Imagination, Brokers, and Boundary Objects: Interrupting the Mentor–Preservice Teacher Hierarchy When Negotiating Meanings

January 1, 2020

Source: Journal of Teacher Education. Volume: 71 issue: 1, page(s): 80-93

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this study, the authors examined preservice and mentor elementary teacher conversations during a co-learning task that engaged group members in analyzing children’s science ideas.
Co-learning is an approach to preservice teacher preparation that designed to engage preservice and mentor teachers in constructing shared understandings while working together on teaching-related activities.
A teacher educator may facilitate preservice and mentor teachers’ conversations to encourage joint sense-making.
The study’s research questions were as follows:
1: Who participated in the negotiations of meanings during the co-learning tasks and what modes of belonging did they use?
2: What are potential opportunities for interrupting the preservice–mentor teacher hierarchy?

Context and Participants
This study took place in the context of a project, called Beyond Bridging, within an elementary teacher preparation program of a large university in the southwestern United States.
The purpose of the project was to create stronger connections between university coursework and field placement classrooms by linking the theory and practice of teaching elementary mathematics and science.
The project extended over three semesters, including two semesters of content methods teaching courses and one semester of student teaching.
During the two semesters prior to student teaching, preservice teachers were placed with mentor teachers in elementary classrooms for 9 hours per week.

A signature feature of the project was joint events during which preservice teachers and their field classroom mentor teachers participated together on co-learning tasks.
These tasks required preservice and mentor teachers to work together on teaching-related activities.
Mentor teachers also participated in a 2.5-hour professional development session at the beginning of the project that included strategies for supporting preservice teachers in making connections between university coursework and field-based experiences.
The participants in this study came from two cohorts of preservice and mentor teachers.
The first cohort consisted of nine preservice teachers and 11 mentor teachers, whereas the second cohort consisted of 11 preservice teachers and 12 mentor teachers.
During the co-learning task that is the focus of this article, participants worked in small groups composed of both mentor and preservice teachers.

The authors’ analysis of the preservice and mentor teachers’ conversations showed that the majority of the time mentor teachers were participants and preservice teachers were nonparticipants in the negotiations of meanings in the groups.
However, the analysis also uncovered some occasions in which preservice teachers had opportunities to negotiate meanings with mentor teachers.
When preservice and mentor teachers participated in negotiating meanings during the co-learning task mentor teachers dominated the negotiations.
The mentor teachers used engagement, imagination, and alignment to participate in the negotiations in ways that enabled them to get their ideas taken up by the group more often than preservice teachers were able to do.
For preservice teachers, engagement and alignment led to nonparticipation in negotiations because their ideas were discounted or marginalized.

However, there were moments in which preservice teachers were able to make contributions that mentor teachers took up.
Preservice teachers were able to use imagination as a mode of belonging to participate more equitably with mentor teachers.
The teacher educator was also able to broker openings for preservice teachers to get their ideas considered by mentor teachers.
In addition, although the video transcript was usually used by mentor teachers to propose meanings, preservice teachers were also occasionally able to leverage the transcript as a boundary object to propose alternative meanings that were briefly taken up by mentor teachers.

Although the authors found that during the co-learning tasks, mentor teachers tended to dominate group sense-making, they also found that preservice teacher use of imagination, the actions of the teacher educator as a broker, and preservice teacher use of boundary objects temporarily interrupted the mentor–preservice teacher hierarchy and provided more opportunity for preservice teachers to participate in the negotiation of meanings.
In making their argument, they state that they are not suggesting that mentor teacher contributions to sensemaking are not valuable.
Preservice teachers have to navigate learning situated in both university and field contexts and mentor teachers play an important role in helping preservice teachers make connections between what they learn in coursework and field placements (Anderson & Stillman, 2013; Horn et al., 2008).

Indeed, the premise behind co-learning and similar approaches is that preservice teachers can learn much by engaging with mentor teachers in joint activity and sense-making.
Ideally, in these types of approaches, sense-making spaces would resemble the model where mentors and preservice teachers are participating equally in negotiation of meanings using all three modes of belonging.
However, when mentor teachers dominate the sense-making, opportunities for preservice participation in negotiations of meaning are lost.
Thus, care must be taken to ensure that when working together, both preservice and mentor teachers have equitable opportunities to participate in the negotiation of meanings.

Because the hierarchy is ingrained, efforts are needed to provide mentor teachers and preservice teachers with new ways to interact when working together.
A key to interrupting the mentor–preservice teacher hierarchy and increasing preservice teachers’ participation in negotiation of meanings with mentor teachers lies in mentor teachers’ perception of preservice teachers as people with valuable ideas.
While the findings from this examination of a co-learning task identified three potential ways that preservice teacher status may be elevated, there are undoubtedly other approaches as well. Supporting more equitable relationships between mentor and preservice teachers requires attention to raising preservice teachers’ status.

Anderson, L. M., Stillman, J. A. (2013). Student teaching’s contribution to preservice teacher development: A review of research focused on the preparation of teachers for urban and high-needs contexts. Review of Educational Research, 83(1), 3-69.
Horn, I. S., Nolen, S. B., Ward, C., Campbell, S. S. (2008). Developing practices in multiple worlds: The role of identity in learning to teach. Teacher Education Quarterly, 35(3), 61-72. 

Updated: Jul. 19, 2020