Courtney Cazden

Courtney B. Cazden is Charles William Eliot Professor of Education Emerita in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Having earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Radcliffe College and graduate degrees from the University of Illinois and Harvard University, Cazden began her career as an elementary school teacher serving diverse students from predominantly working-class families. She quickly recognized that her students were being tracked into the lowest-level courses when they reached high school-a troubling observation that prompted her to ask how schools could better meet students’ needs.

Her desire to better understand language development and use and its relative impact on historically disadvantaged students prompted her to pursue a doctorate. Serving as a faculty member at her alma mater for the next five decades, Cazden has examined language acquisition and use, albeit in changing contexts. She focused on individual communicative competence in her early career before gradually shifting focus to interactions between individuals and within groups in context, including research on the discourse occurring among teachers and students in the classroom. Later examining issues of educational equity surrounding literacy and language use in context, Cazden has published extensively, including books and chapters, articles, and other scholarly works.

Her most recent book, titled Communicative Competence, Classroom Interaction, and Educational Equity: The Selected Writings of Courtney B. Cazden (2018), features 18 selected writings that illustrate her larger body of work. She has also received numerous awards and honors including: the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Educational Research (1986, American Educational Research Association), a Fulbright Research Fellowship (1987, New Zealand), Alumnae Recognition Award (1987, Radcliffe College), election to the National Academy of Education (1990), the George and Louise Spindler Award (1994, Council on Anthropology and Education), election to the Reading Hall of Fame (1994), and the Distinguished Researcher Award (1996, National Council on Research in Language and Literacy). In her retirement, Dr. Cazden remains widely recognized nationally and internationally as an expert on the development of oral and written abilities and on the functions of language in school and community.

For more information, visit Courtney Cazden’s Website. To learn more about Courtney Cazden from her colleague and friend, visit her Reflections.

Video Interviews with Courtney Cazden:

Recalling “bits and pieces” about her early school experiences, Dr. Courtney Cazden describes her educational journey from a high school in Camden, Maine to Radcliffe College and beyond, noting that she recently attended her 75-year class reunion with long-time high school friends. Characterizing her time spent “wandering among the majors” as an undergraduate, first considering a career in medicine before deciding to study philosophy, Cazden explains that young women attended Radcliffe College while male students took classes across the Cambridge Common at Harvard University during the World War II era.

She also recounts warm memories of summers spent teaching children at a camp in Upstate New York while reflecting on her decision to become an elementary school teacher. Watch this video to hear more from Dr. Cazden about her early efforts to obtain a teaching position, including how she ironically failed the English speaking exam required to teach in New York City Public Schools.

Recounting years spent as an elementary school teacher serving diverse student from predominately working-class families, Dr. Courtney Cazden notes that the life experiences of her students were markedly different from the realities of urban poverty facing many students today. In fact, although most of their parents held relatively good paying jobs in manufacturing, she notes that her students were tracked into the lower-courses in high school-an observation that she found very troubling. Cazden cites this as the impetus for her return to Harvard University to study language and ultimately earn a doctorate, recalling how her dream of taking courses taught to Dr. Jerome Bruner came true. In this clip, learn more about Dr. Cazden’s early research on pre-school outcomes for low-income children in the Headstart Program and how the War on Poverty impacted the course of her career.

Dr. Courtney Cazden describes her early research trajectory beginning as a doctoral student at Harvard University, explaining that she implemented an intervention with children in a “horrible private daycare” in Boston in hopes of fostering language development. Having acquired considerable expertise in this area as a faculty member, she recounts her decision to return to the elementary school classroom as a teacher in order to apply her new knowledge. Noting that “it was a very hard job,” Cazden cites this experience as a turning point in her career and future research. Watch this clip to hear Dr. Cazden discuss the challenges facing teachers today and juxtapose the ideal classroom with ample opportunities for open-ended discussion and the real constraints of accountability policy and high-stakes testing.

Since entering retirement, Dr. Courtney Cazden notes that she remains concerned about persistent equity issues in the United States, a common thread in her research over a career spanning more than five decades. Noting that she “is glad that the ideas in her book on classroom discourse” remain relevant to educational researchers, scholars, and practitioners today, she explains that she regularly receives requests from interested readers for digital copies of some of her writings that are long out of print. In this clip, hear more about the changing nature of research as Dr. Cazden highlights the profound impact of technology on how scholars disseminate their work to a national and international audience.

Reflecting on those who have most profoundly impacted her work as a scholar, Dr. Courtney Cazden describes how her thinking and writing have been influenced by family, colleagues, co-authors, and mentors throughout her career. Describing her long-time interest in literature, specifically memoirs, and desire to read more poetry, she shares a few titles of recent books that she found particularly moving and relevant to current political issues. When considering the advice she would give to educational researchers, scholars, practitioners, and graduate students, she encourages them to figure out how to tackle the tough problems wherever they are. Watch this clip to hear more from Dr. Cazden about how teachers can contribute to research in profound and meaningful ways.

Dr. Allan Luke

Characterizing Dr. Courtney B. Cazden as “the most humble and understated and powerful mentor to us all,” Dr. Allan Luke explains that “she has this incredible capacity to see and hear and observe educational problems and practices.” Describing her approach to research and scholarship, and to the world around her, as steely and honest, Allan notes that she can “see right through not only to their core scientific and cultural questions, but to the moral and political heart” of the matter in question. Allan explains that he first met his long-time friend in Australia and has since worked with her on research related to Singapore schooling, Queensland school reform and Indigenous education, and multiliteracies. Noting that she initially characterized him as “one of those ‘critical’ people” who was “doing critique, doing theory, telling people what’s wrong with the system, but not really interested in making a difference with kids and teachers,” Allan recalls that Courtney did not have time for “the self-interested theory or academic windbags”! Since referring to her standards for meaningful scholarship as the “Cazden litmus test,” Allan and his Australian colleagues note that her work underscores the importance of one’s “willing[ness] to get out there and work at it with kids and communities and teachers” as well as “putting your time and heart where your political rhetoric is.” Allan characterizes her “absolute moral commitment to improving the lives of the most marginalized and least advantaged communities, of kids and families who historically get left behind and left out” as a way Courtney has profoundly impacted his own work and that of many others. Citing her “Quaker sense of honesty, justice and peace, [and] a truly Communist egalitarianism that has so much to the field, and to the lifeworlds she’s crossed” among her many gifts, Allan explains that it has been a privilege to work alongside her time and time again.