An Interview with Educational Psychologist Dr. Linlin Luo, Former Coordinator of Program Experience at Global Talent Mentoring
By Shiva Kazemi
My former colleague at Global Talent Mentoring, Dr. Linlin Luo, recently started a new postdoctoral researcher position at Texas A&M University. Shortly before she moved from Germany to the US for her new position, I had the chance to sit down with her—between moving boxes—to discuss some of her latest research findings on mentoring and talent development. Dr. Luo seemingly had no time. Yet she took time to speak with me and share thoughts based on her years of researching mentoring and talent development for Global Talent Mentoring, which made me think about the deliberateness of time use. During our conversation, Dr. Luo recalled a remark from an expert she interviewed: “Time is equal for everyone. Therefore, how individuals value their time dictates what they do with it and then influences their learning process.” This point gets at the heart of what we are working to achieve at Global Talent Mentoring: helping those who show the most impressive early achievements and evince the greatest determination to optimize their talent development—despite the fundamental constraints of time and place to which all humans are beholden.
This study was conducted during the preparatory stage of Global Talent Mentoring. The initial reason driving this idea for a study was the structure of the program itself. When we were preparing for a research-based project we wanted to know what exactly it takes for a promising youth to eventually become a leader, innovator, or great scientist in a STEMM field. Moreover, Prof. Dr. Stoeger and I were wondering whether talent development models hold true for STEMM development since none of the talent development models is specifically geared towards STEMM talent development.
Meanwhile, we were very interested in comparing two groups of experts: talent development experts and STEMM experts such as physicists, mathematicians, and engineers. We decided to study eminence in STEMM and the significant factors in its development from both perspectives, that is, talent development experts who use all their research time to study extremely talented people and come up with theories and practices, and STEMM experts who actually reach eminence in STEMM areas. Prof. Dr. Stoeger and I found the study findings helpful for Global Talent Mentoring. The features and factors both groups of people commonly shared were built into the program later to better facilitate the talent development of the youth who participate in the program.
Sure! The educational and learning capital framework is a framework or system coming out of the actiotope model of giftedness (AMG), which is a model of talent development that Prof. Drs. Albert Ziegler and Prof. Dr. Heidrun Stoeger have been developing since the early 2000s. Besides looking at an individual, the AMG also considers an individual’s sociocultural environment and the systemic nature of individual–environment interactions. In other words, the model considers what is special about talented individuals together with all the environmental elements that facilitate or hinder their talent development.
Educational and learning capital are used within the AMG conceptual framework. Educational capital refers to the different factors situated in the environment. There are various types of educational capital. It includes, for example, infrastructural capital such as having access to good books, clubs, or local libraries. Cultural capital captures how being talented in STEMM is viewed in a culture: Is it highly encouraged for both genders or it is viewed as more appropriate only for boys? These are some elements that are outside of a person but can influence their talent development.
Then there is learning capital, which refers to the individual characteristics and factors within the person that help determine talent development. For example, does an individual have the attention span and resources needed to focus on one goal for an extended period of time? Or, does an individual have the right amount of knowledge and also know how to apply this knowledge? All in all, educational and learning capital each consists of five types. With my examples, I only described a few of the types. In our study, we used the different types of educational and learning capital as the framework for investigating whether experts in STEMM and talent development mentioned these components in the interviews.
Time is equal for everyone. Therefore, how they value time dictates what they do with it and then influences their learning process.
Certainly! In the realm of learning capital, which is about the factors within each individual, passion was mentioned most frequently by both groups of interviewees. This factor demonstrates the internal drive of the individuals who cannot help but invest as much time and thought as possible toward pushing themselves ever further into the field. Their enthusiasm for learning did not spring from knowing their parents wanted them to excel or because they knew theirs was a popular field. It also wasn’t about their desire to earn a lot of money one day. Rather, it was because they were fascinated about their field and they just wanted to absorb information. Early on, this often happened via books and articles. Later on, they were learning from their supervisors and peers.
The second factor that both groups mentioned is the enjoyment of and longing for solving problems. Besides the pure passion for the subject, there needs to be a genuine enjoyment related to solving problems, it seems.
The third factor the interviewees mentioned is having domain-specific knowledge before becoming eminent. The mastery not only of a field of knowledge but also skills related to doing academic research such as synthesizing literature, conducting data analysis, or presenting ideas to a wider audience are decisive towards eminence, we learned.
Another factor that one of the talent development experts mentioned and stood out for me in these interviews is time management. She explained that anyone who can become that good in a field (i.e., eminent), has to know just how precious time is. Time is equal for everyone. Therefore, how individuals value time dictates what they do with it and then influences their learning process. I found this aspect remarkable, and very important for our program. Global Talent Mentoring is an extra-curricular program, and students have to decide whether they want to spend time each week benefiting from the program by talking with their mentors or joining community events.
From the educational-capital side, two factors stood out for me among the experts’ comments: first, cultural capital (like the values from a person’s family and society that are instilled in them) and second, social capital (like the support a person can have throughout the learning process, which can be a very long and slow process). The interesting point here is the critical role of a mentor that provides both types of capital. Mentors are role models for students in many ways. They are role models in how they value their subject or how they conduct themselves as an expert or as a person representing that subject, for example. Moreover, mentors can introduce the mentee to even more experts or colleagues in the field as they are at the center of excellence. Growing social capital and having access to specialists for asking questions and bouncing off ideas are among the many benefits of being in this kind of rich environment.
In Global Talent Mentoring, mentoring is defined as a reciprocal relationship between a more knowledgeable person—the mentor—and a younger, less experienced person—the protégée or mentee—that gives the less experienced person a chance to learn from the more experienced person. Mentors must care. However, just caring isn’t enough for the type of talent mentoring we advocate in the program. Global Talent Mentoring implements goal-oriented mentoring, which encourages mentees and mentors to set mentoring goals based on the mentees’ STEMM learning goals and progress, and structures their mentoring sessions to work on and achieve the mentoring goals. A recent meta-analysis (Christensen et al., 2020) showed that goal-oriented mentoring is more effective than the friendship model of mentoring, which posits that mentees can benefit merely by spending time with the mentor as a friend.
Goal-oriented mentoring has implications for various aspects of Global Talent Mentoring. Let’s start with matching. Since the goal is to promote STEMM talent, it is very important that we match mentees and mentors based on the mentee’s STEMM field of interest and the mentor’s STEMM field of expertise. The more specific the STEMM-field match the better, because only then can the mentor and the mentee really get into their content area together.
The goal-oriented structure also impacts the program experience and how we want mentees and mentors to use their time together. Our goal-oriented approach led us to design the platform in a way that participants have a special area for goal setting—something like a workbench for mentors and mentees to work together on a goal and to see how far along they are in completing a goal. Accordingly, we provide participants with training materials that explain not only what goal-oriented mentoring is about but also why it is important. We want our mentor–mentee dyads (the term we use for pairings of mentors and mentees) to go far beyond friendly chats and check-ins and have substantive, working conversations about the goals they are setting and working on together to the end of hastening the mentee’s talent development in a specific STEMM domain. Moreover, we expect our mentors to provide their mentees with knowledge in their field and share with them insights about, for example, professionalism and networking. In other words, we want our mentors to induct their mentees into their respective STEMM fields.
One of the questions we wanted to look into was how cultural differences may play a role in terms of developing and maintaining the mentoring relationship. To this end, we conducted qualitative studies for which we identified different types of cultural differences. For example, in some countries, people value hierarchical structures, that is, they afford special respect to more knowledgeable individuals. In such cultures, people are more open to taking orders from more knowledgeable individuals. In other countries, people place more value on notions of equity and accessibility. We wondered how this cultural difference might influence the mentor–mentee relationships in the program.
In practice, we saw that some of our dyads in the program were thriving. The dyads were working well together, and we could see that the mentee was progressing. In a smaller number of dyads, we could see that mentoring was not thriving, for various reasons. Differential dyad outcomes involved various factors. I’ll just mention a few: mentor–mentee interaction patterns and communication preferences, time differences, or mentees going through transitions from school to university. In these sorts of cases, our program representatives usually intervene and provide support in order to resolve problems. However, since we foresaw that such difficulties might arise between mentors and mentees, we included training materials on relevant topics and have continued adding more related topics to the training.
Ah, I’m glad you’ve finally asked this question! The simple answer is, yes, and I really enjoy discussing the answer, because it provides a lot of insight into what it means to carefully orchestrate a mentoring program. From among the training materials that the program provides for mentors and mentees, the alignment of expectations between mentees and mentors is a factor I like to stress. Formally aligning expectations helps both parties to explicitly state their expectations and make sure the other side understood what they meant. This point is always important. However, it is even more important for an online mentoring program. With computer-mediated communication, people have less of an in-person chance to build a relationship and read nonverbal cues. This affects all manner of considerations, from very ‘logistical’ aspects such as the frequency or length of meetings to more conceptual aspects of the mentor–mentee relationship such as the mentor’s role, the mentee’s specific STEMM interest, the dyad’s focus on either a project or acquiring more knowledge, the type of conference the mentee should attend, or the mentor’s day-to-day job experience in a lab, just to name some examples. As their expectations can be very different, mentors and mentees can quickly and easily get disappointed with the relationship if the expectations are never specified or discussed.
Another crucial factor in the success of the program as an online program is the level of support provided to the participants by the program itself (not only by the dyad partners). For each dyad, a dedicated team member (a program representative) monitors the mentee’s and mentor’s communications, activities, and progress on a weekly basis. The program representatives also schedule check-in meetings with the mentee and mentor to understand whether the dyad needs custom assistance or help. One of the most common areas in which dyads need a little extra help is reconnecting when communication gets mixed up. I think this feature is very important for an online program because sometimes mentees can be very shy to start a conversation. In some cultures, for example, mentees frequently feel anxious if they aren’t certain that they have a right to initiate an interaction with their mentor, whereas sometimes mentors from other cultures will then misinterpret the mentee’s reticence in communication as a sign that the mentee is not interested in the mentoring if the mentee doesn’t actively reach out to the mentor. In these sorts of moments, the program representatives can help ‘reignite’ productive mentor–mentee communication through check-in meetings. Furthermore, the collective information the program representatives gain through such meetings informs the program and helps its optimization.
People who become the next generation of leaders, innovators, or scientists have a lot of power to shape society. Mentors as role models can show the next generation of domain leaders research ethics and how to use their talent for the common good of human beings and society.
I think it’s very important! Every person who aims to reach a high level of understating, competence, and achievement in a field has to be guided by someone who already has the knowledge, has traveled the same path, and basically has reached a high level of achievement. It is hard, perhaps even impossible to get the proper guidance from peers or school teachers. As I mentioned earlier, mentors can play so many different roles in mentees’ developmental stages. We know from talent development research that when a person is developing their technical skills, they need a mentor who is an expert in the field to not only help them perfect their knowledge and skills but also to have the necessary support. The further an individual goes down a path of talent development, the more challenges that person will be facing that many other people have not experienced before. Furthermore, people who become the next generation of leaders, innovators, or scientists have a lot of power to shape society. Mentors as role models can show the next generation of domain leaders research ethics and how to use their talent for the common good of human beings and society rather than just for their own gains and profit. Therefore, I believe mentors play a significant role in many ways.
Christensen, K. M., Hagler, M. A., Stams, G. J., Raposa, E. B., Burton, S., & Rhodes, J. E. (2020). Non-specific versus targeted approaches to youth mentoring: A follow-up meta-analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 49(5), 959–972. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-020–01233‑x