A Broad Approach to Mentoring in an Inquiry-Focused Early Teaching Experience

Laura Lising and Cody Sandifer
Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geosciences
Towson Unviversity


The science teaching reform movement in the U.S. is well organized and strong, with clear standards and benchmarks laid out in the National Science Education Standards (NSES) [1] and Project 2061 Benchmarks for Science Literacy [2]. The results of a wealth of research point to a need for transforming classroom science teaching from traditional lecture and rote learning environments to student- and idea-centered inquiry learning environments. Like many other institutions, Towson University has been working to meet the challenge of nurturing inquiry appreciation and expertise in our elementary education graduates. With funding from the APS’s, AAPT’s, and AIP’s Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) program [3], Towson has reformed its elementary science education program [4], focusing primarily on our early teaching experience course. Given the focus of this newsletter issue, this article will motivate the importance of the early teaching experience as an excellent context for making effective reforms in an elementary science education program, and discuss particular reforms that serve many of the broader goals of mentoring, with an emphasis on peer group mentoring and “self-mentoring.” These alternative modes of mentoring have unique benefits that are different than those of traditional “expert-novice” mentoring.


The Benchmarks call for “Field experiences [in P-12 schools] that allow experienced teachers to share the full picture of teaching with novices.” However, interaction between experienced teachers and education students around issues of science teaching often does not occur in elementary student teaching. At Towson University, for example, surveys have shown that, of the 84% of elementary student teachers who receive frequent mentoring (advice, coaching, resources, and support) from their supervising teachers, approximately one-third of these (32%) receive no science-specific mentoring. In addition, of those experienced teachers who come in contact with student teachers, the fraction who are experts in teaching science as inquiry is likely to be low. So even when the student teachers are mentored in science, it is unlikely that the mentoring is inquiry-focused. Clearly there is currently a pressing need for innovative, effective, inquiry-focused science mentoring at the pre-student teaching level. An early science teaching experience presents just such a mentoring opportunity.

Early field experiences are widespread in teacher preparation [5]. According to a 1997 survey by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), over 70% of teacher preparation programs require field experiences in the first or second year of an education student’s college career. [A] However, we have been unable to ascertain the prevalence of science-specific early field experiences. The NSES and Benchmarks argue, and we would agree, that early science teaching is an important aspect of teacher education. This is especially true given the lack of science-specific mentoring in student teaching, which means that early teaching experiences often represent the first and final opportunity for students to experience inquiry-focused science mentoring that is linked directly to teaching practice.

What types of mentoring activities can occur in an early science teaching experience? We suggest that, in the context of early teaching, it is important not to limit one’s notion of mentoring to traditional mentor-mentee relationships, in which mentors are typically conceived of as being more experienced, expert, senior, older, knowledgeable, or successful than their mentees [6]. As valuable as these traditional mentor-mentee relationships can be, there are other types of mentoring relationships that offer unique benefits and can be more flexible and sustainable than the traditional expert-novice relationship. For instance, the NSES argues that “Some of the most powerful connections between science teaching and learning are made through thoughtful practice in field experiences, team teaching, collaborative research, or peer coaching” and the Benchmarks emphasize the importance of peer relationships in sustained in-service teacher development. While peer mentoring [7-8] does not fit the usual expert-novice mentoring paradigm, peers can provide useful resources, coaching, and support.

Another alternative to traditional mentoring is “self-mentoring,” [9], which includes exercises where a preservice or inservice teacher positions him- or herself as his or her own mentor during reflective activities or self-“observations.”Although these activities do not involve interpersonal relationships like expert-novice mentoring or peer mentoring, they can help a teaching student or practicing teacher coach and support him- or herself more effectively. Self-mentoring can also be considered a facet of reflective practice [10], which is recognized as being crucial for effective teacher development.

Towson’s early science teaching experience

At Towson, elementary education majors have three science courses in their third year of study: an earth-space science course that is a mixture of content and teaching methods, a biology content/methods course, and a science internship (the early teaching experience). In the internship course, elementary education students (hereafter referred to as “interns”) practice teaching science and learn additional teaching methods.

In reforming the internship, our project team developed a number of means to support course improvements, including mentor teacher workshops, instructor workshops, methods activities and other resources [11]. For instance, we were able to establish minimum teaching requirements; consequently the percentage of interns who teach fewer than four class lessons has decreased from 28% to 0% over the past four years. We also established four “Core Principles of Inquiry” and related methods activities for the three science courses mentioned above. The Core Principles are aligned with, but more concise than, the NSES inquiry guidelines, and emphasize children figuring out concepts on their own as much as possible in an idea-centered, minds-on, cooperative learning environment.

Since we began reforming the course over three years ago, we have been measuring progress according to our primary reform goal – increased teaching of science as inquiry by the interns. Using an observation protocol based on the NSES “Changing Emphasis” statements, we have seen a shift from mostly traditional teaching to mostly mixed or primarily inquiry teaching. For instance, in our baseline semester, 9 of 11 lessons observed primarily involved interns demonstrating science content (more traditional), whereas only 2 involved interns having the children investigate science content (more inquiry). In contrast, by the third year of the project, the data collected over both semesters revealed primarily demonstration of content in no lessons (of 22 observed) and investigation of content in 14 lessons, with the remaining 8 lessons containing a mixture of both approaches.

Mentoring in Towson’s early teaching course

Mentoring by “experts”: the course instructor and the classroom teachers.

New course instructors are trained in science inquiry methods before teaching, and thus the interns are supposed to receive some inquiry-specific mentoring of their teaching practice during this course. Our observations, however, show that there is still a wide range in the quantity and quality of feedback the interns receive from their course instructors, especially among those who are new to inquiry. This is continually being addressed. The elementary mentor teachers, in whose classes the interns are placed, are also oriented to the course and its inquiry emphasis in a three-hour workshop. We have seen some changes in the feedback to be more aligned with the goals of inquiry. For instance, some teachers have come to expect investigations to take several class periods rather than wrapping up each day, and counsel interns to be patient and help the children evaluate and build on their own ideas.

Peer group mentoring in the context of lesson planning, teaching, and analyzing children’s ideas.

One of the most important aspects of the course is the team planning/teaching structure. Three to six interns are placed in each elementary classroom, with each intern working with one small group of children each week for the majority of each lesson. With this arrangement, each intern teaches every day rather than taking turns with other team members and also gets to be well-acquainted with the children in the small group reducing the number of classrooms placements has various benefits. With fewer classrooms, for example, we can do a better job of choosing schools and classrooms to ensure that the cooperating teachers are supportive of inquiry. Reducing the number of classrooms also allows all interns in a given course section to be placed in the same school, with the result that their Towson instructor is available to every intern every week for guidance and mentoring. However, one of the most important benefits is that, within the teaching/planning groups, the interns become de facto peer mentors themselves: they share lesson plan ideas, engage in formal and informal teaching discussions, and provide motivational, pedagogical, and content-related support for one another. Advantages of peer group mentoring, for interns as well as practicing teachers, include making the mentees feel less isolated and – because they are being mentored by peers rather than higher-status expert mentors – allowing the mentees to be more forthcoming about their teaching fears and frustrations [8]. Evidence for the interns’ appreciation for group planning is most visible in their summative course reflections, a portion of which is often dedicated to the interns’ recognition that group planning is helpful. Many of the interns also discuss plans to use their peers (many of whom are friends by the end of the course) for help in their continued growth in the future.

The importance of anticipating and analyzing children’s ideas is emphasized by many of the course instructors as central to inquiry teaching. A variety of course assignments are used to help the interns practice this type of anticipation and analysis, including the explicit requirement of anticipation/analysis sections in the interns’ lesson plans and teaching reflections and special assignments in which the interns analyze transcribed audio recordings of their lessons and other lesson artifacts to help them develop interpretive skills and use these skills in their teaching. Delving deeply into possible meanings of children’s statements, drawings, etc. is a difficult endeavor and interns generally rely strongly on their peers for help, with the result that these assignments frequently provide natural contexts for peer mentoring to occur. The peer collaboration that emerges in these activities (which we encourage the interns to continue once they have their own classrooms) is similar to the successful “Science Inquiry Group” model of in-service peer mentoring [12].

Self-mentoring through focused reflections and “self-observations.”

The course includes an array of activities to help the interns more effectively analyze their own teaching. In addition to their lesson reflections, the course includes end-of-semester reflections that require interns to assess their progress in teaching and devise a plan for continued growth. Another activity is a type of self-observation, in which the interns audiotape their lessons and analyze their own teaching according to provided guidelines. For instance, one assignment asks students to analyze and categorize the “metamessages” [13] in their statements. Metamessages are ideas or values communicated indirectly. For instance, saying “That’s correct” to a child sends a different message about what a teacher is attending to at the moment (correct answers) than saying to the whole class “Does that make sense to you?” (sensibleness and others’ understanding). Interns are typically very surprised to find such a strong discord between their most common metamessages and their personal goals and they spontaneously devise plans for resolving this discord through continued self-monitoring. Such self-mentoring holds the possibility of being more honest and more motivating, and it is available when other forms of mentoring are not.

We would like to thank Pamela Lottero-Perdue for helpful advice and resources.


  1. National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards . Washington , DC : National Academy Press.
  2. American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Washington, D. C.: Oxford University Press.
  3. http://www.phystec.org
  4. For overviews of our project, please see: Sandifer, C., Lising, L., and Tirocchi, L. (2006). Our PhysTEC project: Collaborating with a classroom teacher to improve an elementary science practicum. 2006 Conference Proceedings of the Association for Science Teacher Education, Sandifer, C., Lising, L., and Renwick, E. (2007). Towson’s PhysTEC course improvement project, years 1 and 2: results and lessons learned. 2007 Conference Proceedings of the Association for Science Teacher Education, and http://www.phystec.org/institutions/towson/
  5. Huling, L. (1998). Early field experiences in teacher education. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education, (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED429054)
  6. See, for example the influential papers by Levinson et al., Kram et. al., and a host of more recent references as well: Levinson, D. J., Darrow, C. N., Klein, E. B., Levinson, M. H., & McKee, B. (1978). Seasons of a man's life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, and also Kram, K. E. (1985). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organizational life. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.
  7. Kram, K. E. and Isabella, L. A. (1985). Mentoring alternatives: the role of peer relationships in career development. The Academy of Management Journal, 28, 110-32.
  8. Huling-Austin, L. (1992). Research on learning to teach: Implications for teacher induction and mentoring programs. Journal of Teacher Education, 43(3), 173-80.
  9. Boreen, J., Niday, D. and Johnson, M. K. (2003). Mentoring Across Boundaries: Helping Beginning Teachers Succeed in Challenging Situations. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
  10. Schön, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.
  11. http://pages.towson.edu/csandife/phystec/Elem_Internship_Resources.zip
  12. van Zee, E.H. (2000). Documentation and interpretation of the emerging practices of the Science Inquiry Group. Report to the Spencer Foundation Program for Practitioner Research: Communication and Mentoring Grants.
  13. Tannen, D. (2002). I Only Say this Because I Love You, New York: Ballantine.


  1. Twenty-five percent of field experiences are solely observation-based (i.e., in 25% of field experiences, the interns observe the science instruction of cooperating teachers without engaging in teaching activities themselves). In part, this is why the term “early teaching experience” is used in this article in place of “early field experience” – to clarify that our focus is on early teaching rather than early observing.

Laura Lising and Cody Sandifer are science education faculty in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geosciences at Towson University.   Both have backgrounds in physics and physics education research.   Dr. Lising's work currently focuses on science inquiry, elementary science education, teacher education, and personal epistemologies of p-16 students and teachers.    Dr. Sandifer's work currently focuses on science inquiry, elementary science education, teacher education, and p-16 curricular reform.