Semantic space: ‘How we talk around here’

I’ve been thinking about talking and talking about talking. Last month I published this piece on my school’s blog about why and how we approach professional conversations as an organisation. The pictured infographic is one I designed to distil our school approach to professional conversations. While deceptively simple, it is the result of a lot of research, practice, and writing, over time. In that blog post, I talk about why we use Cognitive Coaching as a coaching model for developing a collaborative professional learning culture, but also when we might deliberately use consulting, collaborating, or evaluating as ways of talking. Rather than adopting deficit models of conversation aimed to fix or tell teachers, we base our professional conversations on a belief in the capacity of everyone in our community to grow and improve.

At the Australian National Coaching Conference in Melbourne last month, I was immersed in talking about coaching, and talking with coaches. I was delighted to be on a conference panel with Christian van Niewerburgh, Rachel Lofthouse, and Alex Guedes, discussing coaching in education research. One of the points I made was around the use of terminology within a community like the one in the conference room. 400 educators and coaches were all talking about coaching at the conference, but not necessarily with the same understanding of what ‘coaching’ means.

As Scott Millman points out in his blog, many of the conference attendees had what Christian van Niewerburgh calls a ‘coaching way of being’. A conversation with them is a coaching conversation. These individuals actively and intensely listen, paraphrase, pause, and ask thoughtful questions designed more for the benefit of the talker than the listener. These aren’t conversations where the other person is waiting for their turn to say their piece or pushing a personal agenda; they are ones in which the listener serves the talker via thoughtful and deliberate ways of talking and ways of being in conversation.

At the conference, Rachel Lofthouse talked about Kemmis and Heikkenen’s (2012) notion of a semantic space. I enjoyed this way of thinking about an organisation. Semantics is about linguistic meaning; the logic of language. In organisations I imagine a semantic space is about ‘how we talk around here’, the meanings of words, the way communication happens. Lofthouse and Elaine Hall (2014) define semantic space as one of professional dialogue, constituting tone, choice of words, routines of dialogue, and balance of participation in conversation. Semantic space interacts with organisional structures, physical spaces, and relationships.

Harvard academics and developmental psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001) say that our places of work are places in which certain forms of speech are promoted or encouraged, and places where other ways of talking are discouraged or made impossible. What kinds of talk are promoted in our schools? Which are limited or suppressed?

Can it ever be ‘just’ semantics? No. The words we use, the way we talk, and the way we interpret language are vital to our work, especially in education. Members of high-functioning teams, for instance, respectfully challenge one another in order to find the best ways forward. Something Rachel Lofthouse said in her conference keynote stuck with me: “Don’t talk less and work more. The talk is the work. So talk well, talk productively, talk to learn.” The way we talk can influence the way we think and the way we behave. In any organisation it’s important to figure out and work on ‘how we talk around here’ as well as why we talk, when we talk, what we talk about, and how we want to talk.

References

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. John Wiley & Sons.

Kemmis, S. and Heikkinen, H.L.T. (2012). Practice architectures and teacher induction. In: H.L.T. Heikkinen, H. Jokinen, and P. Tynjälä, eds. Peer-group mentoring (PGM): peer group mentoring for teachers’ professional development. London: Routledge, 144–170.

Lofthouse, R., & Hall, E. (2014). Developing practices in teachers’ professional dialogue in england: Using coaching dimensions as an epistemic tool. Professional Development in Education, 40(5), 758-778.

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