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.

For half a century, educational researchers have pointed to the lack of professional language as a major impediment to a mature occupational culture in teaching (Ball & Cohen, 1999; Grossman & McDonald, 2008; P. Jackson, 1968/1990; Lortie, 1975). According to this line of thinking, inadequate terminology has both conceptual and social consequences for the profession. Conceptually, practitioners and researchers have trouble accruing and sharing innovations without consistent and precise terminology for referring to the core participants, activities, and materials of teaching and learning. Socially, because professional language provides occupational boundaries, its absence means there is no clear delineation of who is inside and outside the work of teaching, contributing to a devaluation of professional educators and perpetuating a norm of minimal entry requirements. Many have argued that, unlike other professions in which expertise is marked by technical terms often acquired through rigorous induction programs, teachers language often overlaps substantially with everyday talk, leaving it open to multiple meanings and making it accessible to laypeople. These features of teachers professional language can contribute to confusion about the nature of competent teaching, limit adequate representations of students and their thinking, and inhibit teacher development. Teachers conversations (and conversations about teaching) often become an exchange of buzzwords and slogans more than specific descriptions and analyses with concrete referents (Ball & Cohen, 1999, p. 17). For these reasons, many scholars engage in what we have come to call the Professional Language Project, which views professional language, and its related technical terms, as one desired outcome of research on teaching (e.g., Dreeben, 2005; Grossman & McDonald, 2008; Hiebert, Gallimore, & Stigler, 2002).

In this article, we critique the Professional Language Project, noting that scholars need to attend not only to terms of teaching but also to what we call professionalizing discourse, or the forms of interaction that engage underlying conceptual systems. To do so, we draw on our studies of teachers in situ thinking and learning. Our studies take an anthropological approach to studying teachers sensemaking, using sociolinguistics (Hymes, 1974) and interaction analysis (Jordan & Henderson, 1995) to understand the processes by which teachers workplace conversations support their professional learning (Horn, 2010; Horn & Kane, 2015; Horn, Kane, & Wilson, 2015; Horn & Little, 2010). We have analyzed hundreds of hours of teachers talk to understand how they share ideas and learn from one another. Importantly, much of our work has taken place in school contexts over which we have had little influence. Thus, our research provides a productive vantage point into teachers uptake of and learning through professional language as they identify and address pedagogical problems. This focus allows us to distance ourselves from the idealized images of practice that dominate both preservice and in-service teacher education, and move toward the complex and pragmatic realities of teachers work, a generative location for our thinking.


Our critique of the Professional Language Project stems from our theoretical view on how people come to do what they do and is corroborated by our empirical studies.  We follow linguistic anthropologists and view speaking as a type of social practice (Ahearn, 2011). Because speaking is an important form of socially embedded action, it is subject to the same contradictions of structure, agency, and power as other forms of social practice, with the implication that language shapesbut does not determinehow people think or act (Bourdieu, 1977; Ortner, 1989). As a consequence, language functions on multiple levels: word meanings, what linguists call semantics, influence and are influenced by the social function of language (pragmatics).

Speaking as a Social Practice

Conceptualizing speech and language as a social practice has important consequences for attempts, like those of the Professional Language Project, to codify a lexicon of professional terms for teaching. That is, contrary to the aims of Professional Language Project, a social practice perspective on speech highlights that words do not merely label preexisting concepts, objects, or relationships; they also serve social goals. One well-documented social function of language noted by linguistic anthropologists is the way that words index broader social phenomena (Hanks, 1999). When a teacher refers to a low-track class, she indexes the broader social phenomenon of tracking, while simultaneously indexing the academic status of the children enrolled. Similarly, speakers invoke ideologies about language itself, which opens up an analysis of cultural beliefs (Silverstein, 1992). For instance, in teaching, the common notion of teacher voice expresses the ideology that teachers should speak loudly and clearly. This, in turn, indexes socially specific views of what teachers do: the crowded settings they work in, the control they require, and the significance of the information they impart. Indeed, the Professional Language Project itself reflects a particular language ideology: It asserts that introducing technical terms and frameworks can transform what people do.

In linguistic anthropology, then, the meanings of any communicative act require an understanding of both semantics and pragmatics: words denotative and connotative meanings, along with their significance in context. Put simply, language cannot be understood apart from the sociocultural context of its use. Words take on particular and nuanced meanings in speech communities and through the activities that take place within them. Where the Professional Language Project implies that word meanings can be fixed, we highlight that when participants in a setting accomplish joint work, they negotiate meaning as they deploy, respond to, and correct each others usage of words that may have a different valence in other speech communities (Hanks, 1991).

Teaching as a Social Practice

We extend our practice theory perspective to the work of teaching itself. While advocates of the Professional Language Project seek to understand similarities across teaching, our perspective highlights that all practice is inherently emergentthat is, a joint outcome of settings and people. In this view, the very project of decomposition becomes difficult because, from a practice theory perspective, the whole is greater than its component parts. Just as a water molecule has properties that cannot be explained via the characteristics of hydrogen and oxygen, the particulars of teaching practice do not simply emerge from the characteristics of their component parts. In other words, teaching practice is highly dependent on the particular details of the teaching situation. We refer to this as teachings irreducible situativity.

We find warrants for our perspective in other scholars work. For example, Cohen (2011) described teaching as the deliberate cultivation of learning in others. Thus, a teacher requires the successful performance of another person in a range of teaching situations. This immediately makes teaching contingent on a relationship between teachers and learners, placing teaching and learning in a nexus of interactions. The efficacy of a relationship between one teacher and one student may shift depending on the teaching situation: The presence of a domineering student, the removal of critical resources, or a change in schedule may be enough to turn a potentially successful relationship into a problematic one (Doyle, 1983).  We will return to teachings situativity throughout our argument.

An Alternative Aim for Professional Language

Through our critique, we intend to move the Professional Language Project beyond the view of language-as-conduit of denotative meaning toward a view of language-as-social-practice. Importantly, we do not wholly reject the idea of professionalizing talk for teachers, nor the utility of shared language to clarify concepts. Instead, we propose that language that professionalizes teaching as an occupation must encompass not only terms themselves but also teachers language use practices. Because the sociocultural contexts of teaching shape words eventual meanings and speakers sensemaking, we must consider the broader occupational culture, introducing forms of interaction that help identify and reinterpret core constructs to address ongoing pedagogical issues and build understandingswhat we call professionalizing discourse.

As we will describe further, professionalizing discourse refers to forms of talk that shift more than word meanings and account for how meaning is made in practice. Professionalizing discourse provides teachers with opportunities to make connections between and across central aspects of their teaching contextssuch as the contingencies presented by particular students, classrooms, and topics of study. Without such modes of discourse, concepts meant to be conveyed through technical terms risk being absorbed into teaching cultures without retaining specialized meanings that would support teachers understanding of disciplinarily authentic and responsive forms of instruction. In the course of our argument, we provide images of professionalizing discourses to better specify how language might be leveraged to work toward the improvement of teaching. Of course, we look forward to future work, which will surely refine and enrich these suppositions.


To begin this discussion, we describe what others have seen as the substantial promise of professional language for teaching, particularly as a support for novices learning to teach. We outline a number of assumptions that lie within this view of professional language and hold those assumptions up against our findings from analyses of in-service teachers professional talk; we highlight the ways that discourses of common sense, in which the language of teaching is embedded, work against the promise of even the best intentioned development of professional terminology. In short, if the work of professional language development becomes the development of a set of professional terms for teaching, these projects will fall short of the related goals of supporting teachers to improve their practice and building occupational coherence. Finally, we outline a preliminary set of features of professionalizing discourse and describe how these features stand to speak to the challenges presented by the development of professional terminology alone.


The Professional Language Project in teaching is not new. Calls for robust professional language have been heard for decades (Ball & Cohen, 1999; Ball & Forzani, 2009; Grossman et al., 2009; P. Jackson, 1968/1990; Lortie, 1975; OKeeffe, 2014). In an early take on the issue, Jackson observed, One of the most notable features of teachers talk is the absence of a technical vocabulary. Unlike professional encounters between doctors, lawyers, garage mechanics, and astrophysicists, when teachers talk together almost any reasonably intelligent adult can listen in and comprehend what is being said (p. 143).

Recently, scholars reinvigorated this argument alongside the practice turn in teacher education. Efforts to identify core practices for novice teachers stem from similar concerns about the lack of shared professional knowledge for teaching. For example, Ball and Forzani (2009) echoed Jacksons (1968/1990) observation, connecting the dearth of professional language to perennial challenges in teacher education and linking it to efforts to decompose practice to make it learnable: Neither scholars nor educators have been able to agree even on descriptions for the various components of instructional practice (Grossman & McDonald, 2008). The lack of a precise professional language further inhibits our capacity to specify and teach practice (p. 508).

In this way, the Professional Language Project has found new advocates among scholars in the core practices movement (Core Practices Consortium, n.d.; TeachingWorks, n.d.). Although developing new terminology is certainly a central goal for proponents of the Professional Language Project, their purpose goes beyond simply adding technical vocabulary to the field. As Grossman and colleagues (2009) described, When Lortie (1975) described the lack of technical language in teaching, this included the lack of frameworks and category systems that allow us to identify the constituent elements of teaching practice (p. 2075). Thus, the Professional Language Project seeks a grammar of practice (Grossman & McDonald, 2008, p. 186) capable of supporting the field to create frameworks and categorization schemes for describing, analyzing, and improving teaching (Grossman et al., 2009, p. 2075).

For these scholars, such frameworks are important because they stand to aid the field in decomposing complex teaching practices so that they might be learned in more manageable parts (Grossman et al., 2009). Grossman and her colleagues were concerned that without such language, it is difficult to name the parts or to provide targeted feedback on students efforts to enact the components of practice (p. 2075). Furthermore, being able to name the component parts of complex practice might support the field to pinpoint what is common to all teaching, and what is subject- and grade-level specific (Grossman & McDonald, 2008, p. 185). In short, the Professional Language Project hopes for

powerful ways of parsing teaching that provide us with the analytic tools to describe, analyze, and improve teaching. Such a framework would help pinpoint both what is common to all examples of teaching, across grade levels and content areas . . . and what is more specific to both the subject area and the context. (Grossman & McDonald, 2008, p. 185)

Inherent in these calls is the idea that the language of teaching is not currently specific enough to support teachers to describe, analyze, or improve teaching (Grossman & McDonald, 2008). Certainly, these goals seem beneficial. However, although current arguments for the Professional Language Project aim for more than just technical language to encompass analytic frameworks, we still posit that they do not sufficiently account for the way language functions as a social practice, particularly for in-service teachers who do not have access to the communities in which these practices are being developed and taken up. Taking a practice-based view of language, we argue that the unit of analysis for professional language projects needs to expand beyond terms or frameworks into language as a social practice. For this reason, we now describe the teacher discourse communities we found in our research in schools. By reinstating the social context of teachers language use, we hope to sharpen the Professional Language Project so that the unit of change is adequate for the transformative forms of teaching and learning that scholars seek to support teachers in enacting.


For almost two decades, the first author has been studying teachers as they make sense of pedagogical problems that arise in their work. These studies are located primarily in urban secondary schools and have examined settings that range from typical to outstanding in terms of both teachers instructional practices and collaborative cultures. Although most participants teach mathematics, the studies also include English language arts and social studies teachers.

Two findings from these studies inform our critique. First, the presence of technical terms in teachers talk does not seem to relate to their level of instructional accomplishment. Instead, instructional accomplishment relates to other aspects of their talk, most notably how they portray the nature of teaching and learning. Importantly, we see teachers use language to guide their sensemaking, either by using its representational functions or developing personally meaningful terms. This suggests that language can achieve some conceptual goals of the Professional Language Project, albeit not at the scale its proponents aim for. Second, across our studies, a prevailing common-sense teaching culture reflects, and is reflected in, teachers dominant discourse practices. This finding has implications for teacher education and instructional improvement projects that rely on the power of technical terms to leverage changes in teaching practice.


In Horn and Kane (2015), we compared the talk of three different math teacher workgroups whose participants had differing levels of instructional accomplishment. Looking at a variety of aspects of their classroom teaching, an accomplished instructional coach classified the teachers instruction as, on the whole, Beginning, Emergent, and Sophisticated in their capacity to support students to understand important disciplinary ideas and attend to social dynamics in their classroom. We analyzed 17 hours of video of the groups talk, which represented a total of 14 meetings spanning a single academic year, seeking to discern how their talk differed in relation to observations of their instructional accomplishment.

Notably, we did not find any significant differences in the frequency of technical term use in their talk. However, what did distinguish the groups talk was what we came to call their epistemic stances on the nature of teaching and learningperspectives on what can be known, how to know it, and why it is of value (Hall & Horn, 2012; Horn & Kane, 2015; Horn et al., 2015). Since we have used this construct in subsequent work, we have found that workgroups reveal these epistemic stances on different timescales. On the shorter end, they manifest through epistemic claimsbald declarations of stance (e.g., what matters here is getting the kids to stay motivated). Over longer time periods, epistemic stances surface through activities; interactional emphases reveal commitments to what can be known and how to know it, while providing teachers with substantially different interpretative resources. For example, a teacher workgroup that values student thinking as fodder for good teaching might begin its meetings analyzing students work to uncover their emergent understandings and then incorporate these into subsequent lessons. Another group whose main concern is covering the allotted material for the members shared course might look at student work because a school leader told them to, discuss what is right or wrong, and then move on to the real work of planning what to teach next.

Epistemic stance, as a construct, captures the commonly noted spectrum of inquiry to traditional instruction. As Cohen (2011) has argued, these poles correspond to teachers views on the knowledge they are responsible for imparting. An inquiry view, which we might suspect characterized the first group in the aforementioned student work example, conceptualizes knowledge as a part of disciplinary practices, requiring students to make sense of ideas in authentic contexts. In contrast, a traditional view conceptualizes knowledge as fixed, requiring students mastery, which aligns with the second groups practices. Obviously, most teachers views are not so neatly classified, but we use these categories to highlight the contrast.

Reflecting our practice perspective, we do not ascribe epistemic stances to individuals per se, but rather connect the stances they co-construct and communicate within the particulars of their teaching contexts. We know that prevailing modes of instruction are, of course, highly situated within particular school or department cultures (Siskin, 1990). School norms ultimately influence teachers practice (Horn, 2005), whether they teach with or against the prevailing norms, so we analyze epistemic stances beyond individuals and into school workplaces. As individuals and groups negotiate different teaching cultures, we find that epistemic stances, more than technical terms, relate to interactional differences that supported a range of learning opportunities for teachers at contrasting levels of instructional accomplishment.


Our finding that the prevalence of technical terms did not differ across our three workgroups may seem counterintuitive to those who concur with the objectives of the Professional Language Project. This is not to say that language does not matter in teachers sensemaking. Rather, we found that teachers use language differently, frequently relying on languages representational functions to consult with colleagues about their work.

The prevalence of representational language addresses a perennial challenge of teachers conversations with colleagues about their work: namely, the asynchronicity between active instruction and discussions about it. Unlike surgeons or pilots, who can learn to see and describe techniques at the elbow of an expert, teachers most often consult with colleagues before or after the demanding work of instruction, making it difficult to establish shared ideas about problems under consideration. Thus, teachers often bring the classroom under collective scrutiny through their talk to examine specific scenes, as rendered by each other, through the linguistic structures of replays and rehearsals (Horn, 2005, 2010). Replays, as their name suggests, portray classroom interactions that have occurred, whereas rehearsals anticipate future interactions. What these representations lack in technical specificity they make up for in the humanizing contours of pace, tone, and voice. In this excerpt, a student teacher described a challenging situation to her mentor teacher by painting a scene from her classroom:

That sheepish grin I get in the morning when Im checking homework and like, Its not here? ((quiet laugh)). ((imitating students voice)) Nooo, Ill come in at lunch! ((Returns to sweet teacher voice)) Yes, youre doing it [your homework],1 thats really good.

[Exchange 1, from Horn, 2005]

In this replay from her classroom, the student-teacher homed in on a repeated interaction with a student around his homework. She portrayed herself as striving to be supportive (Yes, youre doing your homework), but her tone also disclosed her frustration over this recurring interaction. There is no recognizable professional terminology in this excerpt, yet the thickly described scene provided a basis for consultation. After this replay, her mentor ratified the teaching challenge she portrayed, eliciting further details and discussing possible responses. In this case, the representation of her teaching was adequate to get needed advice while deepening her understanding about the purposes of homework in her classroom.

We make three observations about this example in relation to professional language. First, the representational adequacy of her account and its support of shared meaning did not rely on technical terms; they drew on tacit knowledge about teaching as represented in her consultationeven without using particular vocabulary. Second, her account, with its playful intonations, offered a thick description, representing an embodied experience of the classroom, signaling the importance of particularity as a resource for teachers sensemaking. Finally, if this situation recurred or typified an important problem, it perhaps merits a technical term. However, it is worth noting that most projects that decompose teaching practice emphasize instruction as the activity worthy of decomposition and place less emphasis on problems like this, which involve the ongoing work of sustaining students engagement in schooling practices like homework.


Of course, specific terms can guide teachers sensemaking. In fact, teachers often develop their own personally meaningful language to guide their practicewhat Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) referred to as knowledge-in-practice. For example, we once interviewed a teacher who described certain students as hotspots, meaning that most other students had an active experience of liking or disliking them. Hotspot students shape classroom life, shifting students eagerness or reluctance to work together, dominance or marginalization patternsall of which affect who participates in classroom activities and in what ways. The experienced teacher who used this term built lessons with hotspots in mind, anticipating possibly corrosive behavior or harnessing potential leadership. This concept likely grew more meaningful for our interviewee over time as he observed class dynamics and learned how to navigate them. As we describe later, this term only makes sense within a particular conceptualization of classroom dynamics, and the meaning of hotspots for him would be an ontological impossibility in another conceptualization of classroom dynamics.

In other words, as we will argue in greater depth, teachers create and use their own terms and language to describe classroom dynamics. However, in this example, as in others, those terms index teachers larger, existing views about the nature of teaching and learning, as well as the contexts in which they teach. In short, we could imagine a teacher for whom a hotspot student would be a nonsensical idea, because the idea of leveraging a students strong-willed temperament for its leadership potential does not fit into their thinking about student (mis)behavior. The idea that word meanings index value systems related to larger social phenomena is important, because it highlights the ways that word meanings become situated within particular conceptions of teaching and learning, and related ideas of classroom management or classroom community building. Since the goals of the Professional Language Project go beyond individual concept development to the goal of shared meaning making at the level of a school or departmentto say nothing of the fieldthey will not succeed without attending the broader conceptual systems in which these terms reside. In addition, although not all teachers parse classroom dynamics as this teacher did, all teachers must contend with the varying social gradients in which they build instruction; language use is a social practice, and teachers language will always index the milieux in which they teach.


The studentteacher in Exchange 1 and the teacher who told us of hotspot students are both examples of teachers language use for professional sensemaking. However, we often found that the broader cultures of language use in which teaching is situated may limit teachers sensemaking. Specifically, across our studies, we found a prevalence of what Geertz (1983) referred to as common-sense cultures. As he noted, It is an inherent characteristic of common-sense thought . . . to affirm that its tenets are immediate deliverances of experience, not deliberated reflections upon it (p. 74). In short, in common-sense cultures, experience matters more than reflection. Because common sense is the mere matter-of-fact apprehension of reality (p. 75), there is nothing special about noticing the obvious. For example, the idea that a student is slow is not an assertion that requires critical interrogation; instead, it is merely a statement of fact (Horn, 2007). Thus, a presumption of teaching-as-common-sense forestalls the opportunity to ask a simple question: What do you mean by that? We need not ask, the cultural logic goes, because common sense tells us that we already know. Before detailing the problems for professional language projects created by a common-sense culture, we provide examples of the prevalence of these cultures in teaching.

We see common-sense cultures enacted discursively through monologic talkconversations marked by assertions, exhibitions, or demonstrations that may be clarified but seldom probed or challenged. Common sense thus becomes a kind of epistemic stance because it conveys what can be known, how to know it, and why it is (or isnt) of value. Importantly, it is a stance that values experience over reflection, intuition over analysis.

To illustrate the prevalence of common-sense cultures of teaching, we draw on a recent four-year study of 24 mathematics teacher workgroups from 16 different middle schools (Horn, Garner, Kane, & Brasel, 2017). Teachers districts had invested in teacher collaboration as a mechanism for instructional improvement, and we wanted to understand how their conversations might support teachers learning. To this end, our sample purposively identified well-functioning workgroupsbetter than typical in the two districts. Nonetheless, out of the 77 meetings analyzed, we found that the overwhelming majority of teachers conversations (67%) were characterized by monologic discourse, wherein teachers mostly solicited only superficial clarifying details about their colleagues decision making and did not often question the meanings of assertions.

In Exchange 2 (which follows), for example, two colleagues, Gary and Charmaine,2 were coordinating their lessons for the week:



So where are we now?



Okay. Were going to do 2.2 and 2.3 tomorrow, still






So we can assess on Friday.



Will we all be ready to start Module 3



I want to start 3



I mean Module 4. Its 4, isnt it?



Yeah, but its, uh, its Investigation 3.1



Yes, thats it right here, Module 4.

(Exchange 2, from Horn et al., 2017)

This exchange was characteristic of the teachers talk throughout the meeting. From this exchange, we know nothing of the content they are teaching, nor their rationale for doing two sections tomorrow (Turn 2: Were going to do 2.2 and 2.3 tomorrow) or assessing on Friday (Turn 4). Of course, people talk all the time without explaining themselves or their reasoningthat reflects the indexical nature of language mentioned earlier. What is noteworthy in our data is how seldom teachers talk goes beyond this, even when there is evidence via interviews or classroom observations that their meanings differ considerably (Horn, 2005).

Monologic Talk Limits Teachers Sensemaking

Because common-sense cultures assume that experience is universalthat what gets communicated is a direct representation of experience rather than a positioned account of itits language risks stereotyping the particular. That is, common-sense cultures, with their related epistemic stances and monologic discourse practices, do not provide fertile ground for instructional innovation. Geertz (1983) identified the mistrust of expertise and rejection of esoteric knowledge as a defining feature of common-sense cultures. Offering teachers research-derived language and frameworksa central aim of the Professional Language Projectmay not be welcome in such a culture, where the best learning is assumed to take place on the job. Indeed, history has shown that few research-based ideas actually take root in schools, save that small minority that are visible to teachers, friendly to their worldview, practical within the structure of K12 schooling, and easily shared (Schneider, 2014)a set of characteristics that make them a fit within common-sense cultures.

The potential problems bred in common-sense cultures are not to be taken lightly and, we suspect, contribute to educational inequality. With numerous factors inhibiting deeper reflection, language in common-sense cultures risks stereotyping the particular. Whether they are conveyed in technical terms like ADHD kid or everyday ones like honors class, they may convey stereotyped understandings. As a consequence, these terms do not affix meaning. An honors class may not be the same as an honors class down the hall, nor an ADHD kid the same as an ADHD kid in the same classroom. Although such terms attempt to invite descriptions about particular teaching situations, the language frequently relies on stereotypes, often with unexamined deficit understandings. Commonplace categories like an honors class or an ADHD kid seldom work to describe teaching situations adequately to help teachers address the challenges they face (Horn, 2007). Yet words characterizing social spaces and human traits are inherently ambiguous and situated in particular social, cultural, and historical arrangements.

This gets back to our earlier remarks about teaching itself being a situated social practice. These various social arrangements cannot always be codified, as they often are in other professions. In fact, in the United States, when they are, they often presume the neutral of White, English-speaking, and middle-class culture (Omi & Winant, 2014; Yoon, 2016). However, the widespread educational practice of glossing cultural particulars, or only seeing them as deviants from a norm, reduces teachers ability to deliberately cultivate learning in others. From Heaths (1983) seminal work comparing home literacy practices in middle-class White and working-class African American communities to Lareaus (2011) identification of social class-specific parenting patterns, we see time and again that children from nondominant groups encounter schooling expectations that are incongruous with their home cultures, often to the detriment of their learning. Conversely, when instructional practices align with childrens home cultures, teachers are more effective at cultivating students learning (Au & Kawakami, 1994; Ladson-Billings, 2009; McCarty, 2002). Culturally responsive pedagogies are, by definition, highly particular and have been documented to yield better student learning. To communicate sufficiently, professional language for teaching would need to encompass this complexity, avoiding simplisticperhaps common-sensestereotypes about children, classrooms, schools, or communities. By seeking generic descriptions of teaching through the decomposition of practice, the Professional Language Project risks doing the greatest harm to children whose particulars are most frequently overlooked by school as an institution (Philip et al., 2018). This would be sad indeed, because educational equity is a stated goal of many proponents of the Professional Language Project.

The Enduring Nature of Common-Sense Cultures in Teaching

If common-sense cultures limit teachers sensemaking and risk doing harm to students, why do they persist? There are sociological reasons for common-sense cultures endurance in teaching. First, workplace norms in U.S. schools reflect and reinforce common-sense cultures. Second, teaching is an everyday activity, in and out of school, blurring occupational boundaries that might be maintained through specialized language. As a consequence, even existing technical terms capitulate to common-sense epistemic stances and conceptual systems.

Workplace Norms Are Congruent With Common-Sense Culture

Workplace norms contribute to teachings common-sense culture. Moving from monologic to dialogic discourse violates prevailing occupational norms of privacy (Lortie, 1975) and noninterference (Little, 1990). In our example, Charmaine may not have asked Gary why they are doing 2.2 and 2.3 tomorrow because she agreed with his decision, or she may not have asked him because she knows it is best to behave as if they agree. Such norms have been frequently observed in teacher groups; these groups often communicate at a level of generality that avoids interpersonal conflict characteristic of pseudocommunities, which in turn offer limited support for teachers professional learning (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001). Thus, common-sense discourses often contribute to miscommunication through their lack of specificity, regardless of teachersor teacher educatorsuse of professional terms.

In Exchange 3, which took place among a group of high school English teachers, we illustrate the way that questioning a colleague can be taken as an affront. This conversation shows the tensions teachers experience when pressed by colleagues to explain themselves. Before this meeting, a veteran teacher, Karen, circulated a proposed autobiographical essay assignment to use with the groups ninth-grade classes. The essay prompt asked students to describe memories of themselves as readers. As Karen described her lesson plan, one colleague, Leigh, interjected a concern: What if students cant come up with a memory? Karen tried to move past the concern, but Leigh persisted.



I suspect that if Im having trouble coming up with a memory, one of my 35 kids might also have trouble, and I dont yet know what I would say to that kid. Thats why Im asking. Not because I think you care



But thats why theres



about my childhood.



But- but the other ones arent about childhood.



Yeah. Theyve all written to us about [Margaret: Right] being scared about reading out loud in class [Margaret: Right] or whatever. So, you know, describe a time when you were called on in class.



I understand Leighs dilemma. I mean I also feel like, I guess also Ive never given a great deal of thought to myself as a reader. Ive never thought about telling my story.



Im saying this is going to be really difficult for some of our students.

 (Exchange 3, from Horn & Little, 2010)

The planning conversation got derailed when Leigh questioned the design of Karens assignment. Over the course of the interaction, factions emerged within the group, with Margaret defending Karens assignment (Turns 2 and 4) and Lora defending Leighs concern (Turn 6). Eventually, Karens frustration grew: She had wanted simply to plan together, not to revisit the premise of her assignment. Indeed, the demand that teachers prepare daily lessons with scant preparation time often presses conversations away from deeper considerations, such as the underlying assumptions of a lesson. Karen would have likely preferred if Leigh did not voice her objection but instead hewed to norm of noninterference and privacy, quietly adjusting the assignment for herself as needed.

Teaching Is an Everyday Activity

Common-sense culture also prevails in teaching because teaching and learning are ever present in peoples lives, marking them as commonplace, everyday, laypeoples activities, which leads to unique challenges in developing professional language. As Lortie (1975) noted long ago, the vast majority of laypeople, as well as teachers themselves, spend many years in schools as students watching teachers. During this apprenticeship of observation, student-observers miss many crucial details of teaching practice: the range of pupils with whom teachers interact; the volume of work teachers grade; planning demands; relationships with parents, administrators, and colleagues; and extra duties and service to the school. The apprenticeship of observation, then, contributes to some misleading ideas about the work of teaching, because students necessarily do not have a complete picture. Nonetheless, the apprenticeship of observation is powerful, helping to characterize the work of teaching as commonplace, everyday, and accessible to laypeople.  

The overlap of everyday and specialized language has implications for the Professional Language Project. Words that could capture technical concepts overlap substantially with everyday concepts. When one teacher says, I reviewed linear functions with my class today, she may mean something entirely different from her colleague using the same words. The word review overlaps with words used by teachers and laypeople. For teachers, it most likely signals a class activity, whereas for individuals, it likely indicates a different pursuit. This polysemythe linguistic term for words or phrases with many possible, coexisting meaningsgives occupational outsiders intuitions derived from their experiences that may or may not generalize to classrooms and the diversity of learners with whom professional teachers work.

Of course, laypeople have intuitions about occupations of all kinds. However, the professional language used by other professions does not contend as frequently with the epistemology of common sense. Doctors, for instance, know that intubation refers to a procedure used to place a tube in a patients trachea. They also have, within their own professional communities, a typology of cases for which intubation is an appropriate response. What they do not have is a prior common-sense definition of intubation from which they must differentiate their own professional practice and that of laypeople. Teachers language, however, often overlaps with laypeoples (e.g., planning, reviewing, collaborative work). The frequency of polysemous words for teaching further overlays teachers discourse with a veneer of common sense. Of course, this is the very reason that proponents of the Professional Language Project seek terms that might distinguish teachers talk from that of laypeople. However, as we will argue, we see in our studies that even technical terms are vulnerable to the prevailing culture of common sense in schools.

Technical Terms Capitulate to Common Sense: The Illusion of Intersubjectivity

Some might say that teaching already has professional terms that fall prey neither to the polysemy of review or learn nor to the problematics of stereotyping. For instance, most laypeople do not understand the terms differentiated instruction, scaffolding, or jigsaw. These terms do the social work of language by marking occupational insiders and, potentially, the conceptual work of guiding practice. Perhaps this is sufficient to ensure that they are not part of a discourse of common sense? The problem remains that although individual teachers may understand these terms, their meanings are conceptually porous, absorbing local teaching cultures more than they are fixed by professional consensus. In Vygotskys language, these terms do not support intersubjectivity. In true common-sense fashion, they may merely support an illusion of intersubjectivity.

We have seen that even when technical terms are introduced to teachers, they seldom develop shared meanings around them. Pursuing shared meaning goes against common-sense culture, with the norms of privacy and noninterference that support its persistence. For example, several years ago, an editorial appeared in the publication Education Week entitled, Differentiation Doesnt Work (Delisle, 2015). It was soon followed by a rebuttal: To the Contrary: Differentiation Does Work (Tomlinson, 2015). Because teaching is a situated practice, the meaning of any individual termeven specialized terms like differentiation, scaffolding, or jigsawbecomes more reliant on teachers epistemic stances than on any objective and visible thing in the world. For instance, if a teacher aligns more strongly with a traditional view of teaching, differentiation in a unit of instruction might mean covering curriculum at different rates, with extra problems for students who get material quickly. If a teacher aligns more strongly with an inquiry view, differentiation might mean coming up with an essential question for all students and pressing them in different ways, depending on how deeply they are prepared to explore the topic.

To develop concepts that account for teaching as a situated practice, teachers must pursue critical contextual details of any teaching situation before making consequential instructional decisions. Indeed, to have ecological validity, concepts in teaching need some degree of flexibility to make sense. At the same time, terms need to capture some kind of sameness: differentiation in a mixed-age elementary classroom should bear some resemblance to differentiation in a college calculus course. The dilemma, then, is how to find the right balance of situative flexibility and professional intersubjectivity, given that broad constructs can fall prey to meaning troubles. It is our view that advocates of the Professional Language Project have not adequately attended to this complexity.

Failure to Launch: A Case of Conceptual Slippage

To further illustrate the ways common-sense cultures limit teacher sensemaking, we draw on an example from a recent project where middle school math teachers were introduced to the idea of launching a lesson. According to research derived from this project, launching a lesson involved introducing a task by helping students understand problem contexts and addressing underlying mathematical ideas to support student sensemaking. It was identified as the most important part of a lesson, strongly related to the goal of maintaining the mathematical focus (K. Jackson, Garrison, Wilson, Gibbons, & Shahan, 2013). At first glance, launch seems to carry with it the same issues as terms like review: It is polysemous, with strong existing meanings in vernacular English. However, in this instance, launch became an example of professional terminology strongly aligned with the goals of the Professional Language Project: It is a subject-specific decomposition of practice, identified through careful research, and can itself be further decomposed into well-described component practices. Put more pragmatically, the launch is part of a three-part sequence intended for use in the context of inquiry-oriented mathematical tasks that give students opportunities to participate in mathematical problem solving.

To launch a task successfully, teachers need to attend to two vitally important aspects of students sensemaking. First, they need to help students understand the problem context. For example, if the question refers to a dance marathon or deals with the dilution of orange juice concentrate, teachers need to ensure that students understand what dance marathons and orange juice concentrate are. Second, and more challenging, teachers need to help students identify the key mathematical features of a task (K. Jackson et al., 2013). That is, students need to be introduced to ideas surrounding how proportionality, for instance, is related to dilution and orange juice concentrate. However, of central importance is the idea that teachers must introduce useful mathematical concepts while leaving the problem space open to students interpretation and critical thinking. Mathematical concepts are tools, and the teachers role in the launch is to provide students with enough context and scaffolding toward possibly useful tools without showing them exactly which ones or how to use them. When teachers err in this way, it is referred to as proceduralizing the task.

In partnership with our research team, the districts agreed to make launches a focus of their professional development efforts. Authors of the research on launching modeled and codesigned workshops for district coaches. We saw some teacher workgroups take up the idea of launching in their discussions. However, after a year in which the districts emphasized the importance of launches, we observed classroom lessons and found that the teachers proceduralized problems much of the time. As a result, students were rarely given opportunities to engage in the high-level thinking that the curricula intended to support. In the language of research, teachers were not maintaining the cognitive demand of these tasks (Henningsen & Stein, 1997)in part because their launches did not help students to identify the tasks key mathematical features.

When our team interviewed teachers and asked what a good launch involved, teachers focused on student engagementhooking students ina critical issue in traditional instruction. They had often taken the call for launches as an expectation that lessons have engaging introductions through YouTube videos or colorful animations. In other words, the launch became about motivating students and grabbing their attention. Many teachers commented that they found the whole emphasis on launching perplexing, because of course they already knew they needed to get students hooked in.

Because our classroom-level data showed that most of the sampled teachers primarily taught in traditional (as opposed to inquiry) ways before their professional development, the sensemaking focus of our definition of launching was irrelevant to their practice. Prevailing epistemic stances related to traditional teaching (e.g., teaching is explaining clearly, learning is mastering content) subsumed the sensemaking goals of launching with the motivational goals of a hooking, further evidenced by the teachers interchangeable use of these terms. Furthermore, monologic, common-sense discourses observed in these teachers workgroup discussions often prevented teachers from exchanges where the idea of launch-as-hook could have been differentiated from mathematically specific, inquiry-oriented ideas about a launch. This example of conceptual slippage reflects what happens when extant meanings go unexamined and therefore remain unchallenged.


Within the assumption that developing a more specific professional terminology can form the basis for a greater understanding of teaching lies a deeper, more problematic assumption: that words and language will be capable of shaping and reshaping the systems in which they work. Advocates for the Professional Language Project suggest that professional language itself can support communities in describing components of complex teaching practices. The teachers failure to launch, alongside our other findings, reveals that words are just as likely to be shaped by the existing discourses in which they are taken up as they are to shape them: Technical terms are not a concept delivery system. Instead, common-sense cultures exert a powerful influence on professional terms. Within common-sense cultures, even the most specialized of professional terminology remains conceptually porous because discourses of common-sense privilege monological talk, foster an illusion of intersubjectivity, paper over situativity, and even reify deficit notions of students in the process. All these issues lead to conceptual slippage, where the words do neither the social nor the conceptual work of professional language, and instead lose their hold, no longer anchoring the meanings of core teaching and learning phenomena.


As we have argued, we see professionalizing discourse as a potential antidote to the dangers of assuming that professional language can definitively shape practice, rather than the other way around. As our sociolinguistic studies of teacher discourse have shown, these assumptions are overly optimistic about the power of language to transform culture, absent discussions that allow teachers to refine and revise ideas in particular situations. To counter  these problems, we suggest that professionalizing discourses emphasize, at a minimum, two discursive features: (1) they support teachers in delving beyond taken-as-shared meanings by encouraging and expecting dialogic sensemaking, and (2) they make use of the representational function of language, which honors the inherent situativity of teaching and allows teachers to consider the interrelationships among fundamental aspects of classroom life, such as students, instructional practices, and content.

We do, of course, see dialogic discourse in researcher-led interventions that shift teachers toward inquiry into practice (e.g., Bannister, 2015; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; van Es & Sherin, 2002). In this same vein, many contemporary proponents of the Professional Language Project have been instrumental in supporting teachers deeper understandings of teaching concepts through pedagogies of investigation and enactment (Grossman & McDonald, 2008), where teachers are introduced to instructional practices, investigate and analyze those practices through video, observation, and discussion, and then enact those activities in increasingly authentic spaces (Lampert et al., 2013; Windschitl, Thompson, Braaten, & Stroupe, 2012). However, once again, many of these research narratives foreground the power of the activity and do not focus as much on the nature of the discourse practices they help to produce within that activity. The danger to the field is that others may believe that the learning power resides within the activity, not the way the activity, as facilitated by knowledgeable people, reorganizes discourse practices. This could lead to second-generation attempts at reproducing the activity that do not succeed in meeting the instructional goals of these activities, because the discourse highlights monological uses of terms rather than a dialogic discourse that invites teachers to consider how these terms and the concepts they represent look and sound in the particular contexts of their daily work.

To illustrate the dialogic talk emblematic of professionalizing discourses, we turn to Exchange 4 below from a meeting among middle school math teachers. This group, which met weekly during the 201213 school year, was composed of three teachers, Deanna, Shonda, and Tasha; an instructional coach, Coach Lindsay; and an assistant principal whose background was in mathematics, whom we call AP Matthew. In this excerpt, the group discussed students responses to Parts A and B of a single mathematical task:

Part A: Demora bought six cookies for $1.50. How much does one cookie cost?

Part B: How much would 50 cookies cost?

The group spent a total of 24 minutes analyzing students responses to these two questions and discussing how to design future instruction to address students misconceptions. Notably, the length of time that this group spent discussing these two brief questions is emblematic of a dialogic, sensemaking process that the majority of our teacher groups did not sustain. We consistently found that dialogic talk takes longer, which is part of why it is eschewed by many teachers, who are notoriously pressed for time (Bartlett, 2004). The exchange that follows begins with the groups discussion of Part B of the task:


AP Matthew:

All right. How about Part B of the question? How much would 50 cookies cost? So, extending the unit rate out. How did, how did that go?



I had some students who instead of multiplying actually added. But it was interesting because one student added $1.50 a certain number of times instead of adding the unit rate.


AP Matthew:



Coach Lindsay:




But they attempted to do it that way anyway.



And on mine, I noticed they, they went back to the $1.50 and timsed$1.50 times 50 instead of 25 cents times 50.

(Horn et al., 2017, Exchange 4.1)

In response to teachers observations about students mathematical decision making, which are typical examples of this groups use of the representational function of language, Coach Lindsay asked:


Coach Lindsay:

So, whats the misunderstanding that they [students] have there?



Theyre not using unit rate to find






or unit price to find the total cost. Theyre going back to that first rate.



And the other misconception I noticed on at least eight papers is 25 times 50 equals 1,250.



Hmm hmm.



Same thing.


AP Matthew

Same thing.




(Horn et al., 2017, Exchange 4.2)

Thus, without substantial use of technical language, this group dialogically worked together to represent the processes of students thinking. Interestingly, the group did not, at this point, come to a conclusion about what these findings mean for students mathematical understandingor indeed for future instruction. In a discourse of common sense, we can imagine group members simply concluding that students do not understand unit rate. Although this statement may be true enough, it would not necessarily give teachers additional insight into how instruction might proceed in ways that differed from how teachers had already taught the topic.

Thus, contrary to the expectations of common-sense discourses, but in line with professionalizing discourses, Coach Lindsay took advantage of the representational function of language multiple times throughout this 24-minute exchange. At Turn 28, which occurred soon after Exchange 4.2, Coach Lindsay asked, So, whatre some strategies that youve seen with your kids so far? Like how theyre solving the problems? Eliciting clarifying details is one common example of professionalizing discourse, which invites teachers to use the representational function of language and describe students thinking in greater depth. Notably, this eliciting move was typical of Coach Lindsays talk, as it was of other strong facilitators we have studied (Horn, 2010; Horn & Little, 2010; Kane, 2018).

Together, the group described students strategies for solving this problem: Students drew pictures and used multiplication and division to solve these unit rate problems, but they did not use either a table or a graph. The group decided that this was problematic, not only because using tables and graphs was in their curricular standards, but also because it suggested that students still did not understand unit rate as a ratio. As a result, Coach Lindsay again made use of the representational functions of language. About 18 minutes into this 24-minute discussion, she elicited more clarifying details, asking, I have a question real quick about the diagrams. Shonda, you said that some of your kids drew pictures. Were the pictures similar to this [points to a student paper]? What were the pictures like? (Turn 119). Shonda explained that many students drew six circles, each of which represented a cookie from Part A of the problem. After about 3 minutes, in which the group searched for and found examples of students diagrams, Coach Lindsay was able to articulate a question that had implications for future instruction:


Coach Lindsay:

Okay. So, heres what Im, Im really just wondering this question. So, lets, what is the strength, okay, whatre the differences between the, the picture or dia-, well say diagram. The diagram that AP Matthew showed us [a double number line] and the diagrams that theyre using here [pictures of cookies]? What, think about like what could be some benefits or, is one preferred over the other? Is one more generalizable than the other?



Well, the diagram that AP Matthew used was, okay. So, say that kid that wrote $9 for the first problem,


Coach Lindsay:




if he had used that diagram he would know that it has to be le-, when he drew that arrow,


Coach Lindsay:




he would know that it has to be less than $1.50.


Coach Lindsay:




Because I mean, because its a line.


Coach Lindsay:

And because its on the number line. Like if they have an understanding of where the numbers are on the number line. So, the reason Im asking the question is because I, you know, as a teacher myself and when I said, Draw a diagram, I got a lot of this [cookie drawings], and I was okay with this. But I dont think that this kind of diagram is, can be used for every type of problem efficiently. Whereas the diagram that AP Matthew showed us is more applicable to pretty much, I cant think of a situation where its not [useful] right now off the top of my head. Wed have to test that out, but weve gotta give them tools thatre gonna be really efficient for any type of unit rate problem.

(Horn et al., 2017, Exchange 4.3)

We were struck by the sophisticated mathematical and instructional thinking herebut also by the lack of technical terms. If we look at Coach Lindsays first statement, we note that the most technical language involved is diagram, but in context, it does not seem to matter whether the group uses the term diagram or the less technical term picture. Indeed, it is fair to say that both words, diagram and picture, could comfortably reside within a discourse of common sense. However, these terms still contribute to teachers professional meaning-making because the group has shared access to a representation of students thinking: students written work. As we have described, representationsoften through language, but also through writing, pictures, student work, or videoare a prominent feature of groups talk when we see professionalizing discourse. Throughout our data, in episodes in which teachers had greater opportunities for professional learning such as the one featured in Exchange 4, we found that teachers may or may not have used technical terms. However, they were consistent in making use of representations. Some groups, like the one above, focused on literal representations such as students work, but all groups made use of the representational function of language, often reenacting students and teachers speech (Horn, 2005). As in this example, those opportunities allowed teachers to dig beyond superficial depictions of classroom life and (especially) of students to arrive at analytic plans for future work; in our analytic language, professionalizing discourses supported teachers in moving beyond the illusion of intersubjectivity to grounded intersubjectivity, which allowed them to work together to design their instruction.

When teachers reinterpretations of practice lead them to imagine new ways of working in the future, we see that as evidence of conceptual change (Hall & Horn, 2012; Kane, 2015). Following Vygotsky (1986), we see word meaning as an appropriate unit of analysis for examining concept development. In Exchange 4, the group refined its original concept of not using unit price to find the total cost (Deanna, Turns 11 and 13). Indeed, it would be easy to imagine a more monologic discussion in which teachers simply concluded that students did not understand unit rate or unit price. However, in this discussion, teachers deepened their thinking about what students did and did not understand about unit rate. Over the course of 24 minutes, teachers decided that students could add labels to units, as though they were ending a sentence in Language Arts (Coach Lindsay, Turn 131), but they did not understand unit rate as a ratio that represents the relationship between two different quantities (Coach Lindsay, Turn 147). This example illustrates conceptual change; the teachers leave this meeting with a deeper understanding of students thinking about unit rate, along with new strategies, such as the use of a number line, to support their teaching (Horn et al., 2017, Exchange 4.3).

Comparing this exchange with the launch example, we reiterate our assertion that words in themselves do not convey meaning. Rather, meanings arise out of dialogic interchanges with other people in the world (Gee, 2014). As interactions accrue over time, so do peoples understandings of the values and practicesthe meaningsthat professional terms represent. Thus, differences between monologic, common-sense discourse practices and dialogic discourse practices implicate word meaning and, in turn, concept development. Collective concept development requires dialogic interaction. In Exchange 2, in which teachers discussed the sections of a textbook they would teach and when, the ideas were left aside. In Exchange 3, in which a teacher questioned the premise of another teachers lesson plan, attempts to refine ideas were rebuffed. Monological discourse practices treat terms and ideas as preexisting and coherent and do not make space for asking why. This vastly simplifies communication, with the trade-off that it also sometimes oversimplifies complex phenomena (Sfard, 2008). Particularly in a profession like teaching, in which technical terms risk being subsumed into existing assumptions, we highlight the importance of incorporating dialogic discourses that adequately represent the particulars. Exchange 4, in which teachers rely on student work to make sense of students thinking, shows how dialogic discourse practices refine participants understandings, with the trade-off that communication may be less efficient as people consider and reconsider their ideas.


We have argued that the Professional Language Project is destined to fail as long as monologic discourse practices prevail in teaching, leading even the most carefully derived technical terms to capitulate to related common-sense epistemologies. That makes the truth of any claim about teaching difficult to ascertain: Differentiation works, and differentiation doesnt work, depending on your assumptions. In our own research, we saw carefully parsed practice, thoughtfully communicated, run into the power of common-sense cultures. At the same time, we see that dialogic discourse practices stand to support teachers concept development, as their ideas are refined as they reconsider (and hopefully expand) their understandings. We provided an extended example of a teacher groups interaction that supported conceptual change. Notably, like many rich conversations we see, it did not involve much professional language. It did, however, portray professionalizing discourse, with the consistent press to elicit further details as a part of the collective sensemaking. Perhaps Coach Lindsay and her team would benefit from concise terms about their process of interpreting students understanding as they design subsequent instruction. However, it is also worth noting that what made the conversation about misunderstandings and misconceptions rich was the professionalizing discourse that uncovered and shared the underlying pedagogical reasoning. We see this as evidence that professionalizing discourse practices can be supported in teachers. However, given the institutional congruence between schooling and common-sense cultures, such shifts in practice will not come easily nor likely endure without a substantial change in how we invest in educational institutions and how we organize teachers time.


In many ways, we are sympathetic to the goals of the Professional Language Project. The idea of formalizing professional terms is undoubtedly appealing. In an era in which the professional status of teaching is once again in jeopardy (Wise, 2005), professional terms stand to crystalize critical concepts, signal expertise, and support improvement on broader scales. Researchers, teacher educators, and practitioners could benefit from ways of talking about critical aspects of practice to support knowledge building and teacher education. In codifying practice, professional terms could give weight to teaching credentials and distinguish professional teachers from laypeople, especially if the language captures knowledge consequential for student learning. Professional terms could facilitate the sharing of practice, enhancing communication by creating comparable classes of events, rendering visible much of what gets left invisible, and providing support mechanisms for addressing common challenges. Terms representing concepts and practices could give teachers interpretive tools for making sense of and responding to complex classroom events. We acknowledge all of this.

At the same time, we are keenly aware of possible pitfalls in codifying teaching through professional terms, absent professionalizing modes of discourse. Not only is addressing language and frameworks alone not likely, in our estimation, to transform practice, but it also stands to perpetuate inequalities. If we trade in the endemic uncertainty that comes along with teachings situativity for the illusion of intersubjectivity, this may perpetuate common-sense epistemics and hamper meaningful concept development because practitioners will assume that everybody means the same thing. Second, we wonder about representational adequacy: how will professional terms, as objectifications, communicate once they are divorced from their conceptual, experiential moorings? How will they not fall prey to the same conceptual slippage we witnessed when the launch became the hook? How will the crucial particularities of students and communities get addressed in pushes to standardize the ways we talk, when our examples show how important it is for thoughtful teachers to delve into the rich particulars?

A hurried pursuit of technical terms stands to make a grave error, trading out ecological validity for precision. By focusing on parsing out active instruction and identifying its routine elements, some critical, relational aspects of teaching risk being overlooked. With its role in objectifying complex processes, language economically conveys experience, yet often without adequate attention to its subjective nature. Professional terms, absent dialogic discourse, risk a false sense of intersubjectivity as they are divorced from their situated nature, disenabling teachers from seeing the very particulars that support responsive practice.

We are especially concerned about this last point. As we described earlier, responsive pedagogies are highly particular. Language, when it is left unexamined, risks communicating stereotyped ideas about children and communities whose particular experiences merit thoughtful responses and who are too often harmed by schooling. As Ladson-Billings (2008) warned about decomposing culturally responsive teaching into a set of actions,

Even if we could tell you how to do it, I would not want us to tell you how to do it. . . . you would probably do exactly what I told you to do without any deep thought or critical analysis. You would do what I said regardless of the students in the classroom, their ages, their abilities, and their need for whatever it is I proposed. (p. 43)

In other words, specific teaching actions are insufficientand in fact may, in themselves, without regard for context, do harm. Meanings, co-constructed in relationship with and response to particular students and communities, matter most.


In teaching cultures sensitive to situativity, professional language might be a starting point for conversation but would not automatically be taken as representationally adequate. Terms would only become adequate through dialogic interactions that allow the particulars of teaching situations to accumulate around them. Terms would not be left alone to carry meaning but instead would be revisited and linked to the particulars of specific situations, thus supporting teachers concept development. Others have noted the lack of consensus about teaching across the profession. Instead of framing this as a problem of language, however, they have framed it as a missing coherent epistemic community (Glazer & Peruach, 2015). That is, educators are currently not organized around shared tools, theories, or methods of communicating new expectations or generating new knowledge; in the terms we have been using, there is not conceptual coherence around a set of epistemic stances. Transforming the epistemic community seems like a promising object of change. Of course, this would entail more than simply changing the nature of teachers discourse. The underlying theories of who students are and how they learn are fundamental to the shared understandings they develop.

A paradox arises, then: The teaching cultures most likely to make the best conceptual use of professional language also would be the most likely not to take its meanings for granted. In our studies, professional terms more effectively supported concept development in workgroups that acknowledged their partiality in representing practice, incorporating discourse routines like eliciting further details (Horn, 2010; Horn & Little, 2010) or activities like lesson study (Lewis, Perry & Murata, 2006). We see this as paradoxical because the broader project to develop professional terms aims to make communication among teachers more precise and effective. Yet while professional language may orient teachers to certain critical facets of teaching, it requires dialogue to be meaningful. As we stated earlier, unlike surgeons or pilots, who learn at the elbow of an expert, talk about teaching is almost always asynchronous from the fast-paced work of instruction. To support shared meaning, teachers must describe a teaching problem sufficiently for any thoughts, advice, or feedback to be useful, increasing the burden of language to convey meaning.

We thus find ourselves in a well-known philosophical tangle of hermeneutics, ontology, and epistemology. What is useful for making sense of realityour hermeneutic toolsgets bundled up with our sense of what is and what is notontologyand how we know what we knowepistemology. Because of the situated nature of teaching, languages ability to interpret the world (hermeneutics) rests heavily on individual understandings of what is and what is not (ontology) and how we come to know it (epistemology). For instance, in the hotspot example, the rambunctious student who is an asset to the classroom may not exist for some teachers whose ideal student is compliant; such a student is an ontological impossibility. We worry that attempts to codify professional terms, absent deliberate efforts to professionalize discourse so that it is dialogic and sensitized to teachings situativity, will quickly find themselves tied in these philosophical knots. Fostering workplace cultures that support the dialogic investigation of teaching situations, anchored in humanizing ideals, is critical to concept development in teaching. Additionally, leveraging our insights about concept development and the situative nature of teachers knowledge, we implore teacher educators to explore questions about meaning to ensure that we are, in fact, talking about the same things.


We would like to thank our many collaborators over the course of these studies, especially the teachers who invited us into their classrooms and shared their thinking. In addition, conversations with our colleagues Barb Stengel, Elizabeth Self, and Susan Jurow contributed to our ideas. Careful reading of earlier drafts of this paper by Thomas Philip and Manka Varghese helped sharpen our thinking, as did the thoughtful comments from reviewers. All remaining errors are our own.


1. We use [brackets] to signify tentative transcription.

2. All names are pseudonyms, except for Lora in Episode 2, who was a researcher/teacher on the project.


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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: 10/24/2021 3:17:16 PM

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