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Barriers to mentoring

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue November, November 1- November 30, 2000 | BY Joseph M. Newcomer 


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I cannot remember who said it, but the comment was along the lines of "the best school is a log with a teacher on one side and an interested student on the other."

Our educational system is designed as an industrial assembly line, wherein we wholesale information to an audience with varying degrees of interest in the subject. I know of no serious alternative to this system for basic skills education (home teaching is a burden most parents are unable to handle); there are too many students and too few teachers. At some point, we need to start doing serious mentoring.

I was mentored as a youth by an uncle who knew about electronics. I acquired a fairly healthy dose of electrical and electronic knowledge by the age of 10. By that time I knew I was going to be a scientist of some sort. By age 16 I was trying to build computers out of surplus computer boards . . . at least, doing serious logic design. At age 16 I was exposed to a real computer for the first time and discovered that the power was not in the hardware, but in the software. The result was a Ph.D. in computer science and a long career, which is still active.

� These days I keep up a correspondence with a couple of interested students. While a lot of our discussion is of the "how to" variety, we often end up discussing everything from the philosophy of the scientific approach to the aesthetics of software construction. I am active on an Internet newsgroup that provides volunteer mentoring for a large set of readers. My Web site has several essays on aspects of programming, and I write one or two new essays each month.

� In my experience, I have found that schools are not prepared to support mentoring, whether one-on-one or for small groups, other than that which fits into their fairly narrow view -- which rarely includes anything intellectual. While we have all sorts of extracurricular activities such as baseball, band, cheerleading, football, soccer, track, etc., I know of no school that has an extracurricular computer lab with a "computer coach" to support it.

The reactions to my attempts to offer mentoring to high school students have been met with everything from indifference to hostility. I don't have a teaching certificate and consequently don't meet some arbitrary standard. I have been told flatly by one school that no one other than the computer teacher is allowed access to the computer lab after hours, and certainly not someone who is not an employee of the school district. I don't have the facilities or physical space in my office to support a set of students doing labs. My offer to do this via email was turned down, with the implication that any adult who wanted to communicate with high school students over the Internet would probably be seen as a pedophile.

� After a decade of attempts, I have largely given up on the idea. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has had success in this area.

Joseph M. Newcomer is an independent consultant and software developer and the co-author of two books on programming Microsoft Windows. [email protected]


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