.  However, she also indicates that educators should not be threatened when they are involved in such a group. Andreu, Canos, de Juana, Manresa, Rienda and Tari  (2003) in their project refer to the same tool which Costa and Kallick describe “as an assessment [which] requires someone who will provide new lenses through which learners can refocus on their work” (as cited in Andreu et al., 2003:32). Andreu et al. (2003) formed a group of six lecturers from the Department of Business Management. As the members of the group, they went through the process of identifying their strengths and weaknesses in terms of their teaching. The idea was to focus on the teacher’s work in order to improve students’ learning. Vo and Nguyen (2010) also point out the positive effect of CFG on teacher’s professional development and student outcomes. In their pilot research Vo and Nguyen (2010) aimed to find out the experiences and reflections of a group of EFL teachers in Vietnam during their involvement in a CFG.

Franzak (2002), Bambino (2002), Andreu et al. (2003), Vo and Nguyen (2010) indicate positive findings on CFG. However, there are varying opinions on the number of people that will form CFG. Moreover, different authors in the field suggest various ideas on how often and how long the meetings should be. According to Franzak (2002) CFG should consist of 10 to 12 teachers who meet for at least two hours a month whereas Andreu et al. (2003) suggest a smaller group size which is about four to ten members who meet periodically.  At this point, I do not think the number of members is an issue as long as they are willing to collaborate and work towards the philosophy of the CFG.

The project

In one of the staff meetings we have had this semestre at my current institution; our new director introduced the objectives and strategies of the Language Centre both for the current and coming academic years. One of the points he mentioned was “Peer observation” which reminded me of CFG. Personally, I was very enthusiastic about the possibility of being involved in such a project. Right after the staff meeting, a colleague and I had a conversation and agreed on observing each other’s classes in order to see if we could come up with some reflections and see the feasibility of the observations. At the beginning of our mini project my colleague and I had a pre-observation meeting where we discussed the process and the criteria. We have agreed to use the protocol for peer observation. Data were collected through classroom observations. I observed four of his classes (each lasting two hours). Post-observation meetings were conducted after each class. During these meetings, we focused on the following items based on my observations:

  • Selection and use of instructional materials
  • Educational climate for learning
  • Variety of instructional activities
  • Instructional methods
  • Student participation
  • Teacher’s responsiveness to student participation

In pre-and post-observation meetings, both my colleague and I had a relaxed attitude and there were friendly exchanges. My colleague was very cooperative and open-minded and positive about being a part of the observation. His reflections on the experience were sincere and positive.

As the observer, I enjoyed CFG experience, learned new instructional techniques and had a chance to exchange professional ideas.


CFG may help build collaboration among colleagues, create opportunities to learn from one another, increase motivation, and eventually lead to better student outcomes. Andreu et al. (2003) highlight the necessity of getting teachers at universities to work on their professional development. They are aware that not all teachers can be expected to participate in such a program however; still it may be possible to inspire a majority of them to be involved in such a group in order to improve their teaching. They also strongly suggest that universities integrate these programs in their quality plans.

You might have begun your teaching career recently or been teaching for years. If your goal is to improve the quality of your teaching, develop your expertise and help your students achieve better learning outcomes, you may want to consider initiating or joining a Critical Friends Group in your institutions.



Alexander, R. (2001). Culture and pedagogy: International comparisons in primary education, Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Amirault, R. J. & Branson, R. K. (2006) Educators and expertise: A brief history of theories and models. In K. A.Ericsson et al., (Eds.) The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert   performance. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 6986.

Andreu, R., Canos, L., de Juana, S., Manresa, E., Rienda, L. & Tari, J. J. (2003). Critical friends: A tool for quality improvement in universities. Quality Assurance in Education, 11(1), 31-6.

Bambino, D. (2002). Critical friends. Redesigning professional development, 59(6), 25-27. Retrived from

Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise, Chicago IL: Open Court.

Berliner, D. C. (2001). Learning about and learning from expert teachers. International Journal of Educational Research, 35, 463-482.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Dreyfus, H. L., & Dreyfus, S. E. (1986). Mind over machine. The power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. New York: The Free Press.

Ericsson, K. A. (2006). The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance. In K. A.Ericsson et al., (Eds.) The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 683-703

Franzak, J. K. (2002). Developing a teacher identity: The impact of critical friends practice on the student teacher. English Education, 34(4), 256-61.

Hakkarainen, K., Palonen, T., Paavola, S. & Lehtinen, E. (2004). Communities of networked expertise: Professional and educational perspectives. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Johnson, K. (2010). Expertise in language learning and teaching. ELT Journal, 64(2), 217-218.

Johnson, K. (Ed.) (2005). Expertise in second language learning and teaching. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kyriacous, C. (1998). Essential teaching skills. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Rich, Y. (1993). Stability and change in teacher expertise. Teaching and Teacher Education 9(2), 137-146.

Tsui, A.B.M. (2003). Understanding expertise in teaching: Case studies of EFL teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vo, L. T. & Nguyen, H. T. M. (2010). Critical friends group for EFL teacher professional development. ELT Journal, 64(2), 205-213.



  1. wow! super!

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