What are “teaching disasters” and how do we talk about them?

My #AERA14 session was on professional language in teaching. Stanford graduate student Jamie O’Keeffe organized a panel with Pam Grossman, Deborah Ball and me. Judith Warren Little provided the commentary.

Why focus on professional language? Many agree that professional language in teaching is underspecified, opening the field to a host of difficulties, especially inefficiency and confusion in communicating about pedagogical issues and the inability to delineate for those both inside and outside the profession what the professional knowledge of teaching is. Researchers worry that, as a consequence of this under-specificity, teachers’ conversations often become what Deborah Ball and David Cohen once described as “an exchange of buzzwords and slogans more than specific descriptions and analyses with concrete referents.”

So Jamie challenged us to engage in issues about what it would take to professionalize language about teaching.

The discussion engaged many interesting issues. My research involves spending hours and hours of video watching practicing teachers talk together about their work. I study how teachers identify and make progress on what they perceive to be problems in their work. It helps me get a better handle on teacher thinking, the differences between teachers of different levels of accomplishment, and how these conversations contribute to classroom instruction.

The work I drew from was done in collaboration with my graduate student, Britnie Kane. Here are a few premises derived from our research:

  • Words in themselves are not inherently meaningful. Terms develop meaning in use in particular contexts. What one teacher means by “scaffolding” may not align at all with another teacher’s meaning. Meanings are dependent on larger perspectives and stances on the work.
  • Terms in teaching overlap with a number of everyday terms, leaving them open to common sense (rather than technical) meanings. “Think” is the 12th most frequently used verb in the language. We also say things like “learn” or “understand” all the time in everyday life.
  • Teaching contexts matter in meaning construction. David Cohen once described teaching as “the deliberate cultivation of learning in others.” We add “in particular teaching situations.” The details of teaching situations — who are the students, what is the context, who is the teacher, what resources and constraints are available –– matter enormously in what is possible and interact deeply with any notion of expertise. Our current vocabulary for teaching situations is clearly inadequate (e.g., “an urban school”).
  • Concepts in teaching evolve as teachers develop language and link them to particular teaching experiences. That means as teachers encounter new situations, their understanding of big teaching ideas changes too. For instance, the idea of status is never fully understood because status issues play out differently in different classrooms and schools.

In one study Britnie and I worked on, we compared the talk of teachers working in institutionally similar environments working toward similar mathematics instruction. The different groups were, on the whole, at different levels of accomplishment in this teaching practice. One important finding was that there was no significant difference in the number of technical terms used by teachers at different levels of instructional accomplishment. But there talk differed in other ways. Notably, there was a marked difference in the extent to which the most accomplished group focused on students and their thinking. They also consistently linked any talk of instruction or mathematics back to students.

So back to our AERA panel. What does this mean for the development of professional language for teaching? It is no doubt a challenge to try to coordinate meaning across one of the largest professions out there.

One idea really stood out to me in the course of the conversation.

Professions often develop the most precise vocabulary to avert potential disasters.

Think of pilots landing a plane. Think of doctors resuscitating a patient. There is a lot of extremely precise language to guide action in these events. So what is a disaster in teaching?

Listening to teachers talk, I often hear them debrief on the unexpected turns that lessons take. The post-mortem analysis reveals a lot about what they think are the critical aspects of keeping the classroom functioning, so I spend a lot of time listening to those parts of the conversation.

Deborah had a different take on teaching disasters. She told a story from her summer teaching, which she does with upper elementary students and makes public for observers. She talked about some wiggly boys who managed to stay engaged in her classroom. A principal who was observing said that he was sure that those boys would not have had the same opportunities to learn in his school because they would have been sent out of the classroom.

I agree that it is an educational disaster to have children left out of the classroom because they are being children. But since my work places primacy on how teachers are talking and thinking, I know that for many of them, those boys’ wiggliness would be the source of a potential disaster.

In looking at teachers’ workplace talk, I see a lot of language develop around these potential disasters. Students who “act out” or are “disruptive,” “unmotivated” or “unfocused.” These students interfere with the smooth and successful execution of the lesson, so teachers talk a lot about them, sometimes in ways that are not constructive.

The question I have been pondering in the wake of that discussion is how do we align teachers’ perspectives on what is and isn’t a disaster to the larger picture of access and equity? More fairly, how do we support teachers in effectively engaging all students when there is increased pressure to stay up with pacing guides in preparation for ever-more-consequential standardized tests?
It is an educational disaster if what feels like averting a crash at the classroom creates true disasters in our society.


7 thoughts on “What are “teaching disasters” and how do we talk about them?

  1. 1. How do you help teachers develop language? I mean both “you” as in “one,” and “you” as in “actually you.”

    2. Do you notice a specialized language developing in the online math teaching world?


  2. I try to find high-leverage terms to name critical components of teaching and provide labels. Like status. I think that’s a powerful example. When I work with teachers around this idea, I notice some of them respond with, “Oh, that’s what you call that thing I always deal with!” and others who seem to be shocked that it exists. I think it’s a high leverage concept because it makes participation/non-particiption patterns in classrooms actionable instead of inevitable, and we know participation is consequential to learning.

    I see teachers develop language locally to capture the important parts of their work and contexts. One term I have written about is “groupworthy problems.” A group of teachers developed this name in recognition that not all math tasks are good to use in groups, so it gave them a way of honing in on the qualities that make certain tasks better for collaboration than others. It represented their collective learning project.

    I think Tina’s work on Nix the Tricks has developed our collective idea of “tricks” in math teaching. I have seen some interesting exchanges with people saying, “Is this a trick? Or a definition?” and working out how we decide. I am guessing there are other examples.

    What do you think?


    • Dan Meyer’s projects are best seen as an attempt to attach language to certain styles of lessons. You can say “I did a Three-Act Style Lesson yesterday” and that would make sense on twitter.

      There’s a sort of development in the language used to describe grading, where certain practices are SBGish or SBG-lite or whatever.

      This isn’t quite a linguistic innovation, but math teacher bloggers use the word “sucks” in a very particular way. (e.g. here and here) We use “sucks” in a complex way. By casually dismissing our current efforts we both signal a desire for improvement and also an indictment of the status quo in math education. After all, if Kate is saying that she sucks, and she’s obviously so smart and creative, what does that say about Pearson or our colleagues?

      (I suspect that this is co-opting internet culture, but I don’t actually know if that’s true.)

      It’s a little bit sad to me that there hasn’t been more development of language in this community. You’d think that if anyone was going to be able to push things along it would be a bunch of teachers who spend time talking about teaching during their spare time.

      I need to work on developing the language that we use for talking about student work, particularly student errors.


      • I wonder how we know, however, if the “three act lesson” of one teacher is substantively the same as the “three act lesson” of another, even on the same topic. We know that so much of good teaching happens in interaction, those moment-to-moment instructional decisions. I think that the three act lesson is a good example of a concept that folks in #MTBoS have worked on together, but I still wonder what it would take to know we really truly meant the same quality of teaching.

        I am going to have to investigate the “sucks” example.

        Maybe with the math mistakes, you can start by sorting them into types? I wonder. I know we have the idea of “miscues,” meaning something about the problem context set students down the wrong path. We often talk about “careless errors,” where the conceptual part of the solutions is correct but a detail was missed (e.g., a dropped negative sign). What else?


      • None of this matters but I came across something that reminded me of this comment and I thought I’d finally substantiate it.

        “Sucks” usage:

        All I remember saying is my teaching motto: “Try to suck a little bit less each day.” I posted this on facebook, me feeling babble-y, and a friend said: “You are amazing. Your comment to the faculty about trying to suck less everyday was perfect and came up again a number of times over the remainder of the meeting.”

        (Source: Sam)

        Also this: “I still Suck At Teaching (and How I’m Going To Fix That)”

        Also this: “How I am Working To Suck Less”


  3. But there’s different kinds of “disasters” too, right? A lesson could go as planned, but be poor in quality; kids can be squirrelly through good and bad lessons; the lesson could just not work. Plan B is an essential component.

    But the communication/discussion with other teachers about the lesson is definitely critical. Diagnosing what went wrong and why and how to remedy it are necessary skills. And yes, there’s a language around all of this; at some level, because each person’s “think” and “sucks” are different, is it that important to have a single language, or to be precise in explaining your version? (I think “yes,” BTW… and started a list of ed jargon, mostly words in the public realm and not so much the classroom: http://wwndtd.wordpress.com/education-jargon/). A lot of science teachers avoid the word “sucks,” because there isn’t really a suck-force. And the way that teachers use “understand” is also very different from how admin/standards/politicians use that term.

    In science classrooms, I’ve found that for student comprehension, “doing a lab” means very little unless I also know which teacher they had (and therefore the questions, analysis, and structure to get meaning out of the lab). You might find a similar thread with the 3 Acts.


    • Absolutely. But airline pilots would know when they are crashing; doctors know when patients undergo cardiac arrest. I think I went with the kind of “disasters” that teachers perceive. The badly taught lesson (one that ignores the substantive comments of kids, one where the teacher “covers” the material smoothly but half the kids missed the point) doesn’t always register.

      I can’t wait to look at your jargon list! Thanks for sharing.


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