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Mentoring and Professional Learning

At recent Prep Center workshops, mentor leaders asked the workshop facilitators to find out what research has to say about three interconnected mentoring topics: the benefits of mentoring, mentoring and teacher retention, and mentoring and professional learning. The following is a response to the third of these topics: mentoring and professional learning.

Concern: With limited time and resources, educators want to focus on staff development efforts that are meaningful and effective. An ERIC search supports the notion that there is a high correlation between teacher mentoring and teacher learning.

In her article "New Perspectives on Mentoring," ERIC Digest No. 194, researcher Sandra Kerka discusses the kinds of learning that result from mentoring relationships. She writes that mentoring is typically defined as a relationship between an experienced and a less experienced person in which the mentor provides guidance, advice, support, and feedback to the protege (Haney 1997). Mentoring is a way to help new employees learn about organizational culture (Bierema 1996), to facilitate personal and career growth and development, and to expand opportunities for those traditionally hampered by organizational barriers (Gunn 1995). Mentoring can also provide individuals with opportunities to enhance cultural awareness, aesthetic appreciation, and the potential to lead meaningful lives (Galbraith and Cohen 1995).
A traditional mentoring model is the apprentice learning from a master. In the Industrial Age, mentoring focused on career advancement within organizational hierarchies (Haney 1997). Now modern schools require a wide range of cognitive, interpersonal, and pedagogical skills; mentoring is meaningfully aligned to support with these expanded needs.

Mentorship and Change
School trends such as frequent retirements, restructuring, teamwork, reform, and increased diversity have worked to create a sense of rapid change and fragility. F. Jossi suggests that this kind of institutional turmoil heightens "the need to preserve institutional memory and to share the information and experience that remain in the company" (Jossi 1997, p. 52). Mentors represent continuity; as mentors, older, experienced workers can continue contributing to their organizations and professions. The Mentoring Institute (1997) maintains that, in the past, mentoring typically just "happened" as experienced people recognized and developed new talent or as beginners sought the counsel of knowledgeable elders. Now, the institute describes a "new mentoring paradigm": today's proteges are better educated but still need a mentor's practical know-how and wisdom ("craft knowledge") that can be acquired only experientially. Therefore, many organizations are instituting formal mentoring programs as a cost-effective way to upgrade skills, enhance recruitment and retention, and increase job satisfaction (Jossi 1997).

Mentoring and Adult Learning
Mentoring supports much of what is currently known about how individuals learn, including the socially constructed nature of learning and the importance of experiential, situated learning experiences (Kerka 1997). According to constructivist theory, learning is most effective when situated in a context in which new knowledge and skills will be used and individuals construct meaning for themselves but within the context of interaction with others. Experts facilitate learning by modeling problem-solving strategies, guiding learners in approximating the strategies while learners articulate their thought processes. Experts coach learners with appropriate scaffolds or aids, gradually decreasing assistance as learners internalize the process and construct their own knowledge and understanding (Kerka). These processes are reflected in the mentor's roles of guide, adviser, coach, motivator, facilitator, and role model within a contextual setting (Galbraith and Cohen 1995; Haney 1997; Kaye and Jacobson 1996). Functioning as experts, mentors provide authentic, experiential learning opportunities as well as an intense interpersonal relationship through which social learning takes place.

Mentoring and Experiential Learning
Bell (1997) likens the mentor's role in experiential learning to that of birds guiding their young in leaving the nest; they support without rescuing, provide scaffolding (e.g., in a problem situation, asking "What do think you should do next?"), and have the courage to let learners fail. Learning from experience, "mentees speed past learning basic routines and get on to the job...they enjoy a fast linkup between what was learned in the classroom and what is needed in the workplace" (Galbraith and Cohen 1995, p. 60). Exploring how experience is transformed into expertise, Cleminson and Bradford (1996) identify three types of learning: trial and error, "sitting by Nellie" (observing an experienced person), and guided learning. The latter, they suggest, is characteristic of the most effective mentoring. With trust as the foundation of the relationship, mentors give proteges a safe place to try out ideas, skills, and roles with minimal risk (Kaye and Jacobson 1996). Such experiments are more authentic when linked with real-world activities such as temporary work assignments or short-term projects. The knowledge acquired is thus constantly reinterpreted and developed through practice (Cleminson and Bradford 1996).

Mentoring and Relational Learning
Although learning is a matter of individual interpretation of experiences, it takes place within the social context (Kerka 1997). Therefore, the interpersonal relationship of mentor and mentee is recognized as essential (Galbraith and Cohen 1995). "The idea of learning as a transaction--an interactive and evolving process between mentors and their adult learners--is considered a fundamental component of the adult mentoring relationship" (ibid., p. 17). Mentoring provides two primary functions: career/instrumental and psychosocial. The instrumental function is the external value of the relationship; mentees benefit from their mentor's knowledge, contacts, support, and guidance. The psychosocial function is the internal value of the ongoing interpersonal dialogue, collaborative critical thinking, planning, reflection, and feedback (Galbraith and Cohen 1995).

The psychosocial function of mentoring is a form of relational learning, the value of which is increasingly being recognized in a less hierarchical, team environment. Women especially have been found to favor relational learning. For the executive women in Bierema's (1996) study, "relationships informed them about their company's culture and helped them process both cognitive and experiential learning experiences" (p. 157). Mentoring is a personalized and systematic way to be socialized into an organization's culture; such cultural competence is important in both work and academic settings.

If developing learning organizations in a learning society is a desirable social goal, mentoring can perform an important function in helping people develop their highest potential. If "everyone is capable of being a teacher (mentor) and a learner (mentee)" (ibid., p. 92), Kerka concludes that individuals should strive to develop their capacity to learn from and support the learning of others.

  • Bell, C.R. "The Bluebird's Secret: Mentoring with Bravery and Balance." TRAINING & DEVELOPMENT 51, no. 2 (February 1997): 30-33.
  • Bierema, L.L. "How Executive Women Learn Corporate Culture." HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT QUARTERLY 7, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 145-164.
  • Cleminson, A., and Bradford, S. "Professional Education." JOURNAL OF VOCATIONAL EDUCATION AND TRAINING 48, no. 3 (1996): 249-259.
  • Galbraith, M.W., and Cohen, N.H., eds. MENTORING: NEW STRATEGIES AND CHALLENGES. NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION NO. 66. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Summer 1995.
  • Gunn, E. "Mentoring: The Democratic Version." TRAINING 32, no. 8 (August 1995): 64-67.
    Haney, A. "The Role of Mentorship in the Workplace." In WORKPLACE EDUCATION, edited by M.C. Taylor, pp. 211-228. Toronto, Ontario: Culture Concepts, 1997.
  • Jossi, F. "Mentoring in Changing Times." TRAINING & DEVELOPMENT 51, no. 8 (August 1997): 50-54.
  • Kaye, B., and Jacobson, B. "Reframing Mentoring." TRAINING & DEVELOPMENT 50, no. 8 (August 1996): 44-47.
  • Kerka, S. CONSTRUCTIVISM, WORKPLACE LEARNING, AND VOCATIONAL EDUCATION. ERIC DIGEST NO. 181. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, 1997.

Related Entries at Prep Talk:
Benefits of Mentoring
Mentoring and Teacher Retention

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