Lessons learnt while on the job

27th January 1995 at 00:00
Understanding Mentoring: Reflective strategies for school-based teacher preparation, By Peter Tomlinson, Open University Press Pounds 15.99 0 385 19306 4.

Books on mentoring have flooded on to the market over the last 18 months. Most of these have been of the "how to" variety and have been of uneven quality. Nevertheless the high priority given to the mentoring role is welcome because of its undoubted importance in the effective training of future teachers.

Peter Tomlinson's book is particularly welcome because while it deals with the "how to" issues it does not duck the wider and deeper contextual and pedagogical issues that are implicit in the mentoring role.

He begins by taking a refreshingly positive and balanced view of recent reforms of initial teacher education. Having reviewed the pros and cons of recent reforms he suggests, I think correctly, that "it isn't overstating matters to say that we stand at a momentous point in the history of teacher education. We have a radical shift of setting towards school and classroom and a whole new force of teachers is beginning a more active involvement in the process. This does offer the opportunity for a quantum increase in the power and effectiveness of ITT . . . . but in itself by no means sufficient to guarantee the realisation of that opportunity".

To do that, he suggests, requires deeper thought and more intensive discussion of the roles of the various participants in the new model ITT.

His book provides an essential text for promoting that kind of thinking and discussion. Drawing on his philosophical knowledge and demonstrating a sparkling ability to write about complicated issues with clarity, simplicity and humour, he provides us with definitions, analysis and plenty of advice.

I particularly like the section entitled "Why bother with pedagogy in a book for teacher-mentors?" The answer is, of course, (though Peter Tomlinson does not put it this way) "Why bother with anything else?" There is plenty in this book for all teachers, not just those who have taken responsibility for the education of new entrants to the profession. It has interesting diagrams and boxed sections too. From one of these I learnt that "privatisation" far from being the Thatcherite answer to nationalised industries, is in fact a strategy for isolating a classroom problem to prevent it having ripple effects across the class. (What, I wondered momentarily, does this mean for Clause 4?) If I had a criticism it is that the book is occasionally over-detailed with the consequence that the general reader might lose track of the sweep of the book's important argument. I also had doubts about those "bubble" diagrams beloved these days in management books. They remind me of those balloon sellers you see in Oxford Street in the hectic days before Christmas who sell balloons full of helium. The four year olds who buy them inevitably let go of them a few minutes later and scream as they vanish up into the winter grey.

These are minor (and perhaps idiosyncratic) quibbles with what is a superb book. There may not be a gap in the market but this book will push its way to the front. Anyone wanting to think seriously about mentoring ought to read it.

Michael Barber is Professor of Education at Keele University.

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