7 Nov 2013

Article Critique #3- Mentoring focused on one instructional strategy

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Open Text- Week 8


Stanulis, R.N, Little, S. & Wibbens, E. (2012). Intensive mentoring that contributes to change in beginning elementary teachers’ learning to lead classroom discussions.  Teaching and Teacher Education. 28. p.32-43.


“Mentoring has gained popularity as an effective way to support beginning teachers during the induction year”(p.32).  Researchers argue whether an investment in mentoring will lead to increased teaching effectiveness and student learning (Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Hobson et al., 2009; Lofstrom & Eisenschmidt, 2009; Roehrig et al. 2008; Stanulis & Floden, 2009; Sundli, 2007).  Mentoring has been linked to professional growth, teacher retention, increased instructional repertoire, increased job satisfaction and greater student learning.  However, one concern that this article raises is that much of the international research on mentoring relies on mentors’ and beginning teachers’ perceptions of learning through interview or survey (Hobson et al, 2009).  In fact, there are no large-scale empirical studies of impact of teacher mentoring after one year of mentoring (p.32). In fact one experimental study in the US indicates that after one year there was no effect on improving classroom practices, which is problematic for mentoring and induction proponents. “Generic mentoring was not found to make a difference in changing practice; generic professional development has not been found to make a difference either”(p.32).  In order to be effective, studies show professional development must have key characteristics: extended time for opportunities to learn, a challenging of the status quo of teaching practices, time to work and learn in communities of practice, a focus on theory combined with practice and a clear link to student learning.  Similarly, mentoring must have structured professional development that targets a clear, ‘high-leverage’ practice linked with instructional quality (p.33).

The first year of teaching marks a critical phase in teaching; new teachers are not finished products that only need to refine skills they learned in teachers’ college.  “Targeted feedback can help novices develop ways of seeing and understanding complex ways of teaching by enacting specific practices with guided support”(p.34).  Although beginning teachers need to learn many things, they can benefit from developing one practice well rather then trying to fix everything in their teaching at once.  Mentoring has the power to do this, however, it is often focused on emotional support, managing the workload of teaching, and classroom management.  “Little is known about the direct impact of mentoring on developing teaching effectiveness in specific skills”(p.34).  This study argues that it makes sense for beginning teachers to focus on only one ‘high-leverage’ practice such as learning to lead classroom discussions. High-leverage is defined in this article as a practice that: a) occurs frequently in teaching; b) can be enacted across curricula; c) is something that beginning teachers can work to master; d) allows beginning teachers to learn about student understanding; e) recognizes the complexity of teaching; and f) has the potential to improve student achievement as a research-based practice.  Through purposeful mentoring support, beginning teachers can learn the distinct set of skills and knowledge needed to lead discussions for high-level thinking (p.34).

This mixed-methods quasi-experimental study by Stanulis, Little and Wibbens (2012) took place in a large high-poverty school district in the Southeastern United States and focused on 42 beginning elementary teachers in the treatment group and 41 beginning teachers as the control group.  They created an intervention (high level discussions) based on principles of instructional quality and effective professional development, and studied the effects of this intervention on the treatment group’s practice as it compared to the control group.  Whereas the treatment group had prepared, full-release mentors to support them with this intervention, the control group “received the district’s ‘standard’ mentoring program, which consisted of assigning a beginning teacher to a school-based mentor who was also a full-time teacher.  The district did not have a formal induction curriculum, no selection criteria for mentors, nor formal expectations for mentor preparation or mentoring activities”(p.35).  “[The study] relied on observations of teachers’ practice across one school year in order to collect empirical data about teacher growth”(p.33). Specifically, it examined whether mentoring focusing on one instructional strategy can have an effect on classroom practice and was guided by two basic principles: 1) Leading discussions is a high-leverage practice that beginning teachers need to learn to execute effectively; 2) Mentoring directed to a targeted practice will lead to increased effectiveness in this practice (p.33).  Learning theory guided the design of this study and it is framed by four key principles described in the article.  Instruction in schools should be: learner-centred (acknowledgement and value of student voice), knowledge-centered (teacher use of high levels of questioning leads students to a deeper understanding of content with higher rate of retention and transfer of learning), assessment-centered (higher-order questions facilitate formative and summative assessment), and community-centered (sense of collaboration and partnership with their teachers and peers in the classroom).

This study used quantitative data from an observation rubric to show that participation in the “mentoring program does make a significant contribution to instructional quality as measured by our instrument”(p.38). The survey analysis (qualitative data) provided further “insight into the ways in which beginning teachers reported that participation in the intensive mentoring program impacted changes in how they set up and used discussion in their classroom”(p.38).  The findings of this study indicate that: “When a high-leverage practice is targeted, beginning teachers can learn to appropriate important knowledge and skills associated with a complex practice such as leading discussions early in their career.  In this way, induction is aligned with high-leverage practices associated with internationally recognized research on instructional quality”(p.40).  As stated by the study’s authors, there is further research needed to provide more evidence that discussion-oriented teaching produces certain student outcomes related to critical thinking and understanding.  Ultimately, this study was designed to research whether induction support through mentoring that is intensive and structured in a developmental sequence will help beginning teachers’ pedagogical needs.  Over the course of the year, through mentoring the treatment group improved in their ability to lead high-level class discussions.  “Typically mentors are provided little or no focused preparation on ways to support novices to develop high-leverage practices”(p.40). There are many questions that remain to be answered that the study poses:  Are there particular kinds of mentor actions that are more successful in changing beginning teacher practices than others?  If so, what qualities do the more effective mentors possess and what mentoring moves do they enact?  What elements of the school context could lead to increased changes in teaching practices?  Why and how are some beginning teachers more adaptive to teaching situations and contexts?  How does student learning improve as a result of discussion-based teaching?  These are great questions to guide my own research journey and there is an important lesson to take away from this study:  mentors need specific training in high-leverage instructional strategies in order to target these interventions with beginning teachers.  A structured plan and support program for the mentors to introduce a variety of these instructional strategies would be useful in all induction and mentoring programs.

As stated in the article, the facilitation of high-level discussions that promotes critical thinking is a core practice and it is situated within a particular type of instructional quality that is learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered and community-centered.  However, this study’s focus on one instructional strategy—beginning teachers learning to lead effective classroom discussion—does not take into consideration that there are many other instructional concepts and skills also at work, such as strong classroom management, building a safe and collaborative learning environment.  Surely, the mentor would be supporting the beginning teacher to establish these criteria before true high-level discussions could take place.  As well, this study indicates that by targeting the mentoring practice to one specific intervention, beginning teachers “did teach differently post-intervention when compared to a similar group of teachers who did not receive [the] intervention”(p.37).  I feel that there is also a missing discussion in this study on the implementation process of an instructional strategy.  There is evidence that the power of an instructional strategy develops as a teacher moves along the various Levels of Use (Hall and Hord, 2011) from level 0- non-use and moving to the top level of VI Renewal (0- Non-Use, 01 orientation, 0I preparation, III Mechanical, IVA Routine, IVB Refinement, V Integration, VI Renewal).  After one year, there will likely be significant variance between the teachers’ abilities to lead high-level class discussions and I would argue that similarly, the mentors would have varying levels of ability with the intervention which would ultimately affect their beginning teacher’s practice.  Another concern I have with this study is that the quantitative data focused only on the beginning teachers’ ability to lead high-level class discussions.  This is only one instructional strategy that will have an impact on student learning.  What if mentors from the control group focused on how to use graphic organizers in the classroom to increase student learning.  Of course, the beginning teachers would not perform as well on a rubric focused on classroom discussion, but they may in fact have equal success when it comes to student learning.  Since this article highlighted at the beginning the fact that the majority of mentoring research relies on mentors’ and beginning teachers’ perceptions of learning through interview or survey, I am critical of their use of an observational rubric focusing on teachers’ practice of leading class discussions rather than capturing student achievement data.  Ultimately, this is an area that needs much greater research in induction and mentoring research.


Hall, G.E., & Hord, S.M. (2011). Implementing change: Patterns, principles and potholes (3rd edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

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