Learning on the job
Quality Mentoring for Student Teachers: A Principled Approach to Practice.By Della Fish. David Fulton #163;14.99. - 1 83546 351 1.
Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." George Orwell's observation is quoted by Adams and Tulasiewicz in their attack on the political language used to "justify" recent reforms in English teacher education, and they include "mentor" among its many unfortunate terms.
From their perspective as defenders of the role of higher education in the preparation of teachers they see it as associated much more with the "craft masters" of apprenticeship than with the creation of "independent and reflective practitioners".
That is not at all how Della Fish sees mentoring. Her book is addressed to any teachers who "work in schools with student teachers to improve their practice", but the passing down of "craft knowledge" is not how she sees the mentor's responsibilities, even as constrained within the Government's preferred arrangements. As lucidly portrayed in this thoughtful and challenging book, mentors educate rather than train; they work with colleagues in higher education to prepare members of a profession rather than merely competent "deliverers" of the national curriculum; and they do so in ways which recognise the complexity and unavoidable uncertainties of teaching rather than reducing it unnaturally to an aggregation of separately demonstrated competences.
The book is emphatically not a manual of or for mentor training. Indeed, the distinction made between "trained" and "quality" mentors is that the latter work to a broad remit and accept the critical obligation to examine their own practice and the "principles" which shape it. There is a sharply focused account both of recent changes and perennial debates in teacher education, the author's strongest criticisms being directed at Government-sponsored assumptions about training as the acquisition of practical skills which are then available to be directly "applied".
Although the "technical-rational" model of professional practice is given attention not only because of its official sponsorship but because some teachers will incline towards it, the author's commitment is firmly to the "professional artistry" alternative and so to the far more complex and subtle processes of "learning through practice" which that entails.
It would misrepresent the book not to commend its own practicality. Occasionally, the bullet-pointed summaries convey a certainty which is against the spirit of the text, but there are challenging lists of "points for action and discussion (or reflection)" which teachers are invited to work through with colleagues, and especially perceptive advice on (for example) mentors' classroom observation, both observing and being observed,and on the kinds of feedback which most usefully follow.
The great strength of the book, however, is that such advice is grounded in careful analysis of professional knowledge, the holistic nature of professional competence (not competences), and the high level of creativity embodied within "good practice".
It therefore has a great deal of value to say about teaching as well as about mentoring. So much has been written about the "crisis" in teacher education created by recent, dictatorial government interventions that yet another publication has to pass the test of offering something new. Adams and Tulasiewicz take a similarly bleak view of those interventions as Della Fish, who refers to a "grim history" of "philistinism".
Nevertheless, their account of English reforms is too negative and too university centred. Whatever objections can reasonably be made to the ideological provenance of those reforms, and although the risks of a damagingly narrow competences approach are real, there are huge benefits in the increasingly full partnership of schools and higher education which the authors conspicuously fail to consider.
Their European perspective leads them into some useful comparisons of (for example) variations in teachers' professional status, particularly the advantages and disadvantages of being treated as civil servants, and in how closely the professional voice is listened to. Surprisingly, there is little discussion of how traditional modes of teacher education everywhere are being challenged by the "knowledge revolution", and by multiplying resources for out-of-school learning which must transform the teaching role itself.
The chapter on education in the European Union contains useful information about cross-country links, and reminders of the kinds of professional preparation which will allow teacher mobility across frontiers. But the book's usefulness in combating more insular views of the "crisis" is diminished by a low level of readability, a generally convoluted style which descends at its worst into a distinct lack of clarity.
Tony Edwards is professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.