Living Up to Expectations

Learning to be Critical Friends in Foreign Contexts
Critical FriendshipCollaborative InquiryInclusive PracticesCultural MediatorAcademic Hierarchy
This collaborative self-study discusses how we, two Iceland-based inclusive practitioners, position ourselves as critical friends to each other and to Team-Hokkaido in Japan, as we endeavored to support them in developing inclusive practices. The purpose of this study is to use collaborative inquiry to understand the nature of our critical friendship with Team-Hokkaido to better comprehend their expectations towards our roles. The goal is to enhance our future collaboration as critical friends to Team-Hokkaido to support their inclusive practices. Our research procedures were emergent and intentionally designed to be both structured and open-ended. Data collection took place in Japan in 2019. The data include participants’ presentation materials, our research journals, and personal notes from the study camp. Our post-camp discussions were recorded to enhance our data analysis. Through our discussion we felt doubt in using the term 'critical friends' when collaborating with Team-Hokkaido. Although the reasons for our doubts varied, our analysis brought us a new understanding of ourselves as critical friends. Importantly, we learned that critical friendship should always be pursued from an equal foundation. In the future, we need to explore our roles with Team-Hokkaido while reminding them that learning from experience should be a mutual endeavor.


Edda is an Icelandic inclusive education specialist. She has nearly 20 years of experience as a special educator and coordinator for support in a compulsory school in Iceland. For Edda, this was her first time collaborating with people from East Asia. Meg is an early childhood educator from Japan. She has been educated and trained in both Japan and Iceland. Her experience as an educator in Japan impacted her teaching in Iceland, as these two teaching cultures contrast with one another. Since 2015, Meg has been working with Team-Hokkaido (pseudonym) to support their understanding of inclusive education. When Meg was organizing Team-Hokkaido’s visit to Iceland in 2015, she asked Edda for support given theoretical knowledge and deep understanding of the Icelandic education system.

Team-Hokkaido is a group of Japanese special educators from Hokkaido – the northernmost island of Japan – that aims to develop inclusive practice in their schools and workplaces. The part of Hokkaido in which they live has many similarities to Iceland, including geographic features (e.g., hot springs and volcanoes) and demographic conditions (e.g., sparsely populated and rural). Considering these similarities, the Japanese special educators became interested in learning from the development of inclusion in the Icelandic education system. Team-Hokkaido visited Iceland on three occasions between 2013 and 2018. Meg has been their interpreter since their first visit and the organizer of the visits since 2015.

Edda and Meg received funding to visit Japan in early June 2019 for the purpose of learning about the Japanese education context and to support inclusive practices by Team-Hokkaido. We decided that our supportive role would be characterized as critical friendship to the Japanese special education practitioners. Our understanding of critical friendship aligns with Costa and Kallick’s (1993) definition of providing alternative perspectives and support and offering constructive critical feedback. As we worked with Team-Hokkaido, we found that their understanding of critical friendship was different from ours. This led us to wonder if we needed to clarify the nature of our supportive role.

Conceptual Framework

In self-study, critical friendship is one method for influencing each other's practices and enhancing the trustworthiness of the data and analysis through collaborative inquiry (Samaras, 2011). Critical friendship is a versatile and potentially powerful approach to supporting people and groups in developing their practice and can be a rewarding learning experience. However, to be effective, critical friends need to understand the context in which they are working and how this context might impact the perceived roles of a critical friend (Swaffield, 2004).

International critical friendship with others can be inspiring and provides many learning opportunities, but it takes some time and effort to develop. Dialogue through face-to-face meetings can establish respect for different contexts and surpass a sense of hierarchy (Shuck & Russell, 2005). Critical dialogue between people from different cultural backgrounds can enhance professional learning (Fuentaebla et al., 2020). Across contexts, however, the variety of relationships critical friends have with each other can be a source of tension. This tension can be eased by explicitly recognizing the multiple roles of a critical friend and by openly discussing how best to balance any conflicting demands. This kind of critical dialogue that is required to promote critical friendship takes time and effort.

Some cultures hold academic hierarchy in high regard, which could make the development of critical friendship difficult to use in an intervention (Shuck & Russell, 2005). In a previous study, Meg (Nishida, 2020) argued that hierarchy in Japanese culture could be a hindrance to developing collaborative dialogue as Japanese people tend to respect hierarchy often in relation to age and status. In Iceland, however, the emphasis on hierarchy is less visible. Trust is built upon mutual respect as the Icelandic culture values egalitarianism in collaboration (Kristinsdóttir et al., 2020; Warner-Søderholm, 2012).

The emphasis on “knowledgeable academics” in Asian cultures can be exemplified in the hierarchical image of the Indian term Guru-shishya (teacher-student) (Ratnam, 2016). When collaborating in an Asian context, McNiff (2013) was concerned that she was talking as though she was speaking to others from her "privileged position as 'more knowledgeable' academic” (p. 508). She determined that she needed to carefully examine the complexity of cultural values to avoid cultural imperialism.

The theory of the cultural mediator is often used in the context of translating between language and culture (Katan, 1999). In his explanation of mediator, Katan cites Taft’s (1981) definition of a cultural mediator as "a person who facilitates communication, understanding, and action between persons or groups who differ with respect to language and culture” (as cited in Katan, 1999, p. 12). In connection with the idea of Vygotsky's (1978) cultural mediation, communication is a sign that requires us to use the language as a tool to facilitate communication. Although the role of cultural mediator may be versatile, the key to successful cultural exchange is the language acquisition of the host country (Shaffer & Miller, 2008).

Our study reflects on our experiences as critical friends to our Japanese colleagues at a study camp that Team- Hokkaido hosted during our visit. The study camp program began with Edda giving a presentation on inclusive education in the Icelandic system. After her presentation, the study camp participants presented cases that they needed assistance with and Edda was asked to provide comments and consultations. Meg’s main role was to interpret while also mediating Team-Hokkaido’s and Edda’s understanding across different educational and cultural contexts.

Aim - Objective

This collaborative self-study discusses how we, two Icelandic-based inclusive practitioners, endeavored to position ourselves in supporting Team-Hokkaido’s development of inclusive practices. The purpose of this study is to enhance our future collaboration as critical friends supporting their inclusive practice. Through collaborative inquiry, we aim to understand the nature of our critical friendship with Team-Hokkaido and their expectations of our roles. The following research question guides our collaborative inquiry: "How can we develop our critical friendship to Team-Hokkaido to support their inclusive practice?"

Data Collection and Analysis

Collaborative self-study is our way of inquiry to explore our roles in working with Team-Hokkaido as critical friends (Bodone et al., 2004; Samaras, 2011). Our perspective is that research collaboration between diverse colleagues is a strength as it can provide multiple perspectives on critical incidents. Throughout the research process, we discussed our reflections and shared our views on how we understood our experiences. In our discussions, English was our language of collaboration, so neither of us were speaking our native language. This means that our meta-conversation is also a part of the analysis because a translation process adds an extra layer of analysis (Guðjónsdóttir & Jónsdóttir, 2021).

In this self-study, we were the central participants. Edda has a limited understanding of the historical/cultural and social context in which Team-Hokkaido is working, but Meg, as one knowledgeable of the Japanese context, supports Edda’s new professional experience. The 10 study camp participants were secondary participants as they provided the cases for discussion in our self-study. All names are pseudonyms and we gained participants’ permission for using the data from the study camp.

The data collection took place in 2019 during a study camp we participated in with Team-Hokkaido in Japan. Our research procedures were emergent and intentionally designed to be both structured and open-ended. The data collection includes:

Since the camp was conducted in Japanese, verbal data and written artifacts in Japanese were transcribed, translated into English by Meg, and analyzed together by Edda and Meg. Our analysis was focused on understanding our roles in collaborating with Team-Hokkaido and we looked for concepts and theories that could help to reposition ourselves. Data analysis included identifying patterns emerging in our discourse. The purpose of the analysis was to identify our assumptions about participants’ practices and learn from our experiences during the study camp (Fuentealba & Russel, 2016).

We employ the concept of critical friendship as an analytic lens to explore our data. An important factor in critical friendship is that "a critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working toward. The friend is an advocate for the success of that work” (Costa & Kallick, 1993, p. 50). As we read each other’s interpretations and analyses and began to generate major themes, we let LaBoskey’s (2004) characteristics of self-study guide us: self-initiated and focused, improvement-aimed, interactive, using primarily qualitative methods, and offering examples for validation.

Our Individual and Collective Reflections on the Study Camp

Within a completely different cultural context and using a foreign language, she (Edda) finds the truth of the presenters’ struggles and offers her constructive feedback. I was actually quite impressed (Meg’s journal, June, 2019).

When our visit to Japan was over, we discussed our experiences at the Team-Hokkaido study camp. Meg was surprised when Edda shared her feelings after our participation. As her journal quote above reveals, Meg was impressed with Edda’s professional attitude to supporting Team-Hokkaido without knowing their language. However, Edda confessed that she felt overwhelmed by Team-Hokkaido’s expectations. It was exactly what Meg felt when she first joined Team-Hokkaido’s study camp in Japan in 2016. This led us to realize that differing languages may not be the only issue. We had some common feelings to overcome to improve our future collaboration with the team. In this section, we first examined our perspectives individually, then developed our collaborative discussion.

Edda’s Perspective

Working with Team-Hokkaido was an empowering experience and at the same time an overwhelming one. I felt greatly honored that the Team should ask me to discuss and give them advice on their work and was excited to act as their critical friend. With Meg’s assistance, I tried to acknowledge and respect the cultural and historical situatedness of participants in the study camp. However, after listening to the first two presentations I began to feel the pressure of giving advice to people who are doing hard work in quite complex situations that I did not understand fully.

Hina discussed that the teachers in her school think that disabilities are the students’ problem. She said that the focus is on teaching students to follow the rules, not to understand how they learn. And she asked me “What is the way forward?” I suggested having a school wide discussion about what inclusion means... But I know working on this issue calls for a different view on what it means to be disabled, which is deeply embedded in the culture. Am I being helpful? I know my stuff about inclusive education, but their world is so different from mine – how can I be useful to them? (Edda’s journal, June, 2019)

I felt inadequate in providing guidance to the participants. The questions I asked and the critical insight I wanted to give them were based on my experiences and knowledge, but not a deep understanding of the context in which they work. The presence of Meg made the experience easier, as she did her best to explain their situation to me, such as elaborating on their working conditions or explaining what issues they may be facing.

In hindsight, as Meg explained to me, many of the problems that we discussed in the study camp were based on the issue that teachers and civil servants are moved around in their posts every 2-4 years. This poses problems with developing practice, as they cannot see their developments through – there is a lack of sustainability in practice (Edda’s journal, June 2019).

I felt I lacked understanding of the context that the different members of Team-Hokkaido were describing in their presentations. I felt unable to be critical or provide alternative viewpoints as my knowledge of the cultural, historical, and social context was limited and so totally different from my own reality and background.

I felt I was positioned as the ‘knowledgeable academic’ or ‘guru’ from whom Team-Hokkaido wanted to learn. They wanted guidance from me on how they could develop their practices and I felt overwhelmed by their expectations.

I think I’m transplanting ideas of inclusion without having the knowledge to consider the cultural/social/historical context they are speaking from. They listen intently, and Meg is doing her best to explain, but it will be difficult for them to use my ideas in practice (Edda’s journal June, 2019).

Meg was particularly important to me in her role as an interpreter and cultural mediator. At the study camp, I relied on her to explain the cultural and social context for me which clarified many issues. Without her I would have been like a fish out of water, unable to connect what they told me to my lived experiences. With her assistance, I tried to acknowledge and respect the cultural and historical situatedness of participants in the study camp, but the danger that I encountered, as I was analyzing my data, was that I was prone to ‘Othering’ [could use italics instead: Othering] in this exchange. This is what happens when one is not familiar with the cultural context and employs one’s own cultural glasses to judge the other and their situation.

Meg's Perspective

While Edda was feeling overwhelmed, I was looking at this experience differently. In my last visit to Japan, I had experienced some level of expectations from Team-Hokkaido. They treated me like a representative from Iceland and their enthusiasm for listening to my stories was a pressure. I was invited to speak about the Icelandic inclusive education system in many different places. But in my case, these invitations were in Japanese and I understood their context from my own experience. Their return visit to Iceland in 2018 also enabled us to foster a personal friendship between us rather than a critical friendship.

When Edda decided to join me on my trip, I was excited. She has been supporting Team- Hokkaido's visits in Iceland and they know each other through those visits. I also wanted Edda to see and experience the Japanese culture and Team-Hokkaido's expectations. I thought that she would enjoy the whole experience rather than feel pressured. She did enjoy it, but there were much stronger feelings in play.

The study camp was intensive, and I needed to focus on my role of interpreting. I believed that I knew both the Japanese and Icelandic contexts. Between my interpretation, I tried to offer some supporting descriptions of the contexts of respective cultures. Although it was difficult for me to keep my concentration on interpretation, Edda tried to pay attention to everything I was interpreting and kept notes. I believed that she was ready to respond to their expectations. My journal after the study camp expresses: “While listening to Edda's comments on each presentation, I noticed her professional attitude.”

I thought that Edda had gained international experience when she was working for a European institution which made her more confident. It was a surprise to hear her feelings later, but at the same time, I felt some sort of relief. I was not the only one feeling overwhelmed by their expectations. Until Edda joined my collaboration with Team-Hokkaido, I was feeling a sense of uselessness because my experience with inclusive practice was limited to my work in a preschool and I thought it was not enough to support their learning. I realized that if Edda felt overwhelmed, I needed to redefine my role as a critical friend to them and between us.

Collaborative Dialogue

Since we took part in the study camp, we have met regularly to discuss our experience to understand the dynamics of our relationships both with Team-Hokkaido and between ourselves. In August 2021, we had the following reflective conversation on our experience.

Edda: What I'm thinking is that we are both looking at confidence as an issue. For me, I doubted that I was the correct person because maybe someone else could be better at this. But your aspect of confidence is about hierarchy and the culture that you come from, and you are stepping into a new role that you might not have been able to access a few years ago. So, we are both dealing with confidence issues and the issue of maybe trespassing or something? It’s called imposter syndrome. It's like you are pretending to be someone and others are going to figure out that you are not really clever.
Meg: Yeah, when I first met them in Japan, I felt a huge gap especially between the local professionals. Being Japanese coming from Iceland, made such a huge impact on them. Like someone super special was coming to tell them something special!
Edda: Yeah. High hopes!
Meg: I was not finished with my PhD. I had no idea what I was doing. But they were looking at me differently. So that was a real pressure. Degree is a huge matter to them. PhD is going to give me confidence and some kind of qualification for me to talk about inclusive education.
Edda: Yeah, so you have like, not a power, but an authority.

In this dialogue our lack of confidence is prominent. While both of us seem to be grappling with imposter syndrome, it is rooted in our different cultural backgrounds. Both of us have been brought up with a strong emphasis on being humble, especially as females. In Edda’s upbringing, being humble was a core value and meant not being a ‘show-off’. Meg has experienced being humble as being raised in a society that emphasizes hierarchy and having a set place in the social order.

Meg: It's interesting like we are opposite in a way. If we combine, then divide into two, it's just perfect. That's why we collaborate.
Edda: I think we both have something to contribute to the collaboration as it happened in Japan and the one we have between us. And we both have our individual experiences that contribute to our collaboration.
Meg: And also it doesn't happen overnight.
Edda: No, it happens gradually.

We found that we needed to keep discussing our reflections because they take time to understand. Having a physical distance (due to COVID-19) from our critical friendship with the Hokkaido group has allowed us to take a bird’s eye view of our experience. We needed this time and distance to understand the strategy we could employ the next time we travel to meet Team-Hokkaido.

Meg: We have been talking about it for a couple of years since we came back from Japan. Each time we see something new. So it takes time to find more solutions or more results or ideas for next time.
Edda: If we look towards the future we are at a threshold. Standing at the threshold, we look back and see how we did. Looking forward, we see what we are going to do. But, to be effective as critical friends, we need to look at how we can learn from this experience. So that we can avoid making the same mistakes or so we can be better next time.

From our dialogue, we understand that our way forward is for us to be critical friends to each other. We have different resources. The combination of our different knowledge and our cultural backgrounds makes us stronger.

Discussion: What Have We Learned?

Through our collaborative self-study, our experiences, thoughts, and strategies have developed as we improve our practice and perspectives. The differences between the Icelandic and Japanese school systems and cultures are vast, but the main difference lies in the source of control of the system. The Icelandic school system is highly decentralized which means that responsibility and power is passed to local communities and schools, and decisions about many aspects of policy and practice are made at that level (Óskarsdóttir et al., 2019). The Japanese education system, however, is highly centralized, meaning that the control of finance, personnel, and resources is by a central body that also manages policy, curriculum, and assessment (OECD, 2018). This centralized context that Team-Hokkaido works within is the source of many of the dilemmas they face in their work that are unfamiliar to Edda.

Looking critically at our collaboration with Team-Hokkaido has helped us recognize that we are always part of the story we are telling and can never get out of it; we see the world through the lens of our historical and cultural experiences with self and others (McNiff, 2013). Edda found that developing her role as a critical friend depended on her capacity for critical self-reflection, an interrogation of her words and actions. She found she was not comfortable with being given the hierarchical status of a guru or a knowledgeable academic, as she felt her knowledge of the context was insufficient for assisting Team- Hokkaido. However, by looking at her experiences critically and with the help of Meg as her critical friend, the capacity to make the implicit explicit has developed, to reveal what is hidden underneath.

Meg learned that her understanding of critical friendship to the Japanese is getting more complex. When she was interacting with them by herself, she was feeling a sense of high expectations, but it was still simple enough that she could position herself as a Japanese critical friend in Iceland. When Edda joined in the collaboration, Meg realized that her own role needed to be more flexible and versatile to mediate between the cultures she stands for. Meg needed to be aware of her cultural, professional, and linguistic resources. As Vygotsky (1978) explains, Meg was using her three languages (Japanese, English, and Icelandic), cultural knowledge, and professional experiences to support everyone's understanding as a cultural mediator (Taft, 1981, as cited in Katan, 1999). The role of the cultural mediator needs to be better explored in this context with Team-Hokkaido. She learned that critical friends' collaborative dialogue between her and Edda, and between her, Edda, and Team-Hokkaido, inspired her to find a way to support both sides.

Our idea of critical friendship was rather simple when we began our collaboration. However, through collaborating with Team-Hokkaido we realized that it is much more complex. Our respective roles need to be brought out of the binaries of ‘guru’ and ‘disciple’ (or knowledge giver and knowledge receiver) and into more equal partnerships where both parties can contribute to mutual learning where everyone has a voice. To continue our collaboration with Team-Hokkaido, we need to find ways to examine the hierarchical positioning and to make our respective cultural values visible to avoid instances of othering as we position ourselves as critical friends (McNiff, 2013; Shuck & Russell, 2005). Because we are talking about inclusive education, our collaboration needs to be inclusive as well.


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Edda Óskarsdóttir

University of Iceland

Megumi Nishida

University of Iceland

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