LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES Q & A with Anna Sfard

Anna Sfard conducts research in the domain of learning sciences, with particular focus on the relation between thinking and communication. Her studies are guided by the
assumption that human thinking is a form of communication. Inspired mainly by the work of Wittgenstein and Vygotsky, this basic non-dualist tenet implies that discursivity – the discursive mediation of all our activities – is the hallmark of humanness. Discourses are repositories of complexity that underlie uniquely human ability to always build on
achievements of previous generations rather than beginning every time anew. Results of Sfard’s theoretical and empirical research guided by this communicational (or “commognitive”) framework and focusing mainly on the learning of mathematics have been summarized in the book Thinking as communicating: Human development, the
growth of discourses, and mathematizing (2008). Her other volumes, edited or co-edited,
include Learning tools: Perspectives on the role of designed artifacts in mathematics learning (2002), Learning discourse: discursive approaches to research in mathematics education (2003), Development of Mathematical discourse: Some insights from
communicational research (2012), and Research for educational change: Transforming
researchers; insights into improvement in mathematics teaching and learning (2017). Sfard is Professor Emerita at the University of Haifa, Israel. She served as the first Lappan-Philips-Fitzgerald Professor at Michigan State University and is the Visiting Professor in the Institute of Education, University College of London. She is the recipient of 2007 Freudenthal Award, the Fellow of American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the member of the American National Academy of Education (NAEd).

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Sfard discusses her work on building teacher capacity through context specific and collaborative professional development efforts. As Sfard puts it:

I want to talk about the need for a change in discourse. This time, it is the discourse of practitioners that has to be transformed. In other words, my advice to Educational Change people would be to try to open the eyes of the educational transformers to discursive bumps evenly spread along the roads traveled by the teacher, the curriculum designer and the policy maker. In the words of Wittgenstein (1967), this is a call for “erect[ing] signpost at all junctions where there are wrong turnings” (p. 47). Those who wish to spearhead the change must have a clear picture of what it is that needs to change. My research has showed time and again that, more often than not, what happens around us is the product of our tiniest, automatically performed discursive moves rather than of those macro-action that we can name, discuss, plan, and change at will. Thus, in the already-mentioned South African study we saw how a good-meaning teacher, through his minute discursive moves – the words in which he chose to present mathematical tasks, the brief phrases with which he invited the students to participate – unwittingly deprived the learners of proper opportunities for learning (Sfard, 2017). In another recent study, Candia Morgan and I showed that in England, some elusive, but critically important aspects of school mathematical discourse have been changing incessantly over the last 30 years (Morgan & Sfard, 2016). This made us realize that those who claimed a gradual decline in students’ achievement might have been grounding this assessment in comparison between things that should not be compared: after all, different mathematics was learned by the students of different periods. In result, in their attempts to make a change, the reformers were likely to direct their efforts at a wrong target.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Christina Dobbs.

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