Why The Sociology of Mathematics Education? Activity, Strategy and Dialogue

Paul Dowling

Culture Communication & Societies
Institute of Education, University of London

The position that I want to develop in my lecture is, at least in part, a tactical response to what I perceive as an impending crisis in educational studies in the UK. Arguably, the crisis has its roots in the new forms of governance, which have shifted away from the state provision of services and towards the surveillance and regulation of services that are increasingly out-sourced. The efficiency and scope of this surveillance and regulation is achieved via the recruitment of the rapidly developing and expanding technologies of information and communication. These technologies, of course, include those that are commonly referred to as information and communication technologies. However, their general characteristic entails the minute precodification of the objects of their scrutiny. On a day-to-day basis, we feel the impact of such technologies in, for example, the automatic switchboards, which, in some cases, allow us no route to communicate at all other than through the touch-tone keypads on our telephones. These new technologies of bureaucratic informatics are now being turned on us so that the intellectual field in which we operate is increasingly penetrated and dominated by them. The effect of this new informatic accountability is to urge us to exchange methodological and theoretical rigour for fast-track, quick-fix remedies that must make extravagant claims to act directly on the improvement of teaching and learning in schools. The result would appear to be the dissolution of the languages which have hitherto constituted the disciplines of educational studies and so the potential for the productive interrogation of educational practices. These languages once also constituted the visible guarantees of competence of the academic: to be a sociologist of education might be taken to entail familiarity with, say, a canon of texts (admittedly fuzzily defined and, to a certain extent, of dynamic composition) and their associated terminologies and principles of description. The academic, now, is urged to abandon this now redundant expertise and seek authority in their diplomas and official affiliations which, we know only too well, were never any guarantee of anything (well, not much).

The bureaucratic dissolving of the academic languages is of course being mirrored in schooling itself, which is also increasingly subject to informatic fragmentation through regulation and surveillance. However, and at the risk of sounding controversial, some of the supposedly critical responses to such curricular denaturing are, arguably, themselves contributing to the same process. In particular, I am referring to the liberal democratising of education powerfully proposed by Piaget and taken up by successive generations of pedagogic constructivism. For Piaget, culture is relative. Therefore, the authoritative imposition of a cultural product, in the form of a discursive of practical schema, is, in his terms, socio-centric. As such, Piaget claims that it must inhibit the development of rationality which can occur effectively only where relations are non-authoritative. Authority, for Piaget - power for others - is dispensable and with it the voice of the pedagogue as subject of the discipline as the content of pedagogic action. I contend that this form of liberal constructivism concurs with informatic fragmentation in the dissolution of academic expertise, if in nothing else.

My position, along with Marx, Freud, Foucault and others, is to construe power not as a dispensable condition, but on the contrary, as a sine qua non of subjectivity: power constitutes rather than (or, shall we say, in addition to) constraining the subject. My tactical response, then - tactical in de Certeau’s sense of the strategies of the subaltern - is, firstly, to present my own sociological language which, through its explicitness and (it is to be hoped) its coherence can attempt to validate its own utterances. In this validation, it also attests to the competence of its speaker. In its deployment, the facility of the language is the production of sociological analyses of texts, the term ‘text’ being interpreted in its broadest sense to refer to any closed corpus of data. The language was inaugurated through a dialogue within the theoretical field which constitutes educational studies and through a dialogue with the empirical field of educational practice. The choice of school mathematics as the focus of my work was motivated by virtue of its own highly explicit grammar and because of my own professional investment in the activity. My original empirical setting was the secondary school mathematics scheme, SMP 11-16, although in this paper I shall also refer to one or two other mathematical settings which will serve as illustrative overtures to the presentation of the main structure of the language itself.

The language that I shall introduce is constituted as a cultural product - a discursive schema. In order for it to develop beyond the status of idiolect, I must attempt to apprentice others into it pedagogically. I am therefore constituting a conception of pedagogic action as authoritative.

Issues and questions