This interview features insights from the JTE article “Context Matters: Contextual Factors Informing Mentoring in Art Initial Teacher Education” by Ayelet Becher and Lily Orland-Barak. The article is published in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of the Journal of Teacher Education. You can read the full text by visiting this link.
Q1. What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic? Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?
Over the past three decades, mentoring has become a benchmark of Israeli initial teacher education. The ‘Guidelines for Teacher Education Programs in Israeli Higher Education Institutions’ (Council for Higher Education, 2008) explicitly require a substantial school-based practicum component in which student teachers receive “professional accompanying by at least one teacher-mentor and instructor/faculty member from the institution providing the teacher education program” (p. 4).
While such requirements include mentoring as compulsory settings of teacher education, they do not define desired aims, processes and outcomes of professional learning that should occur within them. Rather, the guidelines intentionally allow for a high level of flexibility in the structure and content of practicum activities, in accordance with the educational vision and approach of each institution (p. 2). This pluralistic standpoint of the Israeli teacher education system has created a rich and diverse arena of teacher preparation programs and in turn, of mentoring practices and structures. In such ambiguous terrain, mentors’ practices incline to be highly context-dependent, relying on resources provided by the institution, the aims of the teacher education program and, to a large extent, the identities and approaches of mentors themselves. Since the guidelines mention mentors affiliated to different institutions (universities, colleges of education and schools), supported by the literature, we assumed that mentors’ institutional affiliations have an important role in shaping their ideas regarding learning to teach and their actual work with student teachers.
We were also intrigued by the fact that the guidelines acknowledged pedagogical content knowledge as a major field of professional learning in teacher education (pp. 8). Taken to our research focus on mentoring, mentors’ personal biographies and professional backgrounds also position them in relation to their respective subject matter (as researchers, practitioners and/or teachers in the field of subject). In this sense, subject matter suddenly appeared to us not only as an area of content but also as a contextual indicator determining one’s social connection to a particular community of practice (mathematicians/artists/EFL teachers/etc.). This realization raised our interest in how such contextual factors, connecting mentors to various social groups, operate to shape mentoring practices from the perspective of mentors themselves.
The above considerations led us to include mentors from different institutions, working in various programs of teacher education in the field of Arts Education. Choosing Art Teacher Education as a context for our study was not coincidental: In order to expose dissimilarities between pedagogical approaches of mentors working in different programs, we wanted to explore a field which clearly surfaced gaps between theory and practice. Due to known intricate relations between art theory and artistic practice, we suspected that in Art Teacher Education, there could be notable differences between mentors viewing themselves as artists and those who perceive themselves also as researchers and teacher educators in the arts. Moreover, exploring a field such as Arts Education which in its practice juxtaposes between core values of the Arts with those of schooling (e.g. freedom vs. standardization) also increased chances of locating differences between teacher mentors who are primarily schoolteachers and mentors from colleges of education who often have strong background as practicing artists. Here, we were rather surprised that findings revealed differences between teacher-mentors who tried to reconcile conflictual values of art and schooling and those who advocated a one-dimensional set of values. Comparing ideas and practices of mentors working in three domains of Arts Education generated a wide spectrum of contextual factors that seem to influence mentors’ work, such as their perceptions of the social role of subject matter (as a school subject, as a domain of practice and as a theoretical construct).
Q2. What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?
One major difficulty that we encountered was dealing with the challenging demands of the data analysis process according to the principles of Gee’s (1999) framework of critical discourse analysis (CDA). First, CDA scholars encourage researchers using CDA to modify the general methodological procedures, so as to serve the examined issue in a particular context, while maintaining core principles of CDA (Rogers, 2004). Hence, we had to adjust Gee’s analytical framework to our own research context, aims and data sources and create a genuine analytical model (See Becher & Orland-Barak, 2016). This was not an easy task; one which required going back and forth throughout the analysis process, verifying the compatibility of our initial design to ongoing emergent necessary changes. Secondly, the fine-grained nature of CDA, disassembling sentences into their linguistic components, reviewing their inner structures and denoted meanings, was quite demanding. Here, a significant challenge for us was to simultaneously deconstruct utterances and constantly connect them to the big picture in three circles: The immediate discursive performance (the entire conversation/type of activity), the performer (the mentor), and the wider context (domain of Arts Education/institutional affiliation).
Q3. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?
Two major domains of findings did not make it into the article: One issue had to do with how mentors’ considerations of contextual factors are informed by historical developments of their educational fields. For example, theatre mentors alluded to the low status of theater teaching in school as a major consideration influencing how they perceive and enact their work with student teachers. Historically, the introduction of theatre into schooling has been described as an entrance ‘through the back door’ (Schonmann, 2009). This has situated theater teaching as a subject that is often under-appreciated in school settings and is being exploited for external educational purposes. A second issue pertains to the mentor’s construal of and negotiation between multiple professional identities in relation to his/her connection to various social groups, as – a schoolteacher who also works as teacher educator; a researcher of a disciplinary domain who also works with prospective teachers; and a practitioner in a professional domain who also works with student teachers in school settings (Becher & Orland-Barak, forthcoming).