ethi{CS} PLC group members
November 19, 2021

Making New—and Critical—Friends

Kiran Bhardwaj discusses the importance of cultivating community with fellow educators to enhance teaching practices.
by Kiran Bhardwaj

The first time I heard colleagues discussing their “Critical Friends Group,” I instantly hated the term. It felt oxymoronic, and I really didn’t like the blurring of lines between collegial relationships and the more personal language of “friends.”

And yet? After having participated in Critical Friends Groups over the last few years, I’m a full convert to the protocol. We do better work when we collaborate with others—we can identify and avoid blind spots, develop more creative solutions, and learn more from others with different kinds of expertise. A Critical Friends Group, a professional development workshopping protocol, is a way to critically inspect one’s practices as a teacher in a way that’s both helpful and kind. And that means that the person presenting doesn't need to feel vulnerable, even if they’re presenting something that isn’t working well or has fallen flat.

The ethi{CS} project’s pedagogy—which has teachers marry technical instruction and ethical engagement—has some benefits and costs. Students benefit from learning how much their choices as coders matter. They practice, from the very start of their education, ethical decision-making on their own projects. These are exactly the kinds of habits of mind that we want for our students later on, especially if they enter the technology sector.

The cost of this model is that it can be quite a big shift away from traditional CS assignments and the lesson plans that CS teachers have ready-made. This is why the ethi{CS} project is piloting a professional learning community (PLC) during the 2021–’22 school year: to give teachers an opportunity to workshop current assignments to be more ethically engaged, or otherwise serve students better. It uses a Critical Friends Group as the framework for each monthly meeting, in order to give each member the constructive and friendly feedback characteristic of that protocol.

In each workshopping session, a presenting teacher brings in an “artifact”—a lesson plan, an assignment or project, or a scenario—that they are thinking about in their own teaching practice. The rest of the group helps the presenter think through how to proceed, according to a focus chosen by the presenter. Over the course of the conversation, presenters receive targeted feedback, useful insights, and further resources that will help them make the changes they’re interested in. Over the course of the year, each member of the group will take a turn as the presenter.

The ethi{CS} PLC meetings have been energizing, intellectually stimulating, and fun! Most importantly, I know that what I am learning from members of the group will allow me to improve the learning experience for my students.

John Adams The Rivers School

Meeting on Zoom, this PLC allows our selected CS teachers (from five different schools and two different countries) to work with each other and partner with ethicists in order to redevelop and redesign their assignments, projects, or course plans. Afterwards, we hope to make redesigned lessons and insights open-access or otherwise available to the broader ethi{CS} community. We look forward to sharing updates on our work and progress—stay tuned for more!

Dr. Kiran Bhardwaj is an instructor in philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy and a Tang Institute Fellow with the ethi{CS} project.

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