EXPERIENCING AND EVIDENCING LEARNING: NEW WAYS OF WORKING WITH MENTORS AND TRAINEES IN A TRAINING SCHOOL PARTNERSHIP
Joan Whitehead and Bernadette Fitzgerald, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK.
This paper is a contribution to the Interactive Symposium for the Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices: The transformative potential of individuals’ collaborative self-studies for sustainable global educational networks of communication. American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, San Diego, California, 16 April 2004.
Almost a decade ago the role of self study in teacher education and in the practices of teacher educators was discussed and evidenced in Teacher Education Quarterly, a publication of the California Council on the Education Teachers. In that publication Guilfoyle (1995, p12) refers to Tabachnick and Zeichner’s view that “Just as the concerns, questions and voices of teachers have frequently been ignored in research on teaching, so too the perspectives of teacher educators have often been absent from research on teacher education (Tabachnik and Zeichner, 1991). Since then Zeichner, in his Vice Presidential address to Division K of AERA, referred to “the new scholarship in teacher education” and pointed to self study as “ probably the single most significant development ever in the field of teacher education research” (Zeichner,1998, p.6).
This paper is a contribution to furthering this debate as we draw on our context across the Atlantic. We describe our own work as teacher educators, in a climate of change, engaged with teacher educators in schools, that is our school- based mentors. We describe how, out of our collaborative activities and through dialogue, we constructed a new approach to mentoring which enabled the educational values we had previously espoused to be more fully realised. We refer, as Dean and English PGCE Subject tutor in a university Faculty of Education, to what influenced our own learning as well as that of the mentors and trainees and the process by which together we helped shape a community of professional practice.
In conclusion we discuss ways in which we are sharing this practice, opening it to critique in order to understand it better, to further develop it and connect with others engaged in generating theories/ knowledge of professional practice. Our aim is/has been to look inwards to the immediacy of our own practice and that of our partner schools and, from our different institutional roles, to engage in as well as support and facilitate self study in order to improve both our own and each other’s professional practice. Our aim has been, and continues to be, to also look outwards, to make connections with others engaged in teacher education in order to have an influence regionally, nationally and internationally in the ongoing formation and development of the profession.
In producing this collaborative account we move between the use of the singular and plural personal pronouns as we reflect on both our personal knowledge and understanding as well as our shared values and understanding.
We begin by referring to the social and political context which influenced the nature of the Faculty’s initial partnership and mentoring arrangements with schools and which framed our initial practices.
In the early 1990s the government initiated national reforms (DfE,1992) which required a greater involvement by schools in initial teacher training either in partnership with higher education institutions (HEIs) or working independently of them in School Centred Initial Teacher Training Schemes (SCITTS). This policy steer, which followed a period of distrust and questioning of the role of HEIs in initial training, whilst generally welcomed by HEIs, nevertheless met with a degree of anxiety about the changing nature of roles and expertise in the professional formation of new recruits to the profession.
Within our own Faculty, whilst espousing commitment to partnership and consulting our secondary schools, it was the Faculty that took the lead in devising the model of partnership, the topics to be addressed by mentors and the distribution of resources between us. We devised a model of school-based mentoring premised on a traditional hierarchy between mentor and trainee with the role of mentor, as an expert in pedagogical subject knowledge, having the responsibility to train apprentice – teachers to become “part of the existing culture of teaching” (Wang, 2002 p, 341). It was essentially a top down model of inducting trainees into an agreed body of professional knowledge which, once mastered, enabled them to be recommended for qualified teacher status.
The fact that the practices of mentors were largely prescribed by us was justified on the grounds of achieving some consistency of mentoring practice across more than a hundred partner schools, and to help guarantee a common entitlement for trainees. It was also justified on the grounds that accompanying the national reforms was an inspection system undertaken by the Office for Standards in Education (OfSTED) to ensure compliance with the new requirements and that the training by university and school-based staff met a quality threshold. The risks of failing to do so were high as Inspection outcomes were used to determine the future allocation of trainee numbers and income, and hence the continuing viability of our work as teacher educators.
It was this system of external regulation and accountability which led us to mirror external prescription with internal prescription. In Elliott’s words the external policy discourse exerted “a form of epistemic sovereignty” over our own “practical thinking “as teacher educators (Elliott, 2004 p.4). As we sought to comply, we became risk averse, overly concerned with outcomes rather than educative processes and became involved in what Pignatelli, drawing on Foucault has described as “self –normalizing practice” (Pignatelli ,1993 p.412), as we in turn devised a new role, that of school link tutor, to monitor whether our partners were delivering the prescribed programme.
Although there were teething problems as we adjusted to these new roles and responsibilities, nevertheless the model overall was endorsed by schools, tutors and trainees who claimed they liked knowing what was expected of them, what to do and how to evidence it and there was a feeling that the greater involvement of schools in training was benefiting trainees. However, the competences and the recording of these was seen by us and some of our tutors/ mentors/ trainees as overly mechanistic. Together we and others began to feel that the Faculty’s commitment to promote reflective pedagogy, which had been prevalent prior to the introduction of the reforms, was becoming marginalised. We felt unease that the hallmark of being a professional, that is the capacity for critical self reflection and the exercise of professional judgement based on values, was not being sufficiently and explicitly highlighted and valued in training. Nor were we providing opportunities for our trainees, during their initial training, to understand what we saw as the power of practical theorising and the generation of knowledge by the profession for the profession (Whitehead, 2003).
As a Faculty we never, however, made any real attempt to rethink and break the prescription since the measures we had taken were generally endorsed by OfSTED and external examiner and trainee feedback was positive. Where criticism came it was that, despite the prescription, there remained some variability in the quality of mentoring and hence the experience for trainees. This feedback led us to perpetuate rather than reconsider existing practice and led us to do more of the same, seeking to do it better to ensure all trainees had a positive experience, but we didn’t ask of what? We continued despite experiencing ourselves as “living contradiction(s)” (Whitehead, 1989, p.41).The way we were acting conflicted with our ontological commitments to inclusionality and a more democratic form of teacher education, more open to learning with and from our partners and with more potential, we believed, to prepare and sustain trainees, mentors and ourselves as reflective enquiring professionals able to cope in an ever changing and increasingly complex society.
As Dean I felt a continuing responsibility for positive inspection outcomes not only in terms of maintaining morale but, as ITT was under-funded, in order to continue to secure university financial support which was more likely if we continued to produce outcomes that allowed us to be well regarded in performance profiles and in maintaining trainee numbers and income. As a Link Tutor in one of the partner schools, I became however increasingly aware of the tendency to perpetuate practice which I felt was restricted. I began to question what alternatives might be possible but was aware of the inbuilt conservatism that “success” brings, and that working differently might risk what we had achieved and that staff might feel that I didn’t sufficiently value what had been externally validated as good practice.
I saw my role, however, not only to manage but also to provide academic leadership, to look at new ways of doing things and ensure the Faculty kept abreast with national policy initiatives. When the DfEE (1999) invited schools to bid to become Training Schools to work with HEIs to explore and try out new approaches to training teachers and to carry out and use existing research, it seemed to me to offer the opportunity I was looking for. There were also additional resources which were otherwise lacking. There were staff in the Faculty and teacher educators nationally who were reticent about the establishment of Training Schools since they felt that if Training Schools were found to be successful then this could marginalise HEI’s role in training. Since no comparable resource for innovation had been directly channelled to HEIs, I could understand their concerns and that the continuous and punitive cycle of Inspections was tending to make staff increasingly risk averse.
My view was though more open to what this opportunity might afford in terms of both development and research. I also felt pragmatically that, if Training Schools were to become the future policy direction, it was best to be involved and learn from the experience. I was encouraged to do this by knowing I had an imaginative, enthusiastic and able subject tutor in English and very good English mentor in the school where I was the link tutor and with which the Faculty had longstanding links for ITT and Continuing Professional Development (CPD).
It was however a school in challenging circumstances. I was aware of the dangers of adding a further dimension of challenge for trainees since the initiative would inevitably demand more from them, and that the three subject areas identified by the school for inclusion in the initiative were not equally strong.
Another attraction for me, however, of the Training School’s brief was the chance to disseminate the findings and make them public. I had been impressed by CD ROMs of classroom practice (Pinnegar et al, 2000), a resource from a different context and culture but which demonstrated the power of a visual and oral record of practice. The potential of multimedia to inform and transform practice was also becoming evident to me through the actionresearch.net website and through Fletcher and Whitehead’s work (2003). I therefore began to feel that if we were to construct a similar record from our new training partnership it would be an opportunity for us to make public, share, and add to debate about professional knowledge and practice. After discussion with colleagues I went ahead and assisted the school in writing the bid for Training School status in which my own role would be to act as a critical friend helping university and school-based staff reflect on their actions and how these might best be recorded and disseminated.
As English PGCE Subject tutor, the school with which the Dean suggested that we work as a designated Training School was one with which I already had a close and productive working relationship: it had an impressive English subject mentor who had been one of my PGCE students four years earlier . She was open-minded, critically reflective of her own practice and committed to training in a school in challenging circumstances. The timely convergence of these external factors with the results of my reflections on my own developing practice as a teacher-trainer marked the starting point.
Within the strategic context of the funding and brief of the Training School initiative, with trainees, school and HEI colleagues, I began to ‘explore and try out new approaches to training teachers and carry out and use teaching research’ (DfEE, 1999). My critical focus was on how as well as what we could guide trainees to learn about the art of teaching in an urban context. At this juncture, I achieved a state of praxis as my observations of the intuitively capable English mentor at work as she reflected with the trainees ON their teaching converged with the reading the Dean, the school’s Senior Professional Tutor and I were doing (Schon, 1991 and 1995, Lave and Wenger, 1991). This led me to believe that, in order to tap into a deep level of knowing about what effective teachers do and how trainees learn to do it, we needed a mechanism to capture the experienced professional’s reflection IN action to allow us to untangle the intricate web of interconnected, often unanticipated, pedagogical choices which the teacher rapidly makes in the midst of the action.
The English subject mentor and I had decided that she would videotape some of her lessons in order to facilitate reflection on her classroom actions with her trainee teachers. The construction of the artefact of the video of a lesson and how the mentor used it to guide the seeing of her trainees proved seminal: as one of them observed, “ you had the evidence there in front of you so we all knew what we were talking about…. the mentor saw exactly what you were seeing so you were on the same wavelength.” The trainees valued being able to “talk to the teacher while they are looking at their own practice....you can say why did you do that (and she can) reflect on what was going through her mind at the time.”
This reminds us of Shulman’s (2002, p.62) vivid assertion that what “makes learning from experience terribly difficult is that experience is like dry ice: it evaporates at room temperature. As soon as you have it, it’s gone.” Trainees were now able to ask the mentor to freeze the evidence on the tape at critical moments rather than rely on “the dry ice of memory” [ibid] as she offered them a rationale for what she had or had not done in the midst of the moment. As a result, a trainee felt that she had “definitely seen deeper.”
What emerged was the mentor’s engagement in the public domain in some rare, albeit post hoc, reflection in action. This resonates with Schon’s (1991) identification of the importance of the distinction between reflection on and in one’s own actions as key to the acquisition of professional knowledge. Being challenged to articulate what usually remained as tacit, instinctive, unconscious experience-based knowledge helped the mentor to know what she did not know that she knew. Both mentor and trainees contributed to and benefited from this deep level of evidence-based, collaborative lesson deconstruction, bearing out Lave and Wenger’s (1991, p.117) contention that the students’ , ‘’ ‘ constructively naēve’ perspectives and questions [were] an asset to be exploited.. of use however, only in the context of participation, when supported by experienced practitioners who both understand its limitations and its role…crucial for this naēve involvement to invite reflection on ongoing activity.” Thus, the trainees could be described as legitimate peripheral participants in an emerging community of practice in which there was the potential for pedagogy to be transformed rather than merely affirmed. An opportunity had been created for “collaborative construction and re-construction under the guidance of an ambitious notion of good teaching.”(Wang, 2002, p.341).
A principal characteristic of our new mentoring practice, informed by a generative approach to action research (McNiff, 1984, 2000, 2002), was reflective dialogue in which the mentors moved away from their prior role as experts and masters of the craft of teaching. It was replaced by a generative approach in which, drawing on video data of their own lessons and questions posed by the observing trainees,mentors deconstructed and revealed their dilemmas in order to re-configure their own teaching.
In so doing they exemplified to trainees their own practice as reflecting, enquiring professionals and their open-minded willingness to engage in co-learning with less experienced trainees, together taking responsibility for the generation and sharing of professional knowledge. This exemplification of self study, recorded on video, and used as a resource for learning for both trainees and mentors, provided a qualitatively different experience for trainees from that in the restricted approach. One trainee felt that when reflecting in tranquillity within the calm environment of the weekly mentoring session, “you haven’t got the adrenaline rush that you’ve got in the classroom so there is time for critical reflection…you notice and analyse more like you were watching a documentary and you pick away at it.” Another trainee perceived: “We weren’t just getting a lesson on a lesson: we were getting a lesson on reflection as well.”
Mindful of her mentor’s willingness and disposition to enquire, a trainee commented on how her mentor: “was very open, so we could be. If a mentor puts herself up for it (public, critical self reflection), then it sets the tone that this is what we do here.” Thus, trainees, as Richert (1990) has recognised, were given the opportunity both to learn about and learn through reflection.
The table below summarises the main characteristics of the two approaches.
The initial restricted approach to mentoring
The new generative approach to mentoring based on self-study
The mentor’s role: one of experienced and ‘expert’ practitioner: the trainee teacher as learner.
The mentor: a more experienced practitioner than the trainee but also a co-learner.
The mentor: a guide and commentator on lesson planning, giving feedback and assisting in post-hoc lesson analysis and evaluation.
The mentor: intervenes at all stages of the trainee’s teaching and learning process, for example in co-planning, in discussing video footage of lessons and co-planning subsequent lessons in the light of evaluations.
The trainee : expected to reflect on her teaching but with limited formal support
Mentor: provides the trainee with a framework and scaffold for reflection.
No formal opportunity is provided by the mentor to model the ways she reflects on her own practice as a teacher.
Trainees’ learning from mentors is at a superficial, surface level; learning for mentors is incidental.
Using video as a tool, the mentor models for the trainee how she reflects on evidence of her own teaching in order to develop it and to promote pupils’ learning.
Reflection is openly modelled as a key skill in the professional repertoire of mentors and is replicated in the practice of trainees. Both trainees and mentors learn from the process, and at a deeper level.
The mentoring process involves an ongoing commitment to the improvement of the trainee’s practice as a teacher, and is supported by the principles of enquiry and reflection. There is a greater emphasis on the trainee’s teaching than on pupils’ learning.
Mentor and trainee are involved in a systematic enquiry process that is committed not only to the learning of the trainee but also to that of pupils, the mentor and the school as a learning organisation. Via a website and other means of dissemination, the process is public and accountable.
The relationship between mentor and trainee is a hierarchical one. The mentor’s role is clearly defined in terms of a tutor and clear role boundaries of mentor-trainee are maintained.
The mentor’s role is defined more loosely, with each mentor working as both guide and co-learner with the trainee. There is greater reciprocity and interdependence in the relationship between mentor and trainee.
This new approach evolved from an initial unidirectional and more restricted process in which the trainees, observing their mentor teach, had been reduced to viewing, “the end point of their teacher’s thinking about how to teach particular content.” (Loughran, 1996, p.14). They had been denied access to the mentor’s wisdom derived from experience which invisibly and silently informed her planning. In the new and more democratic model which emerged we were engaging with Shulman’s (1993) concept of the value of reflection prior to action and van Manen’s (1991 p.101) treatment of the importance of “anticipatory reflection.” As the mentor now co-planned with her trainees the lesson which she would go on to teach and have videoed, the trainees’ perspective changed from observing the lesson as detached outsiders to becoming involved insiders, stakeholders in their own training; this process empowered both school-based mentors and trainees to create rather than replicate professional knowledge, thereby enhancing their learning and contributing to the learning culture of the school.
This process involved what Pignatelli, in discussing teachers’ engagement in personal and professional renewal, has described as a “tension between affirmation and critique” (Pignatelli, 1993, p.424). Distinctive to it was a greater sense of mutuality and collaboration. Trainees, despite their relatively limited experience, became included within and valued as members of a professional community which also included us as university educators engaged in and committed to our own learning and development.
Exposure to the specific process of self study by mentors enabled trainees to see self study as helping constitute their mentor’s as well as their own professional identities. It provided them with “the paradox of being formed as situated social selves, emerging persons in emerging social worlds, patterned by history but open to movement as present interaction.” (Shaw, 2002, p.173). Similarly our own professional identities became reshaped and our work less routinised and more fulfilling as we took on a more inquiring stance and our practices as teacher educators became more inclusional.
The process also helped trainees appreciate that, whilst it was important for them to be knowledgeable in their subject and be able to demonstrate the skills to meet the prescribed standards for the award of qualified teacher status, nevertheless teaching itself is not amenable to finite mastery. Rather they were enabled to recognise that practitioner knowledge is situated knowledge and in flux as new and alternative understandings emerge from within practice. These understandings were able to be extended or confirmed through the “conceptual inputs” (Hoban, 2002 p.63) we, from our complementary but different stance as teacher educators were able to offer, to help illuminate the judgements they made in relation to various aspects of their professional practice. Informing our actions with mentors was what Fullan (2003, p 11-20) has described as “moral purpose”, in this case directed at benefiting the professional formation of new teachers for whom we had responsibility whilst the actions of mentors and trainees were directed at improving practice to the benefit of their pupils.
The fact that within the Training School, trainees’ insights into the practice of their mentors were recognised, valued and sometimes acted upon, changed the power relationships between them moving it towards greater reciprocity, mutuality and inclusionality. A trainee described her relationship with her mentor as “an equal playing field.” This inclusionality did not preclude rigour: as the mentor revealed, “ her own distinctive view of the situation ..it ( was ) developed in communication with others ( trainees) and accommodate(d).. their own distinctive outlooks… This is not the same as acting on the basis of a negotiated consensus.” (Elliott, 2004, p.7) Such practice was premised on a number of essential human qualities which fostered attributes of both independence and interdependence. These qualities included trust and respect for each other as well as open-mindedness, a quality described by Zeichner and Liston (1996.p.10) as “an active desire to listen to more sides than one, to give full attention to alternative possibilities, and to recognize the possibility of error even in beliefs that are dearest to us.”
It was not only the relationship between mentors and trainees that changed but also the relationship between ourselves as university staff and school- based mentors and also between ourselves as Dean and PGCE tutor as we forged different ways of working and developed new dimensions to our understanding and practice of partnership. In this we became more collaborative as we relinquished what Rudduck, cited in Fullan (1993, p. 124), has referred to as “traditional mythologies about each other” and came “to respect each other’s strengths and recognize each other’s needs and conditions for professional survival”. We confronted “the dichotomy” (Hamilton, 1995, p.39) and hierarchy which had previously existed between ourselves and between ourselves and our school-based partners and between mentors as experts and their trainees.
Relinquishing preconceptions took time and in the words of one trainee “was a bit scary at first” as she felt she was no longer being “ done to” but being given a voice as the more traditional hierarchical relationship with her mentor was jointly re negotiated and repositioned. Our relationship changed too as we came to see each other not only as the PGCE English tutor and Dean but also as change agents informing each other’s thinking and at the same time integrating insights from the school’s senior professional tutor and subject mentors into what we saw as new possibilities in the generative approach which we collectively owned.
Out of these interactions and dialogue we built what Wenger et al have called “a community of practice”, “a place of exploration where it is safe to speak the truth and ask hard questions” (Wenger et al 2002, p.37) in a climate of openness and trust, a climate that enabled the various partners to work through difficulties and address issues of quality and commitment that surfaced as we worked together.
Whilst these qualities were key to the success of the mentor-trainee relationship and to our own, to enable these relationships to be established and developed required time, time to focus on each others’ teaching, time to deconstruct it and learn from it, time to video and edit the tapes to make this learning accessible both within and without the school and time for us to read and engage in dialogue to help “think outside the square”. (Hoban, 2002, p.63). Had the Training School not had additional funding as a condition of its status, we would have found it impossible within the normal unit of resource for ITT, to have been able to undertake this more detailed and sustained enquiry of professional practice.
Although the additional funding was key, an essential was the “deeply professional commitment to the role”, characterised by Shulman as ‘scholarly fidelity’ (Shulman, 2000 p.1) involving a commitment even when problems such as staff changes and illness occurred, when the technology was problematic and the messiness of real staffrooms and classrooms surfaced.
Significant too was the leadership within the school with the head teacher welcoming the ‘professional discourse’ between the school and the university, recognising the benefits beyond the immediacy of the mentor/ trainee relationship: ‘the risk taking within the … programme allows us to challenge ourselves and be more reflective about the practice of teaching,’ [Head teacher].
Moving these developments on from situated ‘practitioner knowledge’ (Hiebert et al, 2002) to a sustained and sustainable ‘professional knowledge base’ (ibid.) both within the school, partnership and in wider fields was something we, our mentors and trainees were pledged to do as a condition of funding for the Training School. From the outset the intention was to make aspects of our work available for “public examination, with the goal of making it shareable among teachers, open for discussion, verification, and refutation or modification” (ibid p.7). Creating a website to include video extracts http://pathways2002.uwe.ac.uk/training school/, of the approaches used together with examples of pupils’ work, added however another layer of sensitivity for mentors, trainees and ourselves. As one of the mentors commented: “ It becomes such an emotional exercise … you are worried about the fact that the video maybe on a website “. What shifted these potential anxieties and concerns appeared to be the mutual observation and feedback which another mentor commented “broke down the barriers” as did the fact that university based teaching sessions were also included thereby providing a level playing field.
We believe that the commitment to disseminate our work in this way helped us not only to systematise the knowledge we gained but also to contribute to the sharing of practice and to the professional knowledge base of other trainees, teachers and teacher educators. The website is helping make our learning public so that these accounts can, through links to other action research websites such as http://www.actionresearch.net be connected to the work of other teacher researchers nationally and internationally and, as Snow (2001, p.9) has argued, “to bodies of knowledge established through other methods”. Additionally, we are subjecting our findings to peer scrutiny in regional and national contexts in a range of more traditional media including: lectures, seminar presentations and journal articles, culminating in our contribution to this Symposium.
Recognising the potency of the generative approach to contribute to professional development through self –study has influenced the school’s decision to increase the number of trainees and involve staff from other subject specialisms as mentors. Through the appointment of a number of learning coaches and using the generative approach the school is extending this model to support the further development of qualified but less experienced staff. In turn within the university we have increased the number of tutors involved to include those from different subject specialisms with more experienced staff taking responsibility for the professional development of less experienced colleagues.
Extending the numbers involved and formalising systems of support are likely to help the approach become embedded within the practice of the school as a whole and extend its influence in our work within the university. Creating the conditions for sustainability is an issue we have recognised as did the head teacher who stated: ‘sustainability is always an issue for us and very often the innovations are tied to one or two individuals…you can build quality in a small team…disseminating that quality from the small team to the wider group, I think, takes much more time’.
Ensuring therefore that the Training School project, with its inbuilt commitment to self study, moves beyond a dedicated small group of colleagues and has a long-term whole school impact is on the agenda. This would then enable the Training School and its approach to mentoring and partnership to be a catalyst for the school to become a Professional Development School, defined by the Holmes Group (1990) and summarised by Winitzky, Stoddart, and O’Keefe (1992): ‘a school in which a university faculty works collaboratively with practitioners over time with the goal of improving teaching and learning: (1) upgrading the education of preservice teachers, (2) providing professional development for experienced teachers, and (3) field-based research. Inherent in the PDS model is the notion of school sites involving models of excellence and centres of inquiry through collaboration between school and university faculties over time.’ (p.2)
The nature of this partnership between us and the specific approach to mentoring generated by us is beginning to enable these three goals to be achieved concurrently, incrementally and to mutual benefit. Our experiences and the benefits accruing remind us of the observations made by Guilfoyle, Hamilton, Pinnegar and Placier (1995) which we see as applicable to each of our contributions in the training school partnership and to the continuing reform of teacher education:
“Whatever we want our students to do in their own practices—study and reflect, use innovative pedagogy, be a change agent- we ask of ourselves… Our practices as teacher educators re-create and redefine teacher education… They have most potential to help us understand what it means to teach, to teach teachers, and to gradually re-create education practices”( p.53).
For us these are powerful sentiments .Through the Training School project, where we have been able to live out our ontological commitments to inclusionality, we have also come more fully to appreciate ourselves and our mentors not just as teacher educators but as co –learners and to value our interdependence with our mentors, our trainees and, importantly , with each other.
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