Unguarded Conversations–Finding Your Critical Friend

LAM Wanli Aileen & Daron Benjamin LOO
Centre for English Language Communication (CELC)

Aileen and Daron bring us through the process of being each other’s critical friends, where critical examinations of their teaching and learning roles were done through conversations, maintaining a weekly reflective journal and offering critical responses to each other’s reflection journal  entries.

Photo by fauxels from Pexels
Lam, W. A., & Loo, D. B. (2022, Jan 21). Unguarded Conversations–Finding your critical friend. Teaching Connections. https://blog.nus.edu.sg/teachingconnections/2022/01/21/unguarded-conversations-finding-your-critical-friend

Every student – and educator, too – needs a trusted person who will ask provocative questions and offer helpful critiques. (Costa & Kallick, 1993)

In an informal and unguarded chat about our upcoming roles as new module coordinators of an undergraduate communications course for the School of Computing 1 and a graduate writing course for all disciplines 2 at NUS, we became excited about exploring our professional identity (Clarke et al., 2013) and beliefs as module coordinators in new teaching environments together. As we share a certain level of trust and openness as colleagues, we became “critical friends” who could ask difficult yet thought-provoking questions3, analyse data through different lenses, and provide frank critiques of each other’s work (Coasta & Kallick, 1993).

We decided, as each other’s critical friends, to keep a weekly reflective journal about teaching and module coordination over two semesters so that we could conduct our critical inquiries more systematically (see Appendix). We met periodically to discuss our thoughts on coordinating the modules and at the end of each semester, we read and responded to each other’s reflections which led to more conversations about how we were similar and how we differed from each other in our respective teaching practices and beliefs (Adamson & Muller, 2018).

When it came to our respective roles as course coordinators, we wanted to understand the dynamics that shape the relationships we had not only with the tutors on the same course, but also with senior management and institution objectives (Branson et al., 2016). In our discussions about our roles, we also began to wonder if we were leading or managing the tutors. Educational leadership has been defined as “the act of influencing others in educational settings to achieve goals and necessitates actions of some kind” (Connolly et al., 2019), while educational management “entails carrying the responsibility for the proper functioning of a system in an educational institution” (Connolly et al., 2019). Do we actively attempt to influence the tutors on our course, or do we focus purely on the functioning of the system? Could this also depend on the type of tutors we are working with, such as full-time or adjunct academics? While thinking about leadership and management, we have also started to think about our professional identities in terms of our management styles and approaches to leadership.

Though we started our discussion wanting to explore vertical relationships in universities (i.e., between institution, senior management, course coordinator, and tutor), we realised that having an understanding of horizontal relationships (i.e., between academic and administrative colleagues from the same department as well as colleagues from other disciplines) was also important to gaining a comprehensive understanding of the entire ecosystem. This led us back to the literature and more discussions on the topic. However, our discussions did not stop there; we also started to question what this meant to us as tutors and course coordinators by doing a relational analysis of our weekly journal reflections, which opened even more avenues for exploration (Branson et al., 2016).

All these discussions, based on evidence and collaboration, have helped us learn more about ourselves and from each other while being open and vulnerable (see Appendix). In fact, we experienced the developmental phases of critical friendships which included “the phases of professional indifference, tentative trust, reliance, conviction, to unguarded conversations” (Baskerville & Goldblatt, 2009). Since this has been highly beneficial for us professionally, cognitively, and socially, we urge you to find your group of trusted, critical friends too.


  1. CS2101 “Effective Communication for Computing Professionals”
  2. ES5001A “Intermediate Level Writing”
  3. E.g., “The tension with the tutors does not seem to come from their feedback but the timing of it. Do you give feedback before things happen?” Is the feedback constructive? Are there lesson plans so that tutors know your intention of identifying recurring grammar problems?



In reflecting, we were not concerned with the form or how we wrote; instead, we were more interested in getting our meaning across. The following screenshots are excerpts from our reflective journals (Figures 1 to 3).

reflective entry
Figure 1. A screenshot of a reflective entry by Daron, and comments provided by Aileen. In this particular entry, Daron was questioning his role as a tutor in an online setting and Aileen subsequently prompted Daron to examine his underlying beliefs as a tutor.


perceived role of the tutors
Figure 2. A screenshot of a reflective entry by Aileen, and comments provided by Daron. In this entry, Daron and Aileen discussed the perceived role of the tutors and the rubrics when marking and considered the concept of openness. (Click on the image to view the full-sized version)


openness and vulnerability within the teaching team
Figure 3. In another entry, Daron and Aileen discussed openness and vulnerability within the teaching team. (Click on the image to view the full-sized version)


Aileen LAM Wanli is from the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) in NUS and has more than ten years of teaching and corporate training experience in communications and media. She is passionate about the use of technology in education, and has developed online and blended courses in NUS.  

 Aileen can be reached at aileenlam@nus.edu.sg

daron loo

Daron Benjamin LOO teaches academic writing at CELC. His research interests include the examination of professional identity among English teachers and learners, as well as the development of students’ metalanguage for academic communication.

Daron can be reached at daronloo@nus.edu.sg.



Adamson, J., & Muller, T. (2018). Joint autoethnography of teacher experience in the academy: Exploring methods for collaborative inquiry. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 41(2), 207-219. https://doi.org/10.1080/1743727X.2017.1279139

Baskerville, D., & Goldblatt, H. (2009). Learning to be a critical friend: From professional indifference through challenge to unguarded conversations. Cambridge Journal of Education, 39(2), 205-221. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057640902902260

Branson, C. M., Franken, M., & Penney, D. (2016). Middle leadership in higher education: A relational analysis. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 44(1), 128-145. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1741143214558575

Clarke, M., Hyde, A., & Drennan, J. (2013). Professional identity in higher education. In B. M. Kehm & U. Teichler, The academic profession in Europe: New tasks and new challenges (pp. 7-21). Dordrecht, Springer. 

Connolly, M., James, C., & Fertig, M. (2019). The difference between educational management and educational leadership and the importance of educational responsibility. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 47(4), 504-519. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1741143217745880

Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (1993). Through the lens of a critical friend. Educational Leadership, 51, 49-51. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/through-the-lens-of-a-critical-friend

Print Friendly, PDF & Email