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From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and Practice, Dialogue and Life in Adult Education

reviewed by Amy D. Rose - 2005

coverTitle: From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and Practice, Dialogue and Life in Adult Education
Author(s): Lee Herman and Alan Mandell
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415266181, Pages: 231, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

What is it like to be a faculty member in a nontraditional program? What are the key paradigms that one brings into this practice? What, in essence, is good practice within nontraditional education? In their recent book, From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and Practice, Dialogue and Life in Adult Education, authors Lee Herman and Alan Mandell begin a discussion of these questions, but in so doing they take on much more. They easily deal with the meaning of dialogue, the nature of education, and questions of power that suffuse all teacher-learner relationships. Finally, in attempting to lay out the dimensions of effective mentoring, they advocate for a reexamination of the very meaning of higher education and a reformulation of its current structure.

In doing this, Herman and Mandell begin with what they consider to be the basic principles of mentoring. By mentoring, they are not referring to the current denotation of the term as those who either formally or informally guide individuals through their careers. Rather, they begin with a more idiosyncratic definition that refers purely to the name given to teachers within Herman and Mandell’s own institution. But they are aware of the implications of the word mentor, and hence they maintain that the effective professor is indeed a mentor in the broadest sense possible. In effect, the role of the college professor is to meet students where they are, to guide them to where they want to go, and to strive to understand as much as possible each individual student’s perspective, goals, and “lifeworld.”

Initially, Herman and Mandell’s view of the dimensions of mentoring lies within their own context, that of Empire State College (ESC), a nontraditional, fully accredited branch of the State University of New York. As they explain, at ESC, students design their own degree programs and may receive credit for their prior learning. Students work individually with mentors and tutors, although they may opt to take more traditional classes or to participate in group study experiences offered by ESC itself. In addition, students may participate in distance learning classes. Requirements are fulfilled through completion of a contract that is written by the student and his or her advisor or mentor.

Mentors come to ESC as faculty members with particular areas of expertise. But they work with a variety of students in almost all disciplines, encountering diversity in areas that can range from the course offerings themselves to the development of individual student programs. Although some students opt for more traditional programs that mimic the majors found on virtually any college campus, others design programs that are genuinely individualized and formulated for the learner’s unique circumstances. Yet according to Herman and Mandell, all students need to think deeply about what they are studying and why they are studying it. Even if a student decides to design a fairly traditional degree in accounting, for example, she needs to think about the ramifications of particular areas of study, how the pieces fit together, and what kind of synthesis she can make of the individual program components.

The act of going to college has a multiplicity of meanings for all individuals, but particularly for adults, who arrive in any higher education situation with a history that includes their past failures and successes as well as the reality of their present life situations. Herman and Mandell describe the issues raised by these diverse histories through a series of narratives of their interactions with students. In these narratives, the authors lay out the dynamics of these interactions, attempting to reflect on their own failures to perceive the students’ needs and fears. Their aim is to illustrate their principles of mentoring, which are based on an ideal of Socratic dialogue that they believe is central to the mentoring relationship.

Herman and Mandell’s principal contribution is to present the faculty perspective on becoming a mentor. This work is essentially a reflective exercise designed to convey various perspectives about the teaching-learning situation as it plays out at ESC. On one level, their narratives all deal with the question of authority and professional power within what is an essentially dialogical relationship. They ask, “How do mentors balance their own views about what students should do with helping these students find their own meaning within their own studies?” But these narratives go far beyond this question to deal with the issue of mentor and teacher power in the broadest possible sense. They struggle with the issue of expertise and knowledge, of guiding students without forcing them to accept a particular point of view. Herman and Mandell ask how teachers and mentors can use their expertise to educate while not assuming that they know exactly what this education should be.

As Herman and Mandell are aware, this is an issue that surfaces repeatedly within the field of adult education. If adults are autonomous, fully developed, mature individuals, then do we as teachers have a right to push them to take classes or study issues in which they have no interest or which are diametrically opposed to their belief systems? What are the limits of professorial power within the negotiations that go on daily at all levels of higher education?

Although Herman and Mandell situate their discussion within their own context of ESC, the ramifications go well beyond their particular situation. Indeed, their argument is that all of higher education should be reformulated to focus on the teaching-learning dynamic that develops through effective mentoring.

Building on the definition of Socratic dialogue, Herman and Mandell enunciate six principles of mentoring:


Authority and uncertainty: Act so that what you believe you know is only provisionally true.


Diversity of curriculum: People learn best when they learn what draws their curiosity.


Autonomy and collaboration: Treat all learning projects, all studies as occasions for dialogue rather than as transmissions of knowledge from expert to novice.


Learning from the “lifeworld”: Treat all participants to an inquiry as whole persons— that is as people who hope to experience even in their busiest and most instrumental activities, the virtues and happiness which are ends-in-themselves and give life meaning and purpose.


Evaluation as reflective learning: Judge the quality of learning in the movement of the dialogue: expect that the content of individual outcomes will be, like all knowledge claims, incomplete and diverse.


Individual learning and the knowledge most worth having: Honor and engage each student’s individual desire to know and every student will learn what is important.  (p. 12)

Implementation of Mentoring and Reflection

This book is really a call to think more broadly about the possibilities of education at all levels. The authors maintain that if we are asking our students to question assumptions and to reflect on their experiences, then perhaps that is something that we as faculty members should do as well. They portray themselves as almost breathtakingly open to self-reflection as they work with students, trying to keep up with the myriad paths that each individual’s intellectual journey can involve. One can only be impressed by the level of their learning, their willingness to share their own intellectual vulnerabilities with students, and their constant efforts at self-criticism.

Unfortunately, the authors end this impressive book with a weak hypothetical illustration of how a more traditional faculty member could develop their principles. Although the premise is of interest, it does not work as well as other parts of the book because it seems so contrived. The authors undoubtedly included this section to advance their argument that the world of mentorship has broad implications for the world of higher education, but this contrived approach runs counter to the authenticity that marks the rest of this book. More importantly, the scenario obfuscated some of the central issues that ran through my mind as I thought about this work from my own vantage point as a professor of adult education within an educationally traditional university. It also reminded me of the reply of one of my colleagues whenever he is challenged on the rather traditional approach to education embodied in his courses as being the antithesis of adult education principles that are student- and experience-centered: “This is higher education, not adult education.”

Of course, this contradiction lies at the heart of what Herman and Mandell are considering. Although most of us struggle with the ideal of working with students to develop their personal interests, we also carry an illusion that at some points our development and theirs will merge. Despite the lip service we pay to the ideal, most of us have no clue about how to actually work with students whose ideas may differ markedly from our own. This is not an issue of differing politics (popular writing on this topic notwithstanding), but one of differing paradigms, of differing views about knowledge, and of “truth.” Each individual faculty member sets his or her own limit on how far he or she is willing to go outside of generally accepted premises and formats in order to accommodate students who may think, reason, and argue differently.

The central question then becomes, how do we help students grow while maintaining our own integrity? As we learn from students and question our own values, are there lines beyond which we cannot move? How are these drawn? More importantly, why are they drawn? Herman and Mandell recognize these problems, but I’m not sure they fully acknowledge the intense difficulties most of us face in situations in which they emerge. As they illustrate, it is easy to be unaware of one’s own dismissal of a student’s point of view. Yet openness to all new ideas may leave one bereft of any sense of belief in the content, as opposed to the process, of education. Is higher education then, to be a merely a set of processes? There is no easy to solution to these issues.

Herman and Mandell base their principles of mentoring on an insistence on reflection on our actions, on our intent as teachers, on how we are perceived, and on what the power dynamics are between mentor and mentee or student and professor. After all, the essence of dialogue (albeit not Socratic dialogue) may very well be equality. From 1979 until 1982, a group of Israeli adult educators attempted to introduce Buberian dialogue groups into the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. It was felt that if true dialogue could take place, if each group could truly understand the other’s perspective, even if they did not agree, then a foundation would be laid for action. Unfortunately the groups did not really advance this aim. In fact, the researchers ended their study noting that within the political climate at the time, true equality between Israelis and Palestinians could not be achieved, because the groups reflected the broader power relationships of those attending. There was no way to create a safe enough space within the groups to allow true dialogue to emerge (Gordon, 1986).

Extrapolating broadly, one could argue that in fact the lack of true equality within the mentor-mentee relationship has similar ramifications. Yes, it is true that both parties can learn and grow from the relationship, but the ground rules are still set by the mentor, who, at best, is mindful of the student’s needs and receptive to varying points of view. Thus, modeling behavior is a key component of effective mentoring. Such modeling, as Herman and Mandell note, is a consequence of the mentor’s relationship both to the student and to knowledge in general. Perhaps it is here, in their constant questioning and reflection, that these authors pay a tribute not only to their own skills as mentors, but to the life of the mind as well.

Yet Herman and Mandell are unclear about how the search for understanding can, or even if it should, lead to transformation. This issue of transformative education is at the heart of much debate within adult education and education in general. Whereas some bemoan this emphasis (e.g., Newman, 1994), others see transformation as the key focus of adult education (e.g., Mezirow, 1991; Mezirow and Associates, 2000; Vella, 1994). Herman and Mandell take no active stand on this issue, yet it pervades the book. What is noteworthy, however, is the emphasis they place on the transformation of the mentor. The rest may follow.


This book is an interesting, reflective, and erudite piece of work. It is provocative in both its message and its presentation. Drawing on an impressive array of sources, Herman and Mandell show teachers and mentors at their best. The book’s strengths lie in its fluid, clear, and exceedingly interesting style and in the nature of the questions the authors ask about reflective practice, transformation, and nontraditional education. In the end, the book is about the lives of adult educators within higher education. It proposes broad-ranging changes in how faculty members function while maintaining that a reformulation resulting from such changes holds the possibility of reinvigorating the entire U.S. system of higher education and the professional development of individual faculty members within any system. In their emphasis on the educator within nontraditional education, Herman and Mandell allow readers to view the everyday lives of mentors within higher education and the dilemmas that they face.


Gordon, H. (1986). Dance, dialogue, and despair: Existentialist philosophy and education for peace in Israel. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Mezirow, J. D. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. D., & Associates. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Newman, M. (1994). Defining the enemy: Adult education in social action. Sydney, Australia: Stewart Victor.

Vella, J. (1994). Learning to listen, learning to teach: The power of dialogue in educating adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1418-1423
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11758, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:19:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Amy Rose
    Northern Illinois University
    E-mail Author
    AMY D. ROSE is a professor of Adult and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University. She has written extensively on the history of adult education and on non-traditional adult and higher education. She is currently working on a project that explores the continuing overlap between adult education and higher education.
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