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What We Mean When We Talk About Teaching: The Limits of Professional Language and Possibilities for Professionalizing Discourse in Teachers’ Conversations

by Ilana Seidel Horn & Britnie Delinger Kane - 2019

Background: Long-standing calls to infuse technical language in teaching—what we call the Professional Language Project—have been revived in recent years along with the core practices movement in teacher education. The Professional Language Project has been identified as a desired outcome of research and a potential benefit to teacher education.

Objective: Drawing on sociolinguistic studies of teachers’ sensemaking, we critique the Professional Language Project to show its limits in making the intended contribution to teaching and teacher education.

Research Design: This analytic essay uses a practice perspective on both language and teaching to interrogate the premises of the Professional Language Project. Specifically, we hold up its goals against empirical findings about how teachers use language to make sense of instructional decisions in their workplaces.

Conclusions: Empirical studies of teachers’ in situ language use point to two fallacies in the Professional Language Project. First, the presence or absence of technical terms in teachers’ talk does not relate to the depth of their sensemaking or instructional sophistication, indicating that technical terms do not accomplish the conceptual goals that some Professional Language Project advocates suggest. Second, a prevailing common-sense discourse culture in teaching often results in conceptual slippage in the use of technical terms, leading words to be absorbed into existing conceptual systems more than they catalyze new understandings.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 6, 2019, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22735, Date Accessed: 9/24/2021 2:29:39 AM

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About the Author
  • Ilana Seidel Horn
    Vanderbilt University Peabody College
    E-mail Author
    ILANA SEIDEL HORN is professor of mathematics education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and the director of the Teacher Learning Lab at Vanderbilt. Using sociolinguistics and interpretive methods, her work examines secondary mathematics teachers’ learning in the contexts of their workplace. Her research aims to critique and improve teacher education and, in turn, improve education for students and supports for teachers, particularly in urban schools. Recent publications include “Accountability as a Design for Teacher Learning: Sensemaking About Mathematics and Equity in the NCLB Era” in Urban Education (2018) and Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In (2017), published by Heinemann Press.
  • Britnie Delinger Kane
    The Citadel
    E-mail Author
    BRITNIE DELINGER KANE is an assistant professor of literacy education at The Citadel’s Zucker Family School of Education. Her research interests include a focus on supporting teachers’ professional learning about rigorous and equitable instruction in writing and in mathematics, with particular attention to the design of pedagogies in teacher education, instructional coaching, and the facilitation of in-service teachers’ opportunities to learn in teachers’ collaborative groups. Recent publications include “Relationships Between Instructional Coaches’ Time Use and District and School-Level Policies and Expectations” in The American Educational Research Journal (in press) and “Making the Most of Instructional Coaches” in Phi Delta Kappan>/I> magazine (2018).
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