In the work of Quest Forward Learning, we refer to our teachers as mentors because we believe that mentors are facilitators of learning rather than just givers of content. Mentors are people who are working with their students to develop relationships, set goals, and seek opportunities to build essential habits and skills. Mentoring and instructing are not opposite sides of the same coin; rather, they work hand-in-hand to improve student learning. So, how does instruction follow a mentoring approach rather than being driven by content? In a mentoring-centric approach to teaching and learning, where does content instruction fit? What role does content play in work with students?
We all believe in the importance of engaging, collaborative work for and by students, but more importantly, we believe that learning goes through a powerful transformation when it is put in the hands of the student. Mentors take on a role where they view themselves as coaches, proficient with integrating the instruction of both content and skills. Although the practice is often difficult to adopt, it’s a powerful relationship when done well. In the Quest Forward Learning approach, mentoring and instruction are incorporated into each quest in unique ways. When students and mentors work with quests, they typically activate the following forms of instruction:
- Mentor-Facilitated Discovery: The students are first discovering on their own, and the mentor is helping to focus and steer them in the appropriate directions within the framework of the quest.
- Mentor-Led Exploration and Feedback: Mentors have a more integrated role, engaging with the students as they wrap their heads around new or challenging material, which is often combined with group work and ongoing mentor feedback.
- Mentor-Supported Exhibitions with Student Artifacts: When students make artifacts, mentors are given the opportunity to guide the student while reevaluating and refocusing their work through instruction.
The science quest Ecosystem Components offers a good example for how these modes of supporting students can work.
Mentor-Facilitated Discovery In the first activity of Ecosystem Components, students are prompted to discover the supplies they might need for a three-day camping trip. However, if students have never been camping or lack background knowledge, they may not be confident on what to pack. When faced with this obstacle, mentors can give students advice on good locations for camping, recommendations on amounts of certain resources, and the general climate of their location. In this form of instruction, mentors are helping students find their interests and make connections with prior experiences. Mentors are also cultivating relevant and authentic learning experiences within the framework of the quest.
Mentor-Led Exploration Within the second and third activities of Ecosystem Components, students are asked to research biotic and abiotic factors, explain why they matter for organisms, and design and perform an ecosystem experiment. Through all of this, mentors play an integral role in guiding students through unfamiliar vocabulary, ecosystem relationships, and hands-on experimentation. Mentors are not explicitly laying out the terms or the guidelines for the experiment – those are supplied by the activity resources – but are rather allowing students to try different strategies to find the right medium for them. By helping students understand the interconnectedness of the content, while also promoting exploration, curiosity, and deep thinking, this unique form of instruction facilitates greater student learning.
Mentor-Supported Exhibitions with Student Artifacts In a quest-based learning environment, students are encouraged to show their learning in multiple ways, often through diverse methods and media. Mentors are essential to this learning showcase development, serving as instructors, critics and supporters as students work through the creation, revision, and editing of showcase artifacts. In the Ecosystem Components quest, students are asked to present their findings using graphs, diagrams, and other forms of visual aids obtained from their ecosystem experiments. This opportunity allows students to refine their understanding of the scientific method and communicate results in both an objective and engaging way. Mentors play an active role in scaffolding reflection and feedback as they provide tools and strategies to help students process and follow through on the recommendations. Just as important though, mentors are creating opportunities for students to showcase their work, skills, and knowledge.
Mentoring, as a practice, has distinctive forms of instruction woven in. This role takes time and practice, but in the end, it helps students bring value to themselves, their community, and the world.