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.