Archive for October 2013

All About ‘Mentoring’

October 23, 2013

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals since 1980

‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.’  – Benjamin Franklin

            Since the leading article in a recent issue of Our Dogs setting out the Kennel Club’s vision for training all new judges, I have been inundated with enquiries regarding the Training Board’s acceptance of the concept of ‘mentoring’. What exactly is it and what does it entail for both the mentor and the mentored.  These are important questions and I am sure the Training Board will be publishing its material as the project progresses but in the meantime I am happy to give you my ‘take’ on the subject.

It might help if we began by discussing the various techniques to teach and train adults. They are different from those used in training children and young people for children learn for the future while adults learn for the present. This poses some significant problems for those involved in adult training, not just because teacher and pupil are often contemporaries in both age and experience but because adults tend to be influenced by prejudice, they can be over cautious and conservative and they often fear change.  These are not criticisms of adults or adult learners – just that the trainer, teacher, lecturer or mentor must take into account that they are often having a discussion which must be a joint learning experience if the person being trained is to accept and build on the new information.

Teaching adults

            There are eight commonly held precepts which are generally considered relevant. They are: the content must be relevant to the participants; the language used must be straightforward and clear without being condescending; humour is always very effective; the prejudices of the trainer and the trained must be avoided; the trainer must take into account the experience and knowledge of the participants; training needs to be active; social roles and status must be respected (the person being trained may well have a higher social status than the trainer) and the time devoted to training must be agreed by both parties.

If you think about these key elements I think you will agree that they are all especially true of the situation in which we find ourselves as far as training judges is concerned. Most of us are involved in dogs as a leisure activity so the training we undertake is not for financial gain while most of those who participate will already feel they know a great deal and, perhaps, even feel that the training and information being provided is a waste of time.

Buried in Greek mythology among relationships far too complicated to go into here, is a man called Mentor one of whose roles in the Homer’s Odyssey to be given responsibility for Odysseus’ son and who, at several points in the story, was an important adviser, sharing knowledge and providing counsel (actually he was rather a foolish old man who had to be helped out by the Gods to get anything important done but you see the principle). A French writer at the end of the 17th century created a character called Mentor in a novel where he was a tutor to the grandson of Louis XIV and it is from this book the word entered western vocabulary meaning a ‘personal developmental relationship in which someone more experienced and knowledgeable helps to guide someone who wishes to progress to greater understanding’.

However mentoring is much more than just answering occasional questions or providing ad hoc help. It is about an ongoing relationship of learning, dialogue and challenge. Mentoring means much more than ‘teaching’. Where teaching imparts a specific body of knowledge the Mentor is concerned much more with a broader understanding and philosophy over what can be a very wide area.

Mentoring can be formal or informal.  If you have a friend who is going through a personal, emotional crisis and you spend time with them helping them to come to terms with what is happening and helping them (not telling them) to reach conclusions then you are a mentor and the process is informal.  Formal mentoring is where you have an ambition to achieve and you take on a friend, colleague, acquaintance or a professional (paid) adviser to help you achieve those objectives. You may have seen advertisements and programs on television about ‘life coaching’ and this is formal, professional mentoring in practice.

Commonly used techniques

            It might help if we look at the five most commonly used techniques in Mentoring. There is a tendency in all these discussions to develop a jargon which sometimes clouds rather than clarifies but we might just as well use the terms which are commonly used in a technique which has become both popular and effective in adult learning.

The first is ‘accompanying’, where a commitment is made to caring and taking part in the learning process alongside the learner.  Mentoring is seldom a short term route to understanding for it takes time for trust to develop between those involved and in many cases developing the concept involved is also a two way process.

The second is ‘sowing’, where mentors realise that the learner is not ready for change because their level of knowledge is not sufficient foundation for progress: that information must be provided and understood. For instance, it is difficult to discuss the complexities of sound and unsound movement if the learner does not have a good understanding of conformation or does not know or understand the words being used to describe movement.

The third is ‘catalysing’, where the learning process reaches a critical level and the mentor chooses an activity or concept which is designed to lead to a fundamental change in attitude or approach – a ‘Eureka’ moment.  You do not have to be young or inexperienced to have a ‘Eureka’ moment. I had one recently (OK – perhaps only one descriptor really applies to me but I do have some experience) during research for a Speakers’ Corner article which coincided with a snatch of film of dogs moving which suddenly made clear something I afterwards realised I had never properly understood.

The fourth is ‘showing’.  This is making something understandable by demonstrating a skill or activity. A mentor might invite a Mentee (sorry, I think it’s horrible but that is the word used) to a show where they are judging and ask them to watch and make notes for future comparison and discussion so the processes and procedures involved are demonstrated in action.

Finally there is ‘harvesting’ which is where the Mentor creates awareness of what has been learned by selecting specific example so that the Mentee focuses on the important elements of their learning.  We all absorb huge amounts of information on all sorts of subjects and our inexperience sometimes leads us to place more emphasis on one aspect of the material. We do not realise that another element is actually more significant. I have written about this on many occasions: judges, breeders and exhibitors are very often far more concerned about relatively unimportant breed characteristics when compared to the overall health and soundness of the dog and will put up an unsound dog simply because ‘X’ is missing from the better animal.

Not so easy

            Having set out my ideas about Mentoring my first thought is that the Kennel Club Training Board is asking a great deal of established judges. There is no doubt that they are absolutely right in that Mentoring is an excellent way forward for training novice and aspiring judges – but it does require considerable commitment. This is less a problem for the Mentee as they have ambition and a desire to achieve their objective, but for Mentors, who have already achieved knowledge and expertise, it is a demanding and time consuming role.

I have always felt that the mentoring process is an extremely effective way in helping newcomers to understand breed type and this is a relationship which is not too demanding because it can take place at shows where both parties are present in any case and might involve the occasional visit to a home.  The current thinking from the Training Board suggests that the general judging process for individuals will be greatly enhanced by Mentoring. There is no doubt that this is case but the number of people able to Mentor at this level is clearly relatively small and although some will be prepared to ‘take on’ some aspiring judges, you can see it is a considerable obligation.

I sometimes meet my students for the Judging Diploma course at shows and we sit for a half an hour or so watching breed judging and discussing the process – they are my students and have, in effect, paid for the service.  I have also done the same for friends and others who have approached me and I know others who have give very freely of their time (I cannot begin to list the many Mentors who have been unbelievably generous to me) but creating a framework in which this process becomes subject to accreditation, recognition, qualification and codes of practice may prove difficult – not impossible but, like judging, harder than anyone imagines!

For those interested in becoming a Mentee or Mentor there is a list of almost sixty experienced judges on the Mentor Database on the homepage of the I Judge Dogs website (www.ijudgedogs.co.uk).