Critical Friendships: The Tuning Protocol

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Critical Friendships


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
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What feedback methods can schools use, to improve teachers and form critical friendships?

Six weeks into my doctoral studies at Cambridge University, I am already learning a great deal about my practice and how we can make teaching and learning more effective – for teachers. In a weekly seminar on ‘critical friendships’ by Dr. Sue Swaffield, we elaborated on definitions and practical techniques that developed ‘trust’ and strengthened relationships. Grab the PDF here.

Critical Friendships

The tuning protocol is a procedure for (fine-tuning a piece of work) structuring a presentation, request for assistance, reflection, dialogue or feedback about practice. There are five main steps, preceded by an introduction (to explain the protocol and establish time limits). This is followed by a debriefing (to discuss the process). There is also a more detailed process, but this is a shortened version that could be completed in 20 minutes.


To support an individual with clarification through critical friendships that are non-judgemental; to generate and receive feedback for teachers to improve their work. The tuning protocol is designed in a specific way because it can be difficult for people to give feedback diplomatically, or to hear feedback and not become defensive. It can be used as ‘work in progress’ or at the end of a piece of work to reflect on the results.

How To Setup?

In a small group of 4 to 7 people, preferably sitting in a circle with no tables, one person ( the presenter) will present an issue. One other person could act as a moderator to quality assure the principles of the tuning protocol and to keep a sense of timing.

1. Presentation

The presenter offers one or two key points to be addressed and sufficient information about their issue; how the issue plays on in its context/environment; the situation, timeframe and factors that result in any pros/cons; what they want instead of the problem etc. The presenter must state as much information as possible that is relevant for the participants to be able to understand/respond.

(Estimated time 5-7 minutes)

2. Clarifying questions

Only any necessary non-evaluative questions about the presentation, avoiding any suggestion of judgement or advice should then be made. For example, closed questions that simply seek clarification and a yes/no response. It is important for the individual to self-regulate their questions,  or for the moderator to intervene if the question does not seek clarification, but evaluation.

For example:

  • Individual A: “Is the YZX a result of ABC?”
  • Presenter: “Yes.”
  • Individual B: “What do you mean by X?” Moderator intervenes … “Is X, ABC?”
  • Presenter: “No.”
  • Individual C: “What did Y say?”
  • Presenter: “Y said ABC.”
  • The questions are pitched purely to enable the individuals to seek clarity.

(Estimated time 5 minutes)

3. Individual writing

In silence, each individual writes down their immediate thoughts to generate (wide-ranging) ideas. The individuals cannot ask any other questions and the presenter does not elaborate on any further questions or statements made. The silence ensures everyone records immediate thoughts without one initial comment, question or discussion dictating the conversation – and losing those thoughts.

(Estimated time 5-7 minutes)

4. Participant discussion

The presenter remains silent. There are several ways of doing this stage, but what is most beneficial, is that the presenter turns away from the group. An alternative could be that the presenter faces the group but remains silent and avoids eye contact. The presenter is allowed to take notes based on listening to the individuals’ discussion.

The individuals discuss the issue in the third person.

For example, “Why does Ross do this?” or “How might Ross seek to move forward with X; should he consider doing ABC and abandoning Y and Z?” This is the most significant stage of the tuning protocol for the presenter.

(Estimated time 10 minutes)

5. Presenter Reflection

The presenter now reflects on the group discussion or comments. They can choose to say ‘thank you’ or elaborate on their thoughts and note-taking as the participants’ discussion evolved.

(Estimated time 5 minutes)


The moderator or group may wish to debrief on the process.


You can download this guide in PDF format and please take a look at the video example below.

The process also can be used with students during a project, as a formative assessment checkpoint of their work-in-progress.

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