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Critically Examining Ideals and Compromises in Teaching and Mentoring

alesnick's picture

by Emma Cohan

A statement on balancing traditional with progressive methods of teaching and how one can decide for the better path when he/she finds him/herself at crossroads.

    In the class Empowering Learners we discuss theories of teaching and mentoring to increase agency from many viewpoints. The competing and sometimes contradictory theories are complicated even further by dilemmas from our field placements. However, instead of leaving us with a sense of paralysis, I hope to show how being mindful of the complexity of the theory behind practice can lead to positive decision-making. In teaching and mentoring we make choices that are compatible with our overall learning philosophy, but often include practical adjustments that may compromise purity of theory in favor of a dynamic balance we judge better fitting to the context.

The most basic controversy encountered while learning about teaching is traditionalism vs. progressivism. Traditionalism is the reproduction of the status quo; as John Dewey writes, "learning here means acquisition of what already is incorporated in books and in the heads of the heads of the elders. Moreover that which is taught is thought of as essentially static. It is taught as a finished product"(Experience and Education, 19). There also tends to be a great deal of direct instruction, such as lectures. In contrast to traditionalist teaching models, progressive ones are based in experiential, dynamic learning. The text Engaging Minds (Davis, Sumara, Luce-Kapler) is an ideal example of critiquing the assumptions of traditionalism in favor of a radically progressive approach. The authors believe, "knowing is relational; it is not just about ideational associations; it also implicates the knower in webs of physical association. Knower, knowledge, and the phenomenon known can't be separated"(8). As they argue for a more holistic approach to learning, they argue against teaching orthodoxy's "reductive, fragmenting mentality underlying checklists, linear curricula, rigid lesson formats, standardized evaluation rubrics, and related artifacts"(9).

What the Engaging Minds authors envision for education has great intuitive appeal to me. However, where I start to see problems is in implementing their educational objectives in a comprehensive way. Teachers would not be trained in how to effectively impart knowledge, but in developing "the qualities of contingency, flexibility, emergence, and expansive possibility"(172) to facilitate knowledge. In this scenario, I imagine each teacher as an improvisational actor, using the crowd's suggestion to develop a scene on the spot. Not only does this conception of teaching put a great deal of pressure on the teacher to be constantly and skillfully reactive, it also seems impossible to develop any type of standards for assessing the teacher or the quality of learning. Here there is a huge conflict with the prevailing federal attitude towards education, as exemplified by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation.

 From my perspective, neither extremely traditional, standardized teaching practices, nor entirely flexible, deconstructed ones seem ideal. An example to make this concrete comes from our Empowering Learners class. Although our Professor subscribes to many of the tenets of progressive education, she too must find a balance between creating a dynamic, flexible class and meeting student and college traditional expectations. This struggle is evident in our syllabus, which has the semester's readings and assignments planned out before the semester begins. While the syllabus may make the class less generative and active in their direction of learning over the semester, the teacher is able to respect the wishes and autonomy of individuals to know and plan for the expectations. In addition, the teacher choosing the readings upfront may be seen as an enabling constraint from which the class can draw much multi-layered, progressive learning. In this way the teacher stays on the progressive side, but makes compromises for the wellbeing of her students.  

Another option is a teaching purpose that seeks to optimally support a child's socio-emotional development. The attraction to this model is that it places value in the ethics of care and nurturing, which seem to be sorely lacking from most traditional formal education contexts. However, this viewpoint can become problematic when a teacher is trying to attend fully to both academic and emotional demands of the class, especially at times when these conflict. Furthermore, according to Cook-Sather and her rendering of prevailing metaphors of education in the article "Movements of Mind", equating teaching with therapy often creates "an underlying assumption of illness needing remedy"(957) which "keeps students passive and ailing with the only remedy being the active intervention of educators"(957).

From this criticism of assuming illness and inadequacy in the learner, the principles expounded in From Teaching to Mentoring (Herman and Mandell) seem an apt solution. The principles include the belief that teachers should accept the uncertainty and provisionality of their own knowledge, respect the learner's autonomy by engaging in curriculum of dialogical inquiry and collaboration, and value the knowledge gleaned by students in their own experiences and "lifeworld"(25) of metaphysical beliefs. A compatible concept from Engaging Minds is that of "vibrant sufficiency"(16) in which the authors acknowledge that learners should be respected as whole because ‘one's sense of the world is curiously adequate"(16). Therefore, both books seek to shift the power dynamic between the teacher and learner from one of authoritative teacher and passive student to a more balanced, mutual engagement, which is a learning process for both. This approach seems benevolent in its more equitable approach to power dynamics. However, to take the idea to the extreme, if teachers, mentors, counselors, and parents really didn't know any better than children, why would society have formal education at all?

I found my view on teaching/mentoring power dynamics complicated by my field placement at an after-school program for children with mental health problems. In my role I tried to act as a mentor and ally. I hoped that by fostering positive relationships I would have an impact on my mentees' wellbeing and resilience. Yet I was immediately dismayed with my group teacher's authority style. She often harshly criticized the children's autonomous decisions on things as inconsequential as their choice of colors on an art project. She seemed satisfied only when she was seated at her desk with the children quiet and complacent, doing puzzles or drawing. I soon judged I could do better. In my interactions with the children I tried to get on the same level by actively playing games with them. I elicited stories about their days and families and shared my own anecdotes, comfortable in my informal, friendly role that was responsive to their emotional needs.

However, my perspective on interaction was complicated the day my teacher left me alone with the students for a short time. Chaos broke loose; two children started investigating what was going on in the hall, one child started yelling at another child, and the final child started destroying the game that we were playing. I tried to calmly get the children back under control, but for a moment I felt powerless. I saw some of the benefits of my teacher's traditional power dynamic. But then something occurred that reinforced my belief not to fully give in to that style of teaching. One child, noting my repeated, but calm admonitions told me, "I want to see you yell." This struck me because she was trying to push me to fulfill the role of the authoritarian teacher, because it was what she expected, even if it wasn't in her or my best interest. That comment made hold true to my beliefs that teachers don't need to exert dominance (as in this case may have been achieved by yelling), even if that made the immediate situation difficult. I saw the tension of attending to children emotionally while at the same time needing to have authority to keep them safe. However, I found a balance where I came down on the side of respecting students, while still giving them some boundaries.

In both of the practical examples I outlined, I hope to have shown the tension of between two sides of theory on teaching and mentoring. In each situation the actor had to make a decision: whether or not to fully plan a class, whether or not to yell to keep order. In neither situation was there a right answer, but decisions were made by "coming down" on the side of one theory while at the same time using the context to create a more balanced, composite method. I think that teaching and mentoring should always be guided by intentionality, but that teachers need to stay vigilant to the blindspots of each individual theory. In this way they can use multiple theories and critiques to judge for themselves when optimal learning requires pushing towards their theoretical ideal and when it requires making practical accommodations based on their field experience. If teachers act only based on instinct, expediency, or limited theory I fear they may find out after years of teaching that they have been causing more harm than good to their students. To combat this, teachers should frequently and consistently both self-assess and engage with diverse perspectives on teaching. In this way they can continually refine their objectives and make adjustments to successfully merge them with context.

Cook-Sather, Alison. "Movements of Mind: The Matrix, Metaphors, and Re-imagining Education." Teachers College Record. Volume 105, Number 6 August 2003

Davis, Brent, Sumara, Dennis, and Luce-Kapler, Rebecca. Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in Complex Times. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Dewey, John. Experience and Education. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Herman, Lee and Mandell, Alan. From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and Practice, Dialogue and Life in Adult Education. New York: Routledge, 2004.


Hallie Garrison's picture

I think this piece perfectly

I think this piece perfectly outlines why a solid education is so important to a teacher. The Bryn Mawr/Haverford Ed program is unique in that it focuses on teachers as lifelong learners. As this author notes, it is important not to forget the theories of learning and culture that we discover in our courses here, especially in difficult teaching moments. The "diverse methods of teaching" mentioned here can only be achieved if teachers are allowed to be creative enough in their techniques to incorporate progressive models of learning and mentoring, which doesn't happen when curriculum is standardized. Teachers who are aware of many approaches to education will be more likely, it seems, to find avenues around stifling curricular constraints.