Learning talk in mentoring interactions – a study of the interactional nature of learning

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This article is an inquiry into the interactional nature of learning, and focuses on the ways in which participants in mentor settings use their talk for purposes of learning. The purpose is to analyse and describe examples of interactions by means of Conversation Analysis (CA) methods in order to consider the implications for mentoring practices.

Mentoring interactions are essentially forms of talk-in-interaction (as described by Schegloff (1997), and characterised by conversational practices of turn-taking, sequencing of utterances as social actions, and the full spectrum of social and conversational norms observed (Van der Westhuizen 2015). They are forms of learning conversations, as per the definitions of Magano et al. (2010), consisting of institutional-specific discursive activities (Drew and Heritage 2006) where participant contribution is a function of the setting, the institutional norms, and the status and stance of the other (Tillema et al. 2015).

Learning conversations are defined here as learning talk, i.e. interactions aimed at the achievement of learning (Van der Westhuizen 2011). Such talk is not seen as windows into the mind (Edwards 1997), but rather as displays of participant status and orientation (Melander 2012), and epistemic primacy, i.e. how participants use what they know in the interaction (Stivers, Mondada and Steensig 2011; Heritage 2012).

In this study we use principles of CA to analyse episodes of learning talk around specific topics, and our analysis is aimed at describing how participants use talk and turn-taking to position themselves and interact towards achieving the learning goal. This process mirrors the pedagogic one of focusing on and meeting the learning need of the mentee (Tillema and Van der Westhuizen 2013). The study is of the interaction between two mentor-student pairs in terms of the identification of the learning need, and of the interactional attainment of learning.

The analysis is of two learning episodes which involved experienced male professors of education and final-year female student teachers. The mentor sessions took place after school experience opportunities where students were requested to write reflection notes which formed the basis of the mentoring session. The sessions were video-taped and transcribed, and analysed following CA analytic principles, indicating how participants position themselves in the mentoring interaction and the stances they take in relation to the object of the conversation.

Data for this analysis includes, first, an extract where mentor L talks to student S and asks questions about what the student has learned in the course she is attending. The student did not do any uptake of these questions, and instead announced that she has been experiencing problems in the school where she did practice teaching, and that she had the benefit of changing her ideas, but not as a result of the course she attended. In this episode the lecturer positions himself by means of questions as initiator and knowledgeable participant. Sequence organisation was mainly question-answer, and also included assessment-response and invitation-response. In this learning episode the learning focus shifted from the student to the need of the lecturer to establish the value of the course. The student eventually accepted this request, with elaborate accounts accepted by the lecturer.
In order to further clarify the interactional achievement of learning, a second episode was analysed, on the kinds of knowledge that are valued in teaching, including pedagogic content knowledge. In this analysis, evidence was found of the way in which learning was appropriated by the mentor, and of tokens of a perspective shift as an indicator of learning, following the definitions by Melander (2009) and Paulus and Lester (2013). The study also found that the interactional achievement of learning is determined by the original agreement on what the learning need is, as well as by sequence organisation and response preferences. There is also evidence in the data that the interactional achievement of learning is the result of mentor talk, which acts as assessments, extensions and appropriations.

Findings of this analysis confirm the interactional dynamics of learning. Stances in both episodes reflect the task in situations of identifying learning need as well as the interactional achievement of learning.

Learning in the case examples of mentoring interactions seem to clearly display a pedagogic task structure, i.e. of learning mediated by the mentor by means of instructional strategies of questioning (Tillema and Van der Westhuizen 2013). At the same time the interactions display a conversational dimension, as has been argued by Koole (2010), Pretorius (2015) and Van der Merwe and Van der Westhuizen (2015). This is evident in turn-taking and sequence organisation and how participants use interactional resources in the flow of the conversation. The implications for mentoring practices include considerations of how mentors exercise their epistemic responsibility and support mentees through conversational actions such as assessments, account requests, repairs and so on.

This exemplary analysis of mentoring conversations highlights the complexities of interactional learning. Research on the interactional nature of learning in mentoring settings needs to take a closer look at the role of socio-cultural conversational norms, and how they relate to learning.

In conclusion, this analysis of a selection of mentoring interactions by means of CA methods offers a micro-perspective of talk moves used by participants for purposes of learning. Further studies across contexts and settings need to help clarify the conversational dimensions of mentoring interactions.

Keywords: conversation analysis; interactional learning; mentoring for learning talk-in-interaction mentoring conversations.

Lees die artikel in Afrikaans: Leerspraak in mentorinteraksies – ’n ondersoek na die interaksionele aard van leer


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