Academic journal article New Waves

On "New Waves" in Mathematics Education Research: Identity, Power, and the Mathematics Learning Experiences of All Children

Academic journal article New Waves

On "New Waves" in Mathematics Education Research: Identity, Power, and the Mathematics Learning Experiences of All Children

Article excerpt

When mathematics, so effective in creating useful stories about the physical reality around us, is also applied in crafting stories about children (as in "This is a below average student") and plays a decisive role in determining the paths their lives are going to take, the results may be less than helpful. More often than not, the numerical tags with which these stories label their young protagonists, rather than empowering the student, may be raising barriers that some of the children will never be able to cross (Sfard, 2012, p. 8).

As part of a broader "social turn" in mathematics education research (e.g., Lerman, 2000)-and, perhaps more recently, a sociopolitical turn (Gutiérrez, 2010)-there has been growing attention to the role of identity construction as an element of mathematical thinking and learning (Sfard & Prusak, 2005; cf. Bishop, 2012). Although many conceptualizations of identity have emerged or been incorporated from other areas of inquiry (e.g., psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology), mathematics education researchers have recast and operationalized identity in mathematics-specific terms and contexts (Bishop, 2012; Esmonde et al., 2011; Lamell, under review; Martin, 2000, 2007; Sfard, 2008)-including "formal" and "informal" settings (e.g., Nasir & Hand, 2008). Furthermore and importantly, these mathematics-specific notions of identity have been associated with conceptualizations of mathematical proficiency (National Research Council, 2001; cf. Bishop, 2012), suggesting that identity construction plays a central and deeply embedded role in students' development in mathematics learning and teaching situations.

The purpose of this article is twofold: (a) to briefly present the social and sociopolitical contexts in which identity has emerged as an analytic tool for research and (b) to present an exemplum of these "new waves," drawing from a recent study of mathematics identity that I conducted with African American students transitioning to postsecondary mathematics courses. With regard to the latter, my work with mathematics identity centers on its psychosocial properties; that is, can mathematics identities be threatened and/or damaged-by what and by whom, amid what situations, and with what consequences? Toward a broader agenda of using identity as a lens on issues of equity (but also inequity) in mathematics education, I focus on the mathematics learning experiences of African American students and the increasingly problematic context of remedial mathematics courses.

Background and Theory

As a new wave or development during the 1980s, a growing collection of researchers amid the social turn recognized that mathematics teaching and learning included much more than the traditional, triadic relationship between teacher, student, and (contextor culture-"ffee") subject matter. Instead, this otherwise simple relationship was situated among nested levels of socialization (e.g., schools, communities, societies, histories and traditions) and influenced by a multitude of potential social factors, such as race, gender, and culture (Weissglass, 2002). Ideas and questions about the intersections between mathematics education and conceptions of race, gender, equity, classroom discourse began to surface in research and policy (e.g., National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989; Secada & Meyer, 1989).

Between the social tum and the more recent sociopolitical turning1, concerns about social forces on mathematics learning were translated into recognition that learners were developing their identities in contexts of unequal-and oftentimes inequitable-power relations. Another point of differentiation between the social and sociopolitical turns is the manner by which race and other markers of difference are included in the analysis of identity. Although the tides were changing, much of the research on race during the social turn did not extend beyond assigning people to categories in order to compare them to others. …

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