The answer to this question is ‘yes’. But it should be clear what we mean by ‘critical friend.’ The concept would no longer be meaningful if it could not be distinguished from helpfulness, sympathy or peer coaching. An essential characteristic of a critical friend is that someone who wants to learn by seeking support for doing a task or solving a problem can appeal to him. The person who asks this question decides if he needs a critical friend who concentrates on the process (the focus on coaching) or on the domain specific knowledge (the focus on cognitive expert knowledge) that corresponds to the question asked.

In any case the two make up a contract in which tasks and obligations are made explicit. In this way impulsive behaviour can be avoided and the aim of the relationship will stay clear. Reflection, or better still the stimulation of self-reflection by the questioner, is part of the core behaviour of a critical friend.

When I was writing my dissertation, my father constantly advised me on linguistic matters like spelling and sentence structure. I am very grateful for that. Can he be considered a critical friend?

You should be grateful to your father wanting to do this for you. It might even be that your relationship has been enriched by it. Possibly, he advised you to apply for a language course so that he can be even more proud of you than he already was. But this form of helpfulness, which fortunately we come across very frequently, does not belong to the core concept of ‘critical friend’. We are critical of any definition which is too pragmatic because it is dangerous to give too much weight to spur-of-the-moment behaviours without focussing on essentials. Nor do we consider asking critical questions or stimulating feedback in a student group consistent with our view. No matter how motivating they are. A critical friend commits himself to an ‘outspoken’ relationship of which mutual trust is the basis. Often the relationship itself is the object of reflection and evaluation. In this responsible role the critical friend is detached and does his utmost to reach the goals formulated by the questioner. He, however, does not have the final obligation to succeed in solving the problem.

How would you answer the following question?

When I send my written work to my tutor it takes a while before I get my feedback. I do not like that and it makes me uncomfortable. Do you think my tutor is aware of this?