Flu viruses a lucky community and cosine graphs: the possibilities opened up by the use of a socio-political perspective to study learning in an undergraduate access course in mathematics

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African Journal of Research in Mathematics Science and Technology Education

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Taylor & Francis


University of Cape Town

In this paper I present a perspective of mathematics education and learning, termed a 'sociopolitical perspective'. Classroom mathematical activity, in which certain ways of acting, behaving and knowing are given value, is located in a wider network of socio-political practices. Learning in mathematics is regarded as coming to participate in the discourse of the community that practises the mathematics. I argue that the use of a socio-political perspective allows the researcher and teacher to view classroom mathematical activity as a product of the network of socio-political practices in which it is located, rather than as a product of individual cognitive ability. I illustrate the use of this perspective by drawing on a study of learning in a first-year university access course in Mathematics at a South African university. Fairclough's method for critical discourse analysis, supplemented with work by Sfard and Morgan in mathematics education, was used to analyse both the text of a 'real world' problem in mathematics and a transcript representing the activity as a group of five students solved the problem. This analysis suggests that, despite containing traces of discourses from outside of mathematics, the problem text constructs the activity as solving a mathematical problem with features of a school mathematical word problem. When solving the problem the students draw on practices associated with school mathematics and their university mathematics course, some of which enable and others constrain their participation. For example, they refer to named functions learned at school, they have difficulty making productive links between the mathematical functions and the 'real world' context, and they have varied opportunities for mathematical talk in the group. The study identifies as key to the students' progress the presence of an authority (in this case a tutor) who can make explicit the ways of thinking, acting, and talking that are valued in the discourse of undergraduate mathematics, and who provides opportunities for mathematical talk.

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education on 20 August 2013 available online: http://www.tandfonline.com/10.1080/10288457.2009.10740656.