Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Please Write: Using Critical Friend Letter Writing in Teacher Research

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Please Write: Using Critical Friend Letter Writing in Teacher Research

Article excerpt

Dialogue, collaboration, and critique are important components used in the professional development of teachers and particularly the sharing of writings and ideas among peers (Hord, 2004). Peers can play an essential role in offering supportive feedback and alternative perspectives, and providing peer review--an essential attribute of teacher professional practice (Li, Liu, & Steckelberg, 2009; Wilkins, Shin, & Ainsworth, 2009). Teachers who inquire into their practice with others receive "benefits from the support of colleagues engaged in similar enterprises and the scrutiny of the wider educational community" (Clarke & Erickson, 2003, p. 5). Russell (2002) noted that the act of recognizing and sharing tensions with colleagues allows a teacher to work towards a professional and transformational change in teaching. Bodone, Gudjonsdottir, and Dalmau (2004) add that "collaborative dialogue contributes to the iterative and ongoing process by which uneasiness, and even dissonance, becomes a catalyst for new perspectives, new findings and teachings, new action, and new questions" (p. 773).

When teachers make their work available to the critique of others and work as critical friends, it improves the quality of their research so that it is not limited to their viewpoint, judgment, or opinion (Loughran & Northfield, 1998). Critical friends provide thoughtful and insightful feedback on the actions and engagement of practice (Costa & Kallick, 1993; Schuck & Russell, 2005). Although critical friend work has been studied by teacher educators working with colleagues (Bass, Anderson-Patton, & Allender, 2002; Kosnik, Samaras, & Freese, 2006; Louie, Drevdahl, Purdy, & Stackman, 2003; Schuck & Segal, 2002; Tobery-Nystrom, 2011), there has been less attention to students' experiences. This study examines students' experiences using letter writing designed as a sociocultural-based tool for critical friend work to promote dialogue and critique of their self-study teacher research projects. It seeks to understand their diverse experiences to inform future practice and contribute to the knowledge base of critical friend work in teacher research. Understanding how, and in what ways, critical friends worked together, listened, and voiced their thinking with peers has applicability to other classrooms and for teacher educators interested in tapping into the potential of peer audience to support teachers' professional development.

Conceptual framework

According to Vygotsky (1978, 1986), cognition is always socially mediated, especially through the psychological tool of language. Learning through dialogue is active, social, and affective and shapes individuals' mental processes (Bakthin, 1981; Vygotsky, 1978, 1987; Wertsch, 1991). Actions and thoughts are culturally mediated, "indirectly shaped by forces that originate in the dynamics of communication" (Wertsch, 1985, p. 81). Vygotsky asserted that learning, thinking, and knowing arise through collaboration and reappropriating feedback from others and a willingness to learn with and from each other (Wells, 2000). It is the community that helps extend and transform an individual's understanding and yet it is the individual who makes cognition their own, from intersubjectivity to intrasubjectivity.

Learning occurs within a learner's zone of proximal development (ZPD) on two planes or "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). Kozulin (1990) draws a similarity of Vytotsky's notions of these two planes to the work of G. H. Mead (1974) who wrote:

   I know of no way in which intelligence or mind arise or could have
   arisen, other than through the internalization by the individual of
   the social processes of experience and behavior . … 
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