Mentor-Novice Conversations About Teaching: A Comparison of Two U.S. and Two Chinese Cases

by Jian Wang, Michael Strong & Sandra Odell - 2004

Mentor-novice collaborative reflection about teaching is crucial to the development of novices' professional knowledge. However, few studies examine content and forms of mentor-novice conversations and opportunities that such interactions create for developing professional knowledge. Drawing on observation data from two U.S. and two Chinese mentor-novice pairs in induction contexts, this study analyzed the content and forms of mentor-novice conversations about novices' lessons. We found that the U.S. and Chinese mentor-novice interactions were different in focus and form, and these differences were likely related to the curriculum structures and organization of teaching and mentoring in each country. The interactions either offered or restricted novices' opportunities for developing professional knowledge necessary for reform-minded teaching.

Mentor-novice conversations about teaching are important to the development of teachers’ professional knowledge (Wang & Odell, 2002) and, thus, to the improvement of teaching practice in ways consistent with the reform-minded curriculum standards (Austin & Fraser-Abder, 1995). Drawing on mentor-novice conversations about novices’ lessons from two U.S. and two Chinese elementary mentor-novice pairs in induction contexts, we argue that the foci and forms of mentor-novice conversational interactions reflect the curriculum structure and teaching and mentoring organizations in which mentors and novices work. These interactions seem to offer different opportunities for novices as they learn to teach. We argue that allowing mentors and novices opportunities to interact about teaching may not help novices learn to teach in reform-minded ways.


Over the past decade, various professional organizations have established curriculum and teaching standards to help transform teaching practice and improve the quality of student learning (National Council for the Social Studies, 1994; National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, 1996; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2000; National Research Council, 1996). These standards are being incorporated into curriculum and teaching requirements at the state and school levels in spite of the debates about the effects of such approaches on the reform of teaching (Apple, 2001; Berliner & Biddle, 1996; Cochran-Smith & Fries, 2001).

To teach according to the new standards, teachers are asked to develop knowledge and teach in ways that help children acquire knowledge, skills, and dispositions for their future. In particular, teachers need to understand the subject matter that they are required to teach (Ball & Bass, 2001; Ball & McDiarmid, 1989) and develop flexible representations of subject matter to various groups of students (Grossman, 1990; Shulman, 1987; Wilson & Berne, 1999). They need to understand how diverse children at different developmental and intellectual levels learn, and what influences their learning (Grimmett & MacKinnon, 1992; Ladson-Billings, 1999). They need to analyze their teaching, argue the alternatives and apply their thoughts to uncertain and irregular contexts (Floden, Klinzing, Lampert, & Clark, 1990; Kennedy, 1991; Lampert & Clark, 1990; Leinhardt & Greeno, 1986). These assumptions about teacher knowledge have provided a framework for teacher education and professional development standards (Interstate New Teachers Assessment and Support Teaching Consortium, 1992; National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, 1998, 1999; Odell & Huling, 2000) and are helping shape policy and programs in teacher education and professional development (Cochran-Smith & Fries, 2001; Darling-Hammond & Ball, 1998; Sweeny & DeBolt, 2000).

Teacher education reformers propose teacher mentoring as an important strategy for helping novice teachers develop professional knowledge (Holmes Group, 1986, 1990). Scholars argue that mentor-novice relationships, properly structured, can offer novice teachers opportunities to develop subject-matter understanding (Feiman-Nemser & Parker, 1990). Mentors can help novices learn how to represent subject-matter understanding in their teaching (Huling-Austin, 1992; Wang & Odell, 2002). Mentors can support novice teachers in connecting knowledge of teaching to different kinds of students (Kennedy, 1991), help novices learn how to analyze teaching and transform practices (Cochran-Smith, 1991), and to teach in ways consistent with reform-minded curriculum and teaching standards (Austin & Fraser-Abder, 1995).

It is assumed that the success of teacher mentoring in helping novices develop professional knowledge resides in collaborative and reflective interactions between mentor and novice about teaching (Beasley, Corbin, Feiman-Nemser, & Shank, 1996; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Feiman- Nemser, 2001). Such an assumption is consistent with a sociocultural perspective about learning. A focus on mentor or novice teaching reflects the idea that all knowledge is situated in and grows out of a context (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Rogoff, 1984). The unique relationship between mentor and novice offers opportunities for a novice to access and internalize higher-order-social functions that he or she did not possess in the first place and gradually become part of the experienced community (Bakhtin, 1986; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Vygotsky, 1994). Interactions between mentor and novice offer an opportunity for the experienced to identify the zone of proximal development of the inexperienced and provide the necessary scaffolding to help the inexperienced move to the level beyond their own performance in learning (Tharp, 1988; Vygotsky, 1978).

Two lines of argument and relevant research support or challenge the assumption that mentor-novice conversations about one another’s instruction are an effective way to support teachers in developing the professional knowledge necessary for effective teaching. The first argument suggests that lesson-based teacher interaction is important in helping teachers develop professional knowledge and transform existing teaching practice (Hiebert, Gallimore, & Stigler, 2002). Such an argument finds its support in several lines of research on teacher learning and teachers’ knowledge. Research on the differences between expert and inexperienced teachers suggests that teachers’ knowledge is event-structured and context-based and practical in nature (Carter, 1990; Elbaz, 1983) and that learning to teach should be situated in the context of teaching (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Richardson, 1996). Chinese mathematics teachers are found to have a deeper understanding of mathematics concepts and flexible representations of these concepts in teaching (Ma, 1999), and their observations and discussion of each other’s teaching are seen to contribute significantly to their knowledge (Paine, 2001; Wang & Paine, 2003). Lesson-based interactions among Japanese teachers are found to be important in helping them develop effective teaching practices as envisioned by the U.S. reform standards (Hiebert & Stigler, 2000; Lewis, 2000; Lewis & Tsuchida, 1998; Stigler & Hiebert, 1999).

The second argument casts doubt on the function of lesson-based mentor-novice conversations on novices’ professional knowledge and, thus, on novices’ learning to teach in reform-minded ways. Several research studies support this position. One comparative study showed that mentor teachers from different countries held different beliefs about teaching and mentoring associated with the nature of the curriculum system and teaching organization in which they worked (Wang, 2001). Work by Little (1990a, 1990b) showed that teacher mentoring and discussion about teaching, structured in an individualist culture of teaching, does not help form effective and collaborative teacher relationships that are crucial for developing professional knowledge. A mentoring relationship that follows a situated perspective of learning could become a conservative force that helps reproduce the existing culture and practice of teaching instead of transforming it (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Cochran-Smith & Paris, 1995).

In spite of being research-based, neither argument has sufficient evidence to present a solid challenge. The first argument, although supported by studies of interactions among groups of teachers, lacks support from research that directly analyzes mentor-novice conversations and their consequences. The second argument relies heavily on interview and survey research from settings where mentor teachers work in traditional contexts, and little attention is paid to how mentors and novices talk about their teaching and what topics they discuss.

Thus, the question arises as to how the foci and forms of mentor-novice interactions about teaching vary from one context to another, and what the consequences of different interactions might be. The exploration of this question is central to having teacher mentoring research move from examining program descriptions (Feiman-Nemser & Parker, 1992; Klug & Salzman, 1991; Odell & Ferraro, 1992; Strong & St. John, 2001), to examining the mentoring of individual mentor-novice pairs (Achinstein & Villar, 2002; Strong & Baron, in press; Wang & Paine, 2002). Comparative research on the foci and forms of mentor-novice discussions in various contexts of teaching and mentoring may be especially valuable in sharpening our understanding about the impact of mentor-novice interactions and discern unique and familiar interactions as well as contextual and universal interactions.

Drawing on observational data from two U.S. and two Chinese mentor-novice pairs, the present study explores three questions that directly address these issues: (1) How do the form and content of mentor-novice conversations about novice teaching compare and contrast in the two settings? (2) What opportunities do the mentor-novice conversations in each setting offer novice teachers to help them develop knowledge necessary for reform-minded teaching? (3) How do the mentor-novice conversations reflect the broad context of curriculum and the organization of teaching and mentoring in each country?



The participants were two U.S. mentor-novice pairs: Tanya1 and Kevin, and Peggy and Elaine, and two Chinese mentor-novice pairs: Cao and Xue, and Liu and Sun. We chose these pairs because their similarities and differences offered us the opportunity to examine the study’s questions, particularly as they relate to cross-cultural comparisons of mentor-novice conversations.

All the novices were first-year teachers working in public elementary schools. The two U.S. novices, Kevin and Elaine, taught fifth grade in different schools. Kevin taught 24 ethnically diverse students, and Elaine taught 30 mostly Caucasian students in a mixed suburban rural community in California’s central coast. Kevin graduated from an undergraduate teacher education program in a neighboring state, while Elaine held a master’s degree in language arts and went through a post-BA teacher education program in the state where she was teaching. In contrast, the two Chinese novices, Xue and Sun, had similar education backgrounds, graduated from the same normal school,2 and taught in the same school in the urban area of Shanghai, China with 50 students from similar cultural backgrounds. However, Xue taught second grade, whereas Sun was a first grade teacher.

The novice teachers taught under very different curriculum contexts in each country. In the U.S. setting, the two novices were urged to teach according to national and state curriculum standards. However, such curriculum standards were not always consistent with the textbooks and other school curriculum materials. Standards were not strictly implemented with regard to topic requirements, pedagogical suggestions, or schedule (Cohen & Spillane, 1992). The two Chinese novices taught with textbook and teachers’ manuals that were consistent with the national centralized curriculum. This curriculum was strictly implemented and teachers had no choice but to follow it (Wang, 2001).

The novice teachers had different teaching responsibilities and were organized differently for their instruction in each country. The two U.S. novice teachers, like most U.S. elementary teachers, were generalists who taught all subjects. They stayed with their class throughout the day, reflecting an individualist organization of teaching (Feiman-Nemser & Floden, 1986). The two Chinese novices, like most Chinese elementary teachers, were subject specialists. Xue taught language arts while Sun was a mathematics teacher.3 They taught two lessons in two different classrooms each day and stayed in their teaching-research group office after their instruction. The teaching-research group frequently brought teachers together who taught the same subjects to plan, observe, and reflect on each other’s teaching. Thus, those teachers worked in a contrived teaching organization (Wang & Paine, 2003).

All the mentors in this study had more than 15 years elementary teaching experience before becoming mentors. However, the two U.S. mentors worked full time, mentoring 12 to 15 novices at various grade levels in different elementary schools. They were required to meet with their novices weekly, and to observe teaching and provide feedback at regular intervals. The two Chinese mentors, Cao and Liu, were experienced teachers teaching the same subject at the same grade level in the same school as their novices. Their mentoring work was structured around frequent public lessons that all novice teachers were required to teach so their colleagues could observe and analyze, using the national curriculum framework for their subject as a basis. The two Chinese mentors frequently observed novice teachers’ lessons and provided feedback to novices after their observation.

The two U.S. mentors worked in a program where the goal was to help new teachers learn to teach according to national and state professional standards for the teaching profession. In support of this goal, the program offered a professional development seminar to mentors once a week. It also provided many training sessions as well as mentoring resources, tools, and protocols. The two Chinese mentors worked in a school-based induction program. Although the school pushed teachers to teach by focusing on students’ interests and conceptual understanding, the mentoring program was developed to help novices move into the existing culture of teaching.


The data included videotaped novice lessons and either audio- or videotaped conversations between mentor and novice teachers from the four mentor-novice pairs. These data originated from two research projects. The U.S. data were part of the study, The Effects of Mentoring on New Teacher Development and Student Outcomes,4 conducted at the New Teacher Center, University of California, Santa Cruz. The Chinese data originated from a cross-national research project, Learning from Mentors,5 at the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning (NCRTL), Michigan State University. The two U.S. pairs were randomly selected from 20 such cases, all of which were reviewed first to determine that they matched the Chinese data sets that included similar lesson- observation and pre- and postlesson discussions. There was no reason to believe that these two cases were in any relevant manner atypical from the others in the sample. For example, in a related study (Strong & Baron, in press), it was found that all the U.S. mentor-teacher pairs showed similar characteristics with regard to how the mentor made suggestions and with respect to the topics discussed. The two Chinese mentor-novice pairs were chosen for analysis here from seven cases of mentor-novice relationships in the project. They were at the elementary level and had data sets that included post-observation conferences similar to the reflective conferences presented in the U.S. mentoring cases. Three of the other Chinese cases were at the secondary level, and the other two were at the elementary level but had no corresponding data set. Furthermore, the observations analyzed here were made during the earlier part of novices’ first year teaching. One difference between the two samples concerns the subject matter being taught: language arts in one Chinese case and math in the other Chinese case, while language arts was the subject matter in both U.S. cases. This was a limitation imposed by the foci of the two original projects and may have implications for the findings. However, in spite of the subject differences between the two Chinese cases, the difference in the findings between the two Chinese cases is considerably smaller than between the Chinese cases and the U.S. cases.


In the U.S. setting, the mentoring program required mentor teachers to review the teacher’s lesson plan, make suggestions based on novices’ questions and concerns and the California Standards for the Teaching Profession, and determine a focus for observation before novices’ lesson. The postlesson conversation, known as the reflecting conference, enabled mentor and novice to review the lesson, ponder the success of the original plan and any deviations from it, give and respond to feedback, and discuss next steps during mentor’s visit. While the mentor would come to these conferences with an agenda of questions to ask and areas to cover, the actual interactions had more the character of a conversation than an interview and ample room for the teachers to discuss whatever was on their minds.

In the Chinese setting, mentor-novice pre- and postlesson conversations were also a requirement from the school-based mentoring program. However, the program did not impose the agenda for the conversation. For both cases, several prelesson conversations could occur before the novice taught and includes mentor-novice coplanning the novice’s lesson, mentor reviewing the novices’ lesson plan, and/or the novice teaching the lesson to the mentor. In each case, the mentor would critique and make suggestions based on the novice’s needs at the moment and in relation to the requirements of centralized curriculum materials. The postlesson conversations were often opportunities for the mentor to review and critique the novice’s teaching, identify places where the novice teacher needed to pay attention, and make suggestions for improving teaching. Conversations were often infused into discussions that occurred in a teaching research group where other teachers in the same school who taught the same subject came together to discuss teaching.

In this study, one novice lesson and the post-lesson conversations between mentor and novice from each of four cases were analyzed. The tape-recorded prelesson conversations between the Chinese mentor and novice were unavailable and prevented us from including the prelesson conversations in our current analysis.


The four videotaped lessons, on which mentor-novice conversations were based, were analyzed in three steps as background to the conversations themselves. The first author transcribed each lesson and translated the Chinese lessons. Then the activity chunks in each lesson were coded and a summary description of each lesson was developed with a focus on what had taken place in each part of the lesson.

The four audio- or videotaped mentor-novice conferences were transcribed and coded for content and form using the following specific procedures. First, each conference was transcribed (the Chinese conferences were translated) and then coded for initiation and response sequences. The major issues of discussion were identified and specific topics were noted as they emerged in the discussions, as suggested by Strauss and Corbin (1990).

Second, each of the emergent topics identified from the above procedure was labeled, as referring either to (1) teaching, (2) subject matter, (3) students, or a combination of these three. The few topics that fell outside these three categories were categorized as ‘‘other.’’ The category ‘‘teaching’’ describes conversation about what and how the novice or mentor in a general sense did a particular step of the lesson, teaching techniques, approaches, or instructional tips. ‘‘Subject matter’’ refers to discussion about the subject concepts and content taught in the lesson including its meanings, understanding, and sources. By ‘‘students,’’ we refer to discussion about children in the lesson or in general. This may be about their behavior, their ability, their learning styles, or their response in a given situation. When a topic addressed any two of the categories, it was labeled as a multifocused topic.

Third, each conversational topic was then coded for speech acts, specifically illocutionary acts (Austin, 1962), indicating any kind of intention found in the samples, which led to seven categories of intentional speech acts: (1) compliment, (2) critique, (3) question, (4) agree, (5) disagree, (6) explain, and (7) describe. Then each topic in a mentor-novice conversation was recoded using these seven categories in the same manner we coded the focus of mentor-novice interactions.

Fourth, each conversational topic was coded for the degree of specificity of the speech acts. Four categories emerged from this coding: (1) unelaborated topics that were presented without any example or reason as a support, (2) example-based topics where example was used to support the idea presented, (3) reason-based topics that were presented with reasons but without examples, or (4) reason- and example-based topics. Then each topic in a mentor-novice conversation was recoded using the same four specificity categories in the same manner that mentor-novice interactions were coded.

All of the topic coding was checked for concurrence by at least two researchers. Any differences were discussed among authors until agreement was reached.


The first part of the analysis addresses the research question: How do the form and content of mentor-novice conversations about novice teaching compare and contrast in the two settings? Similarities and differences between the two cases within and between countries were assessed. These findings were then related to the literature on what novice teachers need to learn in order to teach in reform-minded ways to address the second research question: What opportunities do the mentor-novice conversations in each setting offer novice teachers to help them develop knowledge necessary for reform-minded teaching? The findings were then related to the literature on the context of teaching and mentoring to address the third research question: How do the mentor-novice conversations reflect the broad context of curriculum and the organization of teaching and mentoring in each country?

This study has three obvious limitations. First, since we did not analyze the novices’ subsequent teaching practice, we were not able to identify the consequences of mentor-novice interaction on what novices actually did, although learning opportunities offered in these interactions are discussed in relation to relevant literature. Second, this study only had available for analysis a set of rather formal conversations related to lesson planning and reflection. We recognize that other more spontaneous conversations may have been characterized by different content and linguistic forms, but such conversations were not recorded and hence not available for analysis.



Kevin’s lesson lasted about 55 minutes and focused on helping students identify and use transition words in their writing. His mentor, Tanya, observed the lesson. Kevin’s fifth-grade class had 24 students from diverse backgrounds. They sat in pairs in four rows facing the board. Kevin started the lesson asking students to explain the meaning of transitions. Some students offered examples, such as: changing from playing a game to playing basketball; or, tadpoles could change to frogs. Kevin then told the class that the topic for the lesson was how to use transition words in writing to show idea changes.

Next, Kevin asked a student to get up, go to the pencil sharpener, and then sharpen her pencil. He then asked the class to identify the words in his directions that indicated idea changes. Of four students called on, two were able to identify ‘‘then’’ and ‘‘first’’ correctly, but the other two gave improper answers by pointing out words like ‘‘get up’’ and ‘‘go’’ as transition words. Kevin praised students who gave the right answers and told the other two that their answers were not correct. He offered no further explanation. Kevin then gave students a copy of a story and asked them to identify the transition words as he read aloud: ‘‘Molly ran into the house as soon as she heard thunder and she immediately hid under the covers. Afterwards, Molly climbed out of the bed since the storm was no longer a threat. The rain nevertheless prevented Molly from returning outside to play.’’ One girl told the class ‘‘returning’’ was a transition word. Kevin read the story again and stopped at each sentence asking students to identify the transition words. Although most students called on were able to find the right words, two students told the class that ‘‘ play’’ and ‘‘ returning’’ were transition words. Kevin said these answers were incorrect without explanation, and asked the students to circle the correct ones on their copies. He put the transition words that students had so far identified on the board. Again, three students offered incorrect examples: ‘‘go,’’ ‘‘do,’’ and ‘‘from.’’ Kevin responded that these words were indicators of actions rather than transition words.

Kevin then read three news stories about young athletes from a local newspaper and asked the class to identify the transition words. He read through the first news story on a cross-country runner and then reread each sentence stopping for the class to identify transition words. Three students found the correct words while one boy mistakenly regarded the words, ‘‘basketball court,’’ as a transition. Kevin recommended that he choose ‘‘which’’ instead, using the comma that separated ‘‘which’’ from the previous part of the sentence as an indicator of transition. He read the other two news articles in the same manner, and again asked the class to identify transition words. One story was about a young gymnast and the other about a young tennis player. This time only one student mistakenly identified a transition word.

In the next part of his lesson, Kevin asked the students to write a short paragraph about their school or daily life using at least four or five sentences and two transition words that they had learned in the lesson. He had students brainstorm what they could write, gave them more ideas, and finally gave specific directions for the assignment. For the next 20 minutes, students worked independently on their paragraphs while Kevin walked around and helped individuals.

Kevin ended the lesson by reading four students’ compositions and asking the class to identify transition words. He read the first two stories sentence by sentence and one student proposed ‘‘basketball game’’ as a transition word, although other transition words were correctly identified. For the next two stories, Kevin raised his voice at each transition word.

Kevin and Tanya’s post-lesson conference followed Kevin’s 55-minute lesson. Kevin and Tanya’s conversation contained 20 topical units related to teaching, students, or both in the order shown in Table 1.

Of these units, nine were related exclusively to teaching (1, 2, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 18, and 20) with (9) and (15), as well as (10) and (13) focusing on the same teaching skill. Six units concerned students (3, 4, 6, 7, 14, and 16) with (6) and (14) dealing with the same issue about transition words that students had identified in the lesson. Three units (8, 12, and 17) were related to both teaching and students while the remaining three (5, 19, and 21) focused on the mentor-novice discussion with (19) and (21) on the same issue about how the novice felt about conversing with the mentor.

The specific topics covered in each unit reflected the same general pattern, with a dominant focus on teaching and students, particularly individual students. Subject-matter content or students’ understanding of it received little attention, a surprising result since some students failed to grasp the concept of transition words and Kevin did not explain their misunderstandings. As shown in Figure 1, 43% of the conversational topics were related to students and 48% to teaching with only 5% related to subject matter. In the following example, Kevin shows how he was focused on student behavior when walking around the classroom rather than on the understanding of transition words:

What I was seeing was that most of them had a good start to things, and they were taking a chance to pause. So, I was kind of doing the proximity thing. Going around to the ones I know I should be talking with. I myself, I can’t keep them all writing at the same time, but I

Table 1: Units of conversations in each mentor-novice conference

U.S. Tanya and Kevin

U.S. Peggy and Elaine

Chinese Cao and Xue

Chinese Liu and Sun


Novice’s feeling of the lesson


Novice’s goals of the lesson


Individual student work


Discuss student background


Mentor’s observation notes


Students’ transition words


Students’ attention span


Help ELL students


How to introduce assignment


How to read sample articles


Give assignment requirement


Encourage students to speak


How to read sample articles


Students’ transition words


How to introduce assignment


Process of student writing


How to share student work


How to close the lesson


Mentor-novice discussion


How to follow up the lesson


Mentor-novice discussion


Novice’ feeling about the lesson


Novice planned activities


Students ideas in writing


Individual student work


Class environment and student learning


Students’ comfortable level


Individual student behaviors


Expectations for students’ learning


Individual student behaviors


Reinforce student behaviors


Aspects need to be improved


Mentor’s feeling about the lesson


Meanings of several words taught


Effects of practice game


Use words beyond the text in teaching


Effects of practice game


Teaching style


Structure of the lesson


Use of lesson time


Coverage of lesson content


Applying teaching principle


Mentor’ s feeling about the lesson


Students’ thinking about mathematics


Use of manipulatives


How to represent mathematics concepts


Use of manipulatives, use of lesson time


Help students find right ways to sit and write


made it around through the most of the entire room, and they all had at least a good start by the time I got to them.

The few multifocused topics were similarly focused on teaching and students with little attention to subject matter or students’ understanding of it. Figure 2 shows that about 17% of the total topics in the conversation were multifocused with 11 % focusing on teaching and students. The following is a typical example initiated by Tanya to help Kevin allow more students access to his instruction:

I’m just a little curious, as far as the English language learners (ELLs), I wonder if there was a strategy you could have used to make the leap even more accessible for the ELLs. You said it verbally, but what we know is often kids that aren’t auditory learners also need to see it visually.

With regard to the linguistic forms, the following patterns were evident. Both Tanya and Kevin had almost equal chances to talk. As shown in Figure 3, Tanya took part in 51% of the topics in this conversation and Kevin 49%.

Tanya and Kevin’s conversation followed a particular sequence. Tanya started with a description or question about an aspect of Kevin’s lesson, and Kevin responded with an explanation that was followed by a further question and explanation or by a compliment plus acknowledgment. Among the 21 units of interaction, Tanya initiated 19 and about 17 of them followed the pattern described. The exceptions were two units initiated by


Tanya complimenting and critiquing an aspect of the lesson. The following is a typical unit of interaction between Tanya and Kevin focusing on students’ backgrounds:

Tanya: Is this a pretty a good sampling of the class? (Question)

Kevin: This would be pretty much a sampling of the ability levels of my class, minus some of my ELL (English Language Learner) students. And, um Jessica is one of my better writers. She had a kind of short paragraph in hers but it looks good. There is a transition word between each sentence. And here’s one of my struggling writers (show the student’s assignment), and he did a very nice job. Um, Shelby would be kind of mid range to a little bit higher and she does pretty well with him. And I just said, ‘‘see her.’’ I’m good with that. So, that was kind of across the board of what I have now. (Explain)

Tanya: So this is a good cross section? (Question)

Kevin: Yeah, this is a good cross section. (Agree)

Tanya: So, all of them were able to use transitions. And that was like one of the things I know you were looking for in the lesson.


The analysis of speech acts also showed that the dominant forms in this interaction were Tanya asking questions and describing what she saw and



then Kevin explaining and agreeing with his mentor. There was little room for Tanya to critique and offer suggestions for Kevin’s lesson, or for Kevin to ask questions or disagree. Figure 4 indicates that 25% of the speech acts consisted of the mentor asking questions, 25% were the novice explaining, and 18% were the novice agreeing. These three speech acts together amounted to 68% of the total. In addition, about 6% of the mentor’s speech acts were describing and a further 7% were complimenting.


Both Tanya and Kevin’s speech acts were mostly unelaborated. That is, for the most part they made their comments or questions without articulating reasons or offering examples. Figure 5 shows that 65% of the speech acts were unelaborated, while 21% were accompanied by examples, 11% by a reason, and 3% added both reason and example. The following is a unit of conversation on encouraging students to speak in class showing Tanya and Kevin’s tendency towards unelaborated speech acts:

Tanya: You’re asking them ‘‘raise your hand if you can.’’ So, I know that you were working on that earlier in the year. (Unelaborated)

Kevin: I have used them since the last time and the class was so much better. Of course, I’ve got no hands. (Unelaborated)

Tanya: So, it’s something you really internalized, using this and it helps a lot. (Unelaborated)

Kevin: Even when I start saying, ‘‘if you know,’’ they’ll hear me finish that sentence. (Unelaborated)

Then their conversation moved to another topic.


Elaine’s lesson with fifth graders focused on poetry writing and lasted about 70 minutes. Her 30 students were mostly Caucasian and sat in rows facing the board. Elaine started the lesson by reminding students of the process they had used for observing and drawing a tree over the previous few days. She told the class that in this lesson they were going to write a cinquain poem about the tree that they had observed and drawn.

Elaine showed three paintings of a tree that she had drawn, and asked the class to identify their differences. Some students reported that the drawings became increasingly colorful and detailed while others thought they became more creative. Elaine told the class that their own drawings had also become more colorful, detailed, creative, and complex over the past few days.

Next, Elaine introduced the poem structure to the class. It included five lines with a one-word title as the first line, two adjectives for the second line, three -ing verbs in the third line, three words describing the title for the fourth line, and a synonym for the title as the last line. During her explanation, Elaine drew students’ attention to the meaning of the term ‘‘synonym’’ by asking them to identify other words for ‘‘jazz,’’ ‘‘dog,’’ and ‘‘friends.’’ In each case, students found the right synonyms. She then required students to write a cinquain about their tree in four steps: (1) draft a first version; (2) develop a second version using the thesaurus to help replace some of words in the first version; (3) read both versions to a partner and have the partner listen to how the poems sound and check the spelling; and (4) write the final version.

In the next part of the lesson, Elaine created the following poem with the students providing input for each word in each line: ‘‘Tree. Nice, dark, wonderful. Curving, swerving, waving. A moving, developing shrub. Plant!’’ She read it aloud to the class and asked students to replace some of the words in the poem. Based on students’ suggestions, she revised the poem as follows, ‘‘Tree. Pleasurable, Gloomy. Twisting, flowering, swing. A growing, living plant. Shrub.’’ Elaine read the second version and asked students to judge which poem sounded better. They agreed that the first version was better, but Elaine suggested that they change one word in the first poem. The students proposed that the word ‘‘dark,’’ in the first poem be replaced by the word ‘‘gloomy’’ in the second.

After reiterating the steps on how to write a cinquain, Elaine asked her students to write their own poems. She walked around the classroom and helped students who had problems writing. During this period, Elaine interrupted students’ independent work once to read a student’s poem aloud, complimenting the student on his word choice, and reminding the class to read their poems to a partner and check each other’s spelling and how the poems sounded.

About 20 minutes later, Elaine read several more poems to the class She read a student’s poem and praised her use of the word, ‘‘inviting.’’ She then read one of her own poems about the tree in her parents’ backyard, stating that it reflected her own feeling about it at the time. Then Elaine asked three students to read their poems to the class and complimented them on some of the words they used. The students then continued writing poems. She assisted those who needed help, while keeping the rest on task.

In the last part of her lesson, Elaine read three more student-composed poems aloud, asking the writers to hold up their tree pictures. The lesson finished with 10 more minutes of student independent writing.

Elaine and Peggy’s post-lesson conference lasted about 11 minutes. They covered 11 topic units that were either teaching-focused, student-focused, or both (see Table 1). Units (1), (2), and (11) concerned teaching. Units (3), (4), (6), (7), and (9) focused on student issues, with units (7) and (9) dealing specifically with student behavior. The other three units (5, 8, and 10) were related to both teaching and students.

Looking at specific topics in the conversation, we found that both Peggy and Elaine paid most attention to issues of teaching and students, especially individual students and their behaviors. Subject matter received relatively little attention. As shown in Figure 1, about 59% of the topics in their conversation were exclusively related to students, and 32% were about teaching, while only 5% were concerned with subject matter. Following is a unit of conversation on student comfort level where Elaine and Peggy paid substantial attention to individual students:

Peggy: How do you tell if it’s comfortable for the kids? How do you tell if it’s working?

Elaine: You judge from their questions, look at their work, see how they are using their materials, listen how they’re talking to each other. Um, those kinds of assessments.

Peggy: Okay. Any big successes as you were wandering around or when you were giving instructions that you knew this was working?

Elaine: Well, one, one is Shane who half way through was super frustrated and had crumpled up his poem and concerned with other people’s view of his poetry. And so, we got him going again. And he was able to really embody his ‘‘tree’’ in his words, and it was absolutely wonderful. And I took that opportunity to read it to the class, and then Austin who’s been a struggle couldn’t find his tree. So, I gave him an extra. And I said I know that you don’t, may not have an emotional attachment to this, but we’re still going to look for these elements. And he was able to do it and able to talk to his neighbor about it and come up with some ideas. So, that was absolutely wonderful.

For the most part, topics in this conversation had a single focus. The few multifocused topics covered both teaching and students. As shown in Figure 2, 87% of their topics had a single focus, and 13% were multifocused. The following was a topic in which Peggy complimented Elaine’s teaching method and its effects on students’ engagement during the lesson:

Your structure of support, whether it be review in the beginning, you do the bouncing ball that we talked about before where you talked a little and you throw it out to the kids. I noticed anywhere around eight to twelve hands being raised. So, you do the bouncing ball to keep that engagement piece going.

With regard to conversational form, Elaine and Peggy had almost equal opportunities to talk with Peggy developing 54% of the topics and Elaine 46%. Their conversation often started with Peggy asking a question or complimenting Elaine on her lesson. An explanation from Elaine, and either further questions from Peggy with explanations, or a compliment plus agreement typically followed this. Nine of the 11 units of their conversation followed this pattern. The other two units started with Peggy’s description of a specific part of Elaine’s lesson followed by further explication from Elaine, or her agreement. The following was a typical unit of conversation between Peggy and Elaine on assessing students’ learning:

Peggy: How did your lesson meet or not meet expectations that you had of yourself perhaps or of the kids? (Question)

Elaine: I think that this is one of the lessons that for the most part have met the expectations. Again, checking in with kids that usually or sometimes don’t even get started on things or may revisit and not be comfortable. Those kids when I checked in with them were getting things done. So, in that sense, it has met expectations. Now I still need to, there’s not everybody finished, so I will later today do a final check. Because our goal is, one of our goals is to get them posted tomorrow, so having a finished product by the end of today is what we’re looking for. (Explain)

Peggy: Right. Right. (Agree)

Elaine: And from walking around what I could tell was that almost everybody is ready for that. (Agree)

Peggy: Yeah, it appeared that walking around, checking in with the kids, having conversations with the kids definitely is, you know, on-your-feet assessment. (Compliment)

The analysis of illocutionary speech acts in this conversation also suggested that Peggy spent most of her time asking questions, complimenting a specific aspect of Elaine’s lesson, or agreeing with what Elaine saw, while Elaine responded with agreements or elaborated responses. The mentor spent little time critiquing or making suggestions. From Figure 4 it can be seen that the mentor’s most frequent speech acts were questioning (20%), complimenting (14%), and agreeing (11%). For Elaine, the distribution was explaining (20%), and agreeing (24%). As with Kevin and Tanya, Elaine and Peggy’s speech acts were mostly unelaborated. From Figure 5 it can be seen that about 67% of their comments were unelaborated, 11% included an example, 5% added a reason and 4% both a reason and an example. The following unit of conversation on individual students’ behavior is typical:

Peggy: Jordan is an interesting and delightful little guy, isn’t he? (Unelaborated)

Elaine: I think so. (Unelaborated)

Peggy: Yeah. (Unelaborated)

Elaine: And there are lessons where he may not pass the test, but his performance, his outlet, his (inaudible 3 words), his vivid imagination, with what he’s interested in. (Elaborated with example)

Peggy: He’s unique. (Unelaborated)

Elaine: And Gabe. He’s smart. And Gabe could provide that opportunity that would give him that self-confidence and that he’s looking for. (Unelaborated)

Peggy: Right. And he started this morning with his jacket on.


Elaine: Not typical. (Unelaborated)

Peggy: Right. But he’s just a very unique child. (Unelaborated)


Conversational Foci

The most striking finding was that, in both cases, the conversations focused mainly on teaching and students, especially individual students (90% in each case, see Figure 1). The primary difference between the two cases was that Peggy and Elaine paid more attention to students (58%) than teaching (31%), while Tanya and Kevin focused a little more on teaching (48%) than on students (43%).

Second, both cases dealt hardly at all with subject matter, even in multifocused topics. In the case of Tanya and Kevin, subject matter was the focus only 3% of the time, while Peggy and Elaine discussed subject matter 6% of the time (see Figure 1). The difference here was that Kevin initiated these topics with his mentor, while both Peggy and Elaine introduced subject matter issues into their conversations.

Conversational Forms

The mentors and novices in both cases had equal opportunities to talk, as seen in Figure 3. Most of the time, their conversations also followed the same pattern. Usually it began with the mentor asking a question, describing an aspect of the novice’s lesson or making a compliment. The novice responding to the question, further questions from the mentor, and then further explanation, or perhaps further complimenting with the novice agreeing followed this. Seventeen of 21 units in Tanya and Kevin’s conversations and 9 out of 11 units in Peggy and Elaine’s conversations followed this pattern.

These conversational patterns generated similar distributions of speech acts among the four participants. As seen in Figure 4, question and compliment were the top two speech acts for both mentors (25% and 7% for Tanya, and 20% and 14% for Peggy). Explain and agree were the two top speech acts for the two novices, (25% and 18% for Kevin, and 20% and 24% for Elaine). Peggy tended to offer more compliments (which Elaine acknowledged) and Tanya tended to ask more questions (which resulted in Kevin offering more explanations). Criticisms and suggestions from the mentors were few (see Figure 4).

In both cases, elaborations, when they existed, tended to be in the form of giving examples rather than offering a reason. As shown in Figure 5, only 11% of elaborations were in the form of reasons in the case of Tanya and Kevin and 5% in the case of Peggy and Kevin.



Xue’s lesson focused on the structure and use of new characters. It lasted 40 minutes and was observed by Mentor Cao. With her 50 second graders sitting in pairs in four rows facing the board in the classroom, Xue started her lesson reviewing some of the characters that students had learned the previous day. She showed cards with different Chinese characters, and had students say the character aloud. All the students she called on answered correctly.

After the review, Xue put up a small blackboard on which three left parts of Chinese characters were written. She asked several students to make a character by pairing each left part with a right part. After each student answered correctly, Xue led the class in reading the topic for the day aloud: ‘‘How can we structure a character by pairing a left part with a right part?’’

Next, Xue showed a character, ‘‘Zhu’’ meaning ‘‘live,’’ with two side-by-side parts on a card and asked a student to pronounce it and explain its meaning. She flipped a part of the card to cover the left part of the character with a different left part to make a new character that still sounded like ‘‘Zhu’’ but meant ‘‘attention.’’ She then asked another student to pronounce and explain the new character. As both students answered correctly, Xue put another small blackboard on the wall with the character, ‘‘Zhu,’’ meaning ‘‘attention,’’ along with its pronunciation, its definition, and a sentence in which the character was used. She began to teach aspects of the character using the following steps.

First, she led the class in reading the character, its definition, and the sentence involving the character aloud, and then asked a student to lead the class in the same manner. Second, she asked several students to explain the meaning of the phrase, ‘‘pay attention to.’’ When a student provided an unexpected explanation, she called another student to tell the class the right answer. Third, Xue asked the class to find the similarities and differences between the character, ‘‘live,’’ and the character, ‘‘attention,’’ and explain the ways in which they remembered the two characters. A girl told the class these characters were pronounced in the same way and a boy said they had different left parts. In the end, Xue led the class in reading aloud the character, ‘‘attention,’’ its definition, and a sentence containing the character. Students then took turns reading the sentence aloud.

In the next part of the lesson, Ms. Xue taught each of the following characters, ‘‘Liang,’’ ‘‘Yi,’’ ‘‘Cheng,’’ and ‘‘Piao,’’ respectively meaning, ‘‘traffic,’’ ‘‘already,’’ ‘‘honest,’’ and ‘‘beautiful’’ using similar steps with slight variation in the order. During this period, whenever a student made a mistake or had a hard time reading the meaning and the sentence, Xue would directly address the mistake by asking another student to give the right answer, or by giving the student a clue.

She finished her lesson with a practice game in which several students took turns standing in front of the class wearing a hat with a new character that they had just learned. Then the student called on other students in the class to answer the following four questions about the character: What is my pronunciation? What do I mean? How do you remember me? Can you put me in a sentence? As students played the game, Xue reminded students about the differences between these new characters. In the end, she asked the class to write these characters as their homework.

Xue and Cao’s postlesson conference lasted about 10 minutes. Ten units of conversation were developed with a strong focus on teaching and subject matter as shown in Table 1. Seven units (1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10) focused on issues of teaching with (3) and (5) on the same issues of the practice game and (1) and (7) on lesson structure. Three units (2, 4, and 9) focused on subject matter or both subject matter and students.

Looking at specific topics within the conversation, both Cao and Xue paid substantial and almost equal attention to topics related to teaching, subject matter, and students, although no individual students were singled out in their conversation. As shown in Figure 1, 24% of the topics were related to subject matter, 20% focused on students, and 56%, were related to teaching. In addition, many of their topics were multifocused. Figure 2 shows that of the 41% multifocused topics, 3% addressed teaching and subject matter, 16% teaching and student, 12% subject matter and students, and 9% teaching, subject matter and students. Cao initiated the following topic to address using words beyond the text in teaching:

Another issue in your teaching is that all the characters, words, and sentences that you taught were limited to the text. Our school encourages students to know more than the text. So I say you need to move your students beyond the text based upon what they learned from the text. In this way, your lesson will be much more active and reflect the idea of happy learning.

With regard to conversational form, although both Cao and Xue initiated a substantial number of topics in their conversation, the mentor, Cao, was clearly the one who spoke more. Figure 3 shows that the mentor initiated 66% of the topics and the novice 34%.

The conversation between Cao and Xue included three parts. First, the mentor started the conversation with several compliments on various aspects of Xue’s lesson, during which the novice asked a clarifying question. Then Cao initiated five conversational units, each starting with a critique on an aspect of the novice’s lesson, followed by Xue’s response either in the form of an agreement, disagreement, or question. The mentor’s further critique and suggestions and the novice’s subsequent agreement followed this. Finally, the novice initiated three units by asking questions with the mentor either making a suggestion or criticism, followed by a repetition of the same sequence. Following is an example of such a mentor-novice interaction:

Xue: In teaching this lesson, I divided the text into four parts. I started to teach my students the first two chunks and then they were going to learn the next two chunks by themselves. How about I divide the text into two lessons with one on content and the other on practice? (Question)

Cao: What if your students are unable to understand that much in one lesson? Some parts of the text have a lot of new characters. I think you still need to consider what the requirements for teaching this text are and who your students are. I think you do not have to be strict with time. If you can finish it, okay. If you can’t finish it, you can do it later. (Critique and suggest)

Xue: This text is easy. I think it is important for students to have a general picture of the text first. The new characters in it were often used in daily life, like birds and trees. I think my students can understand them. So, I could cut it into two. (Disagree)

Cao: I think we can study other texts together and see which text can be dealt with in one lesson and which text can be taught in several lessons. (Suggest)

The analysis of the speech acts shows that, for most of time, the mentor was critiquing, complimenting, and offering suggestions, while the novice asked questions, agreed, and disagreed with the mentor’s ideas. As Figure 4 indicates, 23% of the speech acts in this interaction were Cao’s compliments, 20% were her critiques, and 19% were her suggestions. Together they amounted to 62% of the total speech acts. Sixteen percent of Xue’s speech acts were raising questions, 13% were agreements, and 6% were disagreements. Following is an example of how Cao complimented Xue on the structure of her lesson:

Your lesson structure is complete in terms of steps. You start from what you taught before and helped them review it. Then you moved toward new content changing the left part of a character. The content of your lesson started from characters, words, and then to sentences. This is good.

Often (about 25% of the time, see Figure 6) Cao followed her critique with a specific suggestion. Here is an example where Cao offered criticism along with suggestions for Xue to improve her lesson on students’ writing words:

Another issue is that the part of lesson for students to write the words was too short. I think you should let them use their pens to write something. You do not have to do it for every word but you should let them to practice writing some of them.

Finally, both mentor and novice usually elaborated their ideas by giving reasons or examples. As shown in Figure 5, 25% of the speech acts were accompanied by both reason and example, 31% with reason only, and 15% with example only. Together this accounted for about 72% of all the speech acts. Here is an example of how Cao critiqued the practice game in Xue’s


lesson with both reason and example when Xue claimed her game was able to involve more students in learning:

Yes, it can involve a lot of students. However, you need to pay attention to how your students read each sentence. Some of your students were able to read it well, but some do not (example). You should provide feedback immediately and correct their mistakes. Although the little train activity can efficiently involve your students, you still need to pay attention to their mistakes and help them see it (reason).


Sun’s lesson was 40 minutes long focusing on addition and subtraction involving zero. Her mentor, Liu, observed. The class had 50 first-graders sitting in pairs at desks arranged in four rows facing a small teaching platform at the front of the room. After having students practice several subtraction problems with flash cards, Sun showed a self-made piece of cardboard with a drawing of a birdcage and three birds attached to it. She took three birds from the cage, put them elsewhere on the blackboard, and asked two students to use mathematical sentences to represent what had happened. Both students came up with the answer: 3 - 3 = 0. Sun then showed a picture of two plates, one with four pears and one empty, and asked students to give the number sentence that represented the situation. All students called on came up with the answer: 4 - 4 = 0. She summarized the rule reflected in these examples: ‘‘When numbers before and after the minus sign are the same, the result will be zero.’’ She had them practice this rule with five flash cards.

Then, Sun showed the students pictures of an empty plate and a plate with four pears. She asked the class ‘‘How many pears are there altogether on these two plates?’’ After two students gave the right answer, Sun called on a girl and asked, ‘‘What method can we use to represent this example?’’ The girl replied, ‘‘Subtraction.’’ Sun repeated her question by stressing the word ‘‘altogether,’’ but the girl still did not get the clue and insisted that subtraction was needed. With obvious frustration, Sun called on a boy who gave the desired answer that addition was needed. She asked the girl to repeat the right answer. Sun did another example of a plate with three apples and an empty plate by using the number sentence, 3 - 0 = 3. Then she summarized the second rule of the lesson, ‘‘When you have a number plus 0 or minus 0, the result will still be the number.’’

Next, Sun showed the class two cards with number sentences, 0 + 0 = ___ and 0 - 0 = ___. She called on two students to figure out each answer, and both students answered correctly, saying, ‘‘zero.’’ The teacher praised the students and summarized the third rule, ‘‘When you have zero plus zero or zero minus zero, the result is still zero.’’

With all the new rules taught, Sun then had students do written exercises from the textbook. She walked around the classroom and helped students whom she thought needed support. She praised students who finished quickly and urged the rest to hurry up. She finished the lesson by asking some students to report their answers to the class.

Sun and Liu’s post-lesson conference lasted about 20 minutes and covered seven conversational units in the order shown in Table 1. These units included (1), (3), and (6) related to teaching, (7) related to teaching and students, and (2), (4), and (5), related to teaching, subject matter, and students.

Figure 1 shows that about 64 % of the topics concerned teaching, 22 % of were related to students, and 14 % focused on subject matter. As shown in Figure 2, 59% of the total topics were multifocused topics, 41% connected to teaching, subject matter, and students together, and 18% to both teaching and students. The following is an example of how Liu related teaching, subject matter, and students together as she demonstrates an alternative way to represent the mathematics concept taught in Sun’s lesson:

When you teach a number plus zero, you need to show it one by one. A kindergarten teacher had three apples (she put a plate on the board). How many apples on the plate? There are three (she put number 3 under the plate). Then you put another plate and say, ‘‘Now little friends, how many apples on this plate? That is an empty plate. So what number can we use to represent this? We learned just now that we could use zero to represent this (she put number zero under the empty plate). How many apples did the teacher put out all together? Because on the first plate we have three apples and on the second, we have none. If we are going to represent this with a number sentence, what is it?’’ Students will say, ‘‘We can use addition to represent this. 3 + 0 = 3 (she puts a number sentence 3 + 0 = 3 under the picture). Let’s read the number sentence. What does it mean? It means when three apples plus an empty plate, we still have three apples. Zero represents nothing.’’ So, my point is that you need to pay attention to the students’ thinking process.

It is striking that Liu dominated the conversation and Sun was almost silent. Figure 3 shows that Liu initiated 94% of the topics while Sun initiated only 6%. The conversation was characterized by a pattern in which the mentor started a unit with several compliments about various aspects of Sun’s lesson. Liu then initiated 5 units in which she critiqued various aspects of Sun’s lesson and made suggestions followed by more compliments.

Speech-act analysis indicated that compliments, critiques, and suggestions were most prominent. As indicated in Figure 4, 44% of the speech acts were Liu complimenting, 21% critiquing, and 24% making suggestions. Here is an example of how Liu complimented the structure of Sun’s lesson at the beginning of the conference:

The structure of your teaching was clear. The lesson was short. However, you were able to teach students complicated concepts step by step, like a number minus itself equals zero. A number plus zero, and a number minus zero equals the number. These concepts are abstract and hard for kids to understand. You were able to teach these in your lesson. The steps of your teaching were clear.

Liu’s criticisms were always followed with specific suggestions as shown in Figure 6. About 35% of the time, criticism and suggestion occurred together. Here is an example of how Liu offered criticism along with suggestions for Sun to improve her use of manipulatives in teaching:

I will say what you used in your lesson were teaching manipulatives. I recommend that you use learning manipulatives more. Just now, you showed the students a plate and four apples. I think this process can be reduced. You can ask students to play it out. We need to have them use their own hands and minds in learning. In this way, they will use all of their senses to learn. You need to require your students to do it, and then ask them to report their results to other classmates. Now, you can say, ‘‘Please take out your learning manipulatives. Please put four pieces of wood on your desk. I want you to put all four pieces back in your box. You have four pieces; what do you mean by taking away all? It means to take away all four pieces. What do we have now on the desk? Zero. We have four and take away four. We have zero. Who can use a number sentence to represent this?’’ Then you can ask them to use the number cards that you used to represent it. You need to ask them to describe the meaning of this activity. This is the first issue I want to share with you. In future, we really need to pay attention to open up students’ minds.’’

Finally, Liu was able to articulate reasons, show examples, and do both in presenting most topics. As indicated in Figure 5, 59% of the speech acts were elaborated with both reason and example, 6% were with reason, and another 6% with example, together amounting to 71% of the total speech acts. Only 29% of the speech acts were unelaborated. Here is an example of how Liu presented an issue with both reason and example as she commented on Sun’s use of teaching manipulatives in her lesson:

I also think the teaching manipulatives that you made and used are colorful and pretty. However, from scientific and realistic perspectives, you’d better draw a tree instead of a cage. There are three birds in the tree. Our students have pure hearts and are active. They like freedom. So, the cage is not proper here. Actually, the birds you used were simply attached to the cage instead of being placed inside. So in future, when we plan a lesson, we need to pay attention to the scientific and realistic principles of teaching. ‘‘Here is a tree, there are three birds in it and then they all fly away to play. They all fly, fly, and fly away. We had three birds in the tree and all three flew away. What number can we use to represent this?’’ I think that is the proper way to use a teaching manipulative. This is only a suggestion for you to consider.


Conversational Foci

In both cases, the majority of their exchanges concerned teaching, subject matter, students, and the connections between them. As shown in Figure 1, teaching, subject matter, and students made up 56%, 23%, and 21%, respectively, in the case of Cao and Xue and 64%, 14%, and 22%, respectively, in the case of Liu and Sun. The difference between the two was that Cao and Xue had more subject-matter discussion (23%) than Liu and Sun (14%).

Second, both cases had many multifocused interactions combining teaching, subject matter, and students, although the configurations were somewhat different between the two cases as displayed in Figure 2.

Conversational Forms

The two Chinese cases showed that the mentors initiated more exchanges than their novices (Cao 66% and Liu 94%). The patterns of their conversation were also similar. They started with the mentor complimenting various aspects of novices’ lessons followed by a series of critiques and suggestions. A notable difference was that Sun remained almost silent, while Xue responded with agreements, disagreements, and questions. The two cases were similar in that both mentors spent most of their time complimenting, critiquing, and making suggestions for their novices’ teaching. In fact, critiques were always followed by suggestions (see Figures 4 and 6). Most speech acts in the two Chinese cases were elaborated with reason or reason and example, although a small number were unelaborated. As shown in Figure 5, 72% of the speech acts in the case of Cao and Xue were elaborated with a reason or with a reason and an example. In the case of Liu and Xue, 65% were elaborated in this manner, with a larger number having both reason and example.



The two U.S. cases were clearly different from the two Chinese cases with regard to subject-matter content. Although all four cases paid substantial attention to teaching and student issues, the two Chinese cases had a significant number of topics devoted to issues of subject matter while the two U.S. cases had few. Second, the two U.S. mentor-novice pairs tended to deal with issues of teaching, students, or subject matter in isolation, whereas the two Chinese cases were more likely to discuss these issues in relation to each other as shown in Figure 1. Third, similar findings pertained to the multifocused topics. The U.S. mentors and novices tended to deal with issues of teaching and students with little attention to subject matter. The Chinese mentor-novice pairs were more likely than the U.S. pairs to talk about these issues in relation to one another, often referring to subject-matter issues. This difference is clearly illustrated in Figure 2.


There are three major differences in the conversational forms of the U.S. and Chinese mentor-novice pairs. First, the U.S. mentors and novices had almost equal opportunities to initiate conversational topics, whereas the Chinese mentors tended to dominate the conversation. Second, the speech acts were differently distributed in the two countries. The U.S. mentors tended to ask questions about their novices’ lessons and describe what they saw, while the Chinese mentors were more likely to critique and make suggestions, although they also spent substantial time giving compliments. The U.S. novices tended to explain more in response to mentors’ questions than their Chinese counterparts, although they all tended to agree with the mentors. Third, the patterns of exchange between the U.S. Chinese cases were also different. The patterns in the two U.S. cases featured a series of mentors’ questions and descriptions about the novices’ lessons that were followed by the novices’ explanation and agreement. In the two Chinese cases, mentors complimented the novices and then made a series of critiques and suggestions that were sometimes followed by novices’ agreement, disagreement, or questions. Fourth, there were some differences in regard to elaboration of speech acts. In most instances the U.S. mentor-novice pairs did not elaborate with reasons or examples, whereas the Chinese pairs tended to elaborate their ideas (Figure 5).


What opportunities did the different mentor-novice conversations offer novices in developing professional knowledge necessary for reform-minded teaching? What are the relationships between these mentor-novice interactions and the broad contexts of curriculum and teaching and mentoring in which these mentor-novice conversations are situated? We explore these two questions below.


Teachers’ deep understanding of the subject matter that they teach (Ball & Bass, 2001; Ball & McDiarmid, 1989) and their ability to represent such understanding to various groups of students (Grossman, 1990; Shulman, 1987; Wilson & Berne, 1999) are assumed to be crucial to teaching effectively. The analysis of mentor-novice interactions in this study suggests that the opportunities for novices to develop such knowledge were different in each country. In the two U.S. cases, these opportunities were often limited because of an absence of discussion of subject matter and its relation to teaching and students. In contrast, the two Chinese cases paid much more attention to subject matter and also tended to relate it to teaching and students. Research also suggests that effective teaching practice relies heavily on teachers’ knowledge about how children of various backgrounds and developmental and intellectual levels learn and about the influences on their learning (Grimmett & MacKinnon, 1992; Ladson-Billings, 1999). Although students were the main focus in both U.S. and Chinese mentor-novice conversations, the two U.S. mentor-novice pairs not only paid more attention to student issues, but they had substantial discussion about individual students’ learning and behaviors. In the two Chinese cases, however, students were only discussed in groups or categories. Thus, the U.S. novices had more opportunities to develop knowledge about individual students than their Chinese counterparts did. However, these opportunities were somewhat limited since they often discussed students in isolation and most speech acts were unelaborated. In order to develop teaching effectively, teachers need skills of inquiry to reflect on their teaching practice. They need to be able to pose questions, interpret different situations, develop constructive criticism, and come up with useful ideas to solve various problems in their teaching practice (Cochran-Smith, 1991). The data in this study show that the two U.S. mentor-novice pairs had many opportunities to learn how to question and explain, but fewer opportunities to critique and develop solutions. The Chinese mentor-novice pairs, however, exhibited opposite patterns of interaction.

Finally, another important element of teachers’ professional knowledge is the ability to conduct contextualized reasoning about subject matter and pedagogy, arguing the alternatives, and applying their thoughts to uncertain and irregular contexts of teaching (Floden et al., 1990; Kennedy, 1991; Lampert & Clark, 1990; Leinhardt & Greeno, 1986). In the two U.S. mentor-novice conversations, opportunities for novices to develop reasoning skills were limited, since most of their exchanges were unelaborated with no supporting reasons or examples. In contrast, the two Chinese mentor-novice interactions provided several opportunities for novices to learn how to articulate ideas using examples


Recent comparative studies on teachers’ instructional practice view teaching and teacher’s work as culturally scripted (Hiebert & Stigler, 2000; Stigler, Fermandez, & Yoshida, 1996; Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). Such a cultural script is often reinforced by other contexts of curriculum and of teaching organization. Although only two cases of mentor-novice conversations from each country were analyzed in the present study, these interactions, to some extent, reflect the cultural influences of curriculum and organization of teaching and mentoring in each country.

For example, the substantial focuses on subject matter and the relationship between subject matter, teaching, and children in the two Chinese cases are consistent with a context where elementary teachers are subject-matter specialists. They had to work regularly in a teaching research group based on their subject areas (Wang & Paine, 2003). In addition, their mentors also taught the same subject. These contexts almost certainly influenced the Chinese mentor-novice conversation focus on subject matter. In contrast, the lack of subject-matter focus in the two U.S. cases seems to match the contexts of teaching and mentoring where elementary teachers as well as their mentors are generalists and their subject-matter preparation is often fragmented (Ball, 2000).

We also wonder if such difference, in the attention to subject matter in the two settings exists due to the fact in the U.S. setting, mentors came to the discussions with an agenda that included a focus on one or more specific California teaching standards, thereby possibly reducing the opportunities to focus on subject matter knowledge. However, we were surprised at how few of their interaction topics directly related to the standards in both U.S. cases. A study on mentor-novice discussion in contexts where Chinese teachers work as generalists like the U.S. teachers, such as those in rural and/or small school systems in China, could provide additional information to help verify such interpretation. Moreover, analyzing conversations in the context of other content and linguistic forms between mentors and novices in the U.S. and China, rather than focusing only on lesson-based interactions between mentors and novices could also provide helpful information. Also interesting is that the Chinese pairs focused more on subject matter issues even though they taught at the first and second grade levels. The U.S. pairs taught fifth grade and paid much less attention to subject matter, which seems counterintuitive.

Furthermore, an attention to reason- and example-based critique and suggestions in the two Chinese cases is consistent with the contrived curriculum, teaching organization, and structure of mentoring in place in China. The curriculum provides Chinese teachers with the same goals, content topics, texts, and requirements for their teaching which form a common ground on which mentors can critique the novice teachers’ work. The teaching research group in the Chinese school schedules and organizes novices to teach public lessons regularly for colleagues to critique. These contexts allow teachers’ instruction to be a public arena where reasonable critiques of and suggestions for one another’s teaching are not only possible but also necessary. In addition, mentors were experienced teachers from the same school teaching the same grade level. This gave the mentors some leverage to make contextualized criticism and suggestions for novices. However, inconsistent curriculum material (Cohen & Spillane, 1992) and individualized teaching organization (Feiman-Nemser & Floden, 1986) nurtures a culture of teaching in the U.S. setting in which teachers’ selection of goals, coverage of content, and design of teaching strategies are seen as the individual teacher’s responsibility. Such a context may make it difficult for the U.S. mentors who are outsiders to the contexts of novices’ work to critique what they see and offer suggestions. Thus, it seems reasonable for the U.S. mentors to ask questions about what happened and describe what they saw in the novices’ lesson. In this way, mentors can remain respectful of the novices’ work while at the same time help them see what they did and what happened in their instruction, allowing them to take necessary actions for themselves. It may also be argued that mathematics teaching may be more open to contextualized reasoning discussions than is the teaching of literacy. Math happened to be the subject area of one Chinese pair, whereas language arts was the subject area for both U.S. pairs. However, our findings were consistent with the findings of a study of Chinese mentor-novice discussions about novices’ lessons where teachers of language, physics, and mathematics were involved (Wang & Paine, 2002). Also interesting is that the Chinese mentors were more critical, elaborative in their suggestions and comments about novices’ teaching even though the data for these pairs were collected at the beginning of the mentoring program. The U.S. mentors provided less specific and critical feedback to the novices even when conversations occurred at the end of the first year. It seems counterintuitive since the longer mentors work with novices, the more likely one would expect analytical and reflective dialogue.

The stronger attention given to issues of individual students in the U.S. cases as compared to the Chinese cases is difficult to explain given the teaching organizations found in each of the national contexts. This finding, though, is consistent with those based on interviews with more mentors and novices from China, the U.S., and England (Wang, 2001). What is puzzling here is that mentors in the U.S. who were outsiders to novices’ actual teaching contexts and who might have relatively little deep understanding about novices’ students, devoted more attention to individual students. Chinese mentors, on the other hand, who were insiders in novices’ teaching contexts since they worked at the same grade level and in the same school as the novices, a context that may have allowed them more opportunities to discuss issues of individual students, did the opposite in their interactions with students. This may, in part, reflect a common preference in U.S. educational circles away from stereotyping cultural groups while the larger classes that Chinese teachers have to teach may prevent them from focusing on individual students. It is worth noting that these interpretations were made based on only one post-lesson interaction from each case. Such interpretation surely deserves further verification and alternative interpretations when various mentor-novice interactions and more mentor-novice cases in different teaching and mentoring contexts are carefully studied. Thus, readers should be cautious in generalizing these interpretations to the larger contexts of teacher mentoring in both countries.


The findings in this study also raise questions about and offer implications for two popular assumptions about novices’ learning to teach with mentors. First, it is widely assumed in the western literature that novices should find their own voice as young professionals as they learn to teach with mentors. This is regarded as an important step in becoming a professional teacher (Bullough, 1990; Corley, 1998; Kilbourn & Roberts, 1991; Schmidt & Knowles, 1994). Consistent with this line of thinking is the assumption that any kind of contrived collegiality, where colleagueship and partnership are administratively structured and imposed, presents difficulties for the creation and persistence of a collaborative relationship among teachers (Cochran-Smith & Paris, 1995; Hargreaves, 1984). Such an assumption, on the one hand, reinforces the popular focus of research in teacher learning on the forms of teacher interactions where novices have autonomy in developing their own voices and fortifies the practice of professional development that centers on novices’ feelings, confidence, and ideas. On the other hand, it leaves what novices need to learn in a state of ambiguity, and limits alternative environments in which they can learn what they need to learn.

Our findings challenge such an assumption by showing that the U.S. novices’ equal participation in the dialogue with their mentors did not necessarily provide important opportunities for novices’ learning to teach. The Chinese teachers’ unequal participation in the dialogue with mentors did not exclude them from accessing the constructive criticisms, reasonable compliments, and useful suggestions for their teaching. As a side note, even the more silent novice, Sun, over the course of the year, made the most progress in learning to teach mathematics for understanding and problem solving with the support of her mentor in a didactic mentoring situation as documented elsewhere (Wang & Paine, 2001). In addition, the contrived curriculum and teaching organization did not necessarily prevent Xue from showing her disagreement with and raising questions about what the mentor said. An implication from these findings is that we should not only focus on novices’ developing their own voices, but we should also focus on what they talk about and how they approach the issues of teaching when we develop teacher mentoring relationships and support mentor-novice collaboration.

Second, much of the consideration in U.S. teacher mentoring programs has been given to providing opportunities, time, and resources for mentors and novices to talk about their instruction. The underlying assumption of this focus is that once mentor and novice have opportunities to observe and discuss teaching, novice teachers will be able to learn to teach effectively. This study suggests that effective mentor-novice interactions are not only a function of opportunity, time, and resources for mentor and novice to observe and talk, but also a function of the broader curriculum and teaching contexts in which the mentor-novice relationship is situated. This finding offers two implications for teacher mentoring programs and policy. First, it is important for us to help both mentors and novices identify the influences of the broader contexts of curriculum and teaching on their relationships and interactions as we develop mentoring programs and facilitate support for mentor-novice interactions. Second, teacher mentoring alone may not be fully effective in supporting novice teachers movement toward reform-minded teaching practice, when it is not an integral part of the larger effects that transform the broader contexts of teaching and schooling.


1 All the names used here or in the other places related to this paper are pseudonyms.

2 Normal school is a special high school that draws students from junior secondary schools based upon their test scores on the junior secondary school graduation examination at the provincial level. Students in normal schools are educated to be elementary teachers where they study both general secondary courses like those offered in high school and teacher education courses.

3 Chinese elementary teachers are often assigned to teach the same subject matter in two or more of the same grade level classes like the middle and high school teachers in the United States but they go to a different classroom to teach.

4 The Effects of Mentoring on New Teacher Development and Student Outcomes examined the conditions of mentoring that most affect teacher and student development over the first two years of a teacher’s career. It observed beginning teachers’ instruction and mentor-novice teacher’ interaction, interviewed mentor and novice teachers, and collected standardized test scores of students.

5 The Learning from Mentors project collected data from 23 mentor-novice pairs in both induction and preservice programs in three countries, the United States, England, and China. The study was designed to understand what novices learn, how mentors assist novices’ learning, and how the contexts of mentoring influence novices’ learning and mentoring.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 4, 2004, p. 775-813 ID Number: 11535, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 5:59:50 PM

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