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Using Mentoring as a Form of Professional Learning

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Educational institutions have for a long time been thought of as the place where students learn. It is only more recently however, that educational institutions have begun to be thought of as places where teachers' professional learning can also take place.


The posting below looks at the positive role of mentoring in faculty development. It is from Chapter 12, Mentoring; The Art of Teaching and Learning, by Gill Nicholls in: The Theory & Practice Of Teaching, edited by Peter Jarvis, published by Kogan Page Limited 120 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JN, UK and Stylus Publishing Inc. 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, VA 20166-2012, USA. Copyright ? Individual contributors, 2002. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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pp 139-142

Educational institutions have for a long time been thought of as the place where students learn. It is only more recently however, that educational institutions have begun to be thought of as places where teachers' professional learning can also take place. Teaching is one of the loneliest professions, with teachers rarely having the opportunity to work with a colleague in a collaborative way so that they can learn more about the teaching-learning process. Mentoring in one form or another is a means by which teachers can break down their isolation and support professional learning in ways that focus on the daily work of teachers and teaching learning situations.

Professional learning about teaching is not simply a matter of prepositional knowledge or knowing about a range of strategies. Information about new approaches to teaching may come from reading, workshops, conferences, etc, but for information to become understanding in a conscious way needs the individual to interpret and transform that knowledge into practice. Professional learning about teaching is a complex process that requires the putting of knowledge and understanding into practice. Part of the problem of translating teaching ideas into practice lies in the tacit nature of one's knowledge about what one is currently doing in their teaching. Mentoring can play a fundamental role in institutions and organizations that aim to be a professional learning community.

Knowledge about our teaching is in our actions, but the routines and habits of practice mean that in the complex decision-making world of the classroom we do not, as a rule, make our knowledge about teaching and learning explicit to ourselves (Carmin, 1988). In the busy world of teaching there appears no need to perform such a function. However, to make a new teaching approach understood in action terms requires individuals to make their current teaching practice, and the theories and beliefs that underpin such practice, explicit so that new approaches can connect with what the individual knows and holds tacitly.

Mentoring can greatly enhance the process of making tacit knowledge explicit. Through the mentoring process individuals are allowed to interrogate their practice, reflect and then reappraise the values, theories and aspirations attached to their individual theories of learning and teaching. What is interesting to understand here is that meaningful learning and development will not occur simply through being involved as a mentor or mentee in itself; this would not be enough. The kind of relationship individuals have with their own learning and the community in which the mentors perceive themselves to be mentoring for professional learning requires active contribution to knowledge and experience, respecting new and innovative approaches and recognizing as well as understanding how their contribution fits with their own purpose and the support that is expected of them.

The current interest in mentoring for professional development stems from the belief that mentoring, coaching and preceptor ship are a way in which individuals and institutions can learn and develop. Mentoring can also be, and is often viewed as a means for assisting change in organizations. So what is it that mentorship offers teaching and learning? In an increasingly diverse and ever-changing educational setting, organizations look to see how change can be sustained from within. Mentoring is regarded as one such system to facilitate professional learning and thus create change.

The central premise of mentoring as a form of professional learning stems from the belief that individuals may best learn through observing, doing, commenting and questioning, rather than simply listening. The intern, initial teacher trainee, or student nurse can be described as someone who is 'initiated into the traditions, habits, rules, cultures, and practices of the community they are to join' (Merriam, 1982: p37). Understanding these habits, rules, etc requires the learning of specific language, conventions, knowledge and patterns, the type of learning Schon (1983) calls 'knowing-in-action'. It is from this premise that mentoring of initial and post-service individuals is gaining ground as a significant method for professional learning.

Mentoring for professional learning emphasizes guidance, development and the use and enhancement of individual abilities. Preparation for the role of mentor is key in facilitating the learning of the mentee. The ultimate aim of training and development is to improve teaching and learning environments by adding the necessary value of competence and confidence to both the mentor and the mentee. Mentoring as professional learning can then be considered as a means of enhancing learning competence in such a way that the mentor, mentee and organization acquire specific competence and then apply them with confidence through performance in the workplace.

At the center of this type of learning is the notion that professional learning requires systematic conversation and dialogue about the actions of teaching and learning, and being able to share experiences of the action. This is a crucial point for the development of understanding regarding the intellectual act of teaching and how this can be enhanced, and as a consequence of such enhancement improves student learning. When a mentor and mentee work in cooperative supportive and trusting environments it is possible to make values and beliefs about teaching and learning explicit, both for the mentor to themselves and to their mentees. In this way learning is occurring through critical reflection by both mentor and mentee. The mentor starts to ask the important question, 'Why?'

Asking the 'why' questions allows the mentor to reflect, share practice and collaborate to improve the mentee's practice. Helping the mentee in a systematic way enables the mentee to develop processes by which they can interrogate their own practice through critical reflection and making explicit their tacit actions. Thinking systematically and analytically about what is taught and how it is taught requires commitment and understanding. Equally, understanding and acknowledging one's own abilities, strengths and weaknesses within the teaching-learning environment is a powerful form of professional learning. Through mentoring one can begin to identify and set one's own agenda for learning and development. Sharing practice is fundamental to professional learning.

Professional Development Through Mentoring

Mentoring can be thought of in a variety of ways. Earlier In the chapter I showed how mentoring can be seen as a means of educating an individual through the concept of role model. Later I suggested that mentoring is an excellent tool for professional learning both for the mentor and the mentee through systematic critical reflection. Mentoring can also have a crucial role in staff development, particularly when used in the context of induction. The mentor's role in this context is one of support, normally offered by a more experienced member of staff, whether this is school, college or workplace. Mentoring within induction should be seen as a positive mechanism for developing management, communication and organizational skills. The mentoring process should move through a series of stages whereby the mentor helps to induct the new member of staff or trainee over a period of time, followed by the development of the individual and finally allowing the individual to move forward and taking on the role as friend.

Mentoring in this way is an active relationship built on negotiation and trust. It is not the mentor's role to dominate, judge and be overtly critical. Rather the mentor should develop a relationship built on constructive criticism, support and a relationship that allows for development. In short, mentoring is a process through which knowledge and understanding, skills and abilities, may be passed on to less experienced practitioners (Blandford, 2000).

Teaching and Learning and the Mentor

This chapter has focused on the variety of roles a mentor may have and the differing context in which those roles may be implemented. Increasingly today in a world where education and training are seen as key mechanisms for enhancing the quality of student learning, workforce skills and organizational change, mentoring has re-emerged as having a fundamental role in the enhancement of learning. Mentoring is seen as a tool by which an individual may learn and understand the ethics, rules and skills of given community, whether this be teaching, nursing, medicine, or work-based skills. Mentoring is also seen as a powerful tool for professional development and learning for the mentor. It is seen as a means for encouraging systematic critical reflection. It is also a powerful tool to help mentors articulate the skills and knowledge they may have which are frequently tacit. Making explicit what one does and thus allowing someone else to learn from that knowledge is a powerful tool to have: mentoring facilitates the learning of such tools.


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