Primary maths and social justice project

Contributor: Joel Kelly (The Blue School, Isleworth, London)

I came across Pete Wright’s work when studying for my Masters’ degree in Mathematics Education and subsequently joined the TMSJ Network. After one meeting, I spoke with Pete about doing some research around mathematics and social justice in the primary setting. As I work in a primary school myself, I suggested our school as well as another local school for the setting for the research.

Pete, Caroline Hilton and I then began work with six teacher researchers with the aim of improving socio-mathematical agency for primary children. We met as a group and discussed social justice, engaged with some of the ideas around social justice and began to think about how we could apply these ideas to a series of maths lessons. Over the year the teachers discussed, planned and delivered two social justice mathematics lessons.

There were many findings from the project, however the one that really stood out to me was teachers noting that the children had become more engaged in mathematics when they could see its purpose. One example of this was the Year 1 class (age 5-6) who had been previously complaining about an unfair rota for a special area of the playground, had been given the chance to make their own rota and put it to the Senior Leadership Team. Their maths lesson used all of the skills that they were learning as part of the maths curriculum that week, with the added purpose of making a change in their own environment in the name of fairness.

All the participants saw the benefit of this approach to mathematics and our school will now be increasing the opportunities for mathematics and social justice throughout the curriculum.

A detailed report from the Primary Maths and Social Justice research project can be found on the TMSJN Research page.

Disordering mathematics: reflections from the third reading group meeting

Contributors: Sandra Beckford-Henry, Jane Goodland, Hilary Povey, Helen Thouless

The reading group is for those wishing to engage with research literature on TMSJ and discuss its relevance to practice. The third online reading group meeting took place 15th November 2022. We chose to discuss Hilary Povey and Gill Adams’ 2021 paper: Disordering mathematics, citizenship and sociopolitical research in mathematics education amongst the “rubble of words”. We began by breaking into smaller groups to discuss the following questions:
~ What do the authors mean by ‘radical citizenship’? How can this be seen as ‘disordering’?
~ What are the implications for bringing citizenship into the mathematics classroom?
~ How might the ideas in the paper relate to your own classroom practice?

We were joined for the second half of the meeting by both of the co-authors:
Hilary Povey (left) and Gill Adams (right).

Questions and comments from the groups acted as prompts for a thought-provoking and insightful discussion around the issues raised in the paper.

Here are some reflections on the paper and the meeting from those who attended (including one of the co-authors) …

Jane Goodland (Newmarket Academy)

I really enjoyed reading the paper and thinking about what it means to teach in a radical or transformative way. I enjoyed the vignettes that broke up the text. For me, it made the paper feel more like a story than a report, it felt like it was moving somewhere. Reading the paper made me realise how we often talk about radical or transformative maths education. But we often talk about it in a more abstract way, and I often feel like I align with papers like this as I’m reading them, but then come away wondering what I should be doing in my classroom. Reading this paper and reflecting in this way made me realise how embedded the status quo is in my own practice and mind. I feel like what I’m trying to do in the classroom is so far away from what a paper like this is advocating, but at the moment I just can’t see what the classroom would look like. I think there is a real problem in education, even amongst more progressive educators, of being stuck in a system that we can’t get out of. I would like to unpick some of the terms that are used in this paper and think deeply about what they actually mean in practice.

Sandra Beckford-Henry (Conisborough College, SE London)

I really enjoyed the discussion, especially hearing both Gill and Hilary saying that the feedback from the group was very insightful. Furthermore, Hilary mentioned that for the next few days she would be in deep thought about the discussions that were had and the paper itself.
One thing that really resonated with me were the inserts. I thought they were very powerful and aptly placed. Somehow their disordered placement helped order my thoughts while reading, plus aided the text very well, especially for a novice academic reader as myself. The idea that ‘mathematical models’ are used in the configuration of immigration policies for citizenship, somehow validates the policies simply because mathematics is involved, without much concern for the assumptions and parameters embedded within the policies. The same policies are then, on the one hand, used to include (golden passport holders) and, on the other hand, preclude others.
I was able to identify with the section that talked about being colonized by software and AI. I feel that we are now at a point with technology where we are being controlled by it rather that it just being a tool to assist. Also, the idea that one way to fight against institutionalization was with disordering mathematics. Realistically one could use the disordering of mathematics to challenge the ‘norms’.

Helen Thouless (St Marys University, Twickenham)

As well as the three prompts, our group discussed the role of technology in colonisation and the role of the vignettes in disordering the structure of this article. I was particularly interested in the different ways that we had read the vignettes. When I read the article, I, as an academic well-versed in reading academic papers, skimmed over the vignettes because I was focusing on the argument in the rest of the article. However, the other members of my group had engaged more deeply in the vignettes and found them helpful for understanding what they were reading. These members of the group referred back to the vignettes when illustrating their understanding of what radical citizenship meant. One of the members of my group stated that the vignettes reminded her of Brecht, in that they intentionally broke the flow and thus exposed the artifice of the writing. This discussion made me think about how the way we write academic papers is not natural and value free, but the result of cultural norms that we have learned and internalised.

Hilary Povey (One of the co-authors of the paper)

I really enjoyed the session and found the format lent itself to really in-depth discussion. I look forward to joining future sessions as a participant. I found many of the responses and contributions thought-provoking. One in particular sent me immediately looking for further connections. This related to our attempt to interrupt the flow of the article.
I had known about Brecht’s commitment to interruption in his plays, for example, in an actor speaking directly to the audience ‘outside’ the play. I know very little about this, but I understand it to be a way of halting emotional engagement to allow a space for critical reflection and, importantly, doubt. According to Ilit Ferber (2005), Walter Benjamin argued that the gaps created by interruption “are the openings through which truth can reveal itself, provided that they allow the reader to pause for further contemplation and doubt what he or she is encountering” (p. 37).  She adds that he claimed that “too flawless an argument does not allow for any such gaps and is constructed as such in order to avoid any risk of doubt which could undermine it” (p37).  This has strong resonance with what Gill and I were trying to achieve, that is, to create doubt about and disordering of our argument.
Ferber, Ilit (2005). Interruptions in Brecht and Benjamin. In Assaph: Studies in the theatre, 19-20, 35-52.

Hilary and Gill recommended another of their papers from 2018 that you may be interested in: Possibilities for mathematics education? Aphoristic fragments from the past

Sharing practice in TMSJ workshop

The Sharing practice in teaching maths for social justice workshop took place on Saturday 25th June 2022 at UCL Institute of Education in London. The 19 participants were treated to four excellent presentations, which highlighted the extent to which social justice is as much about how you teach mathematics as much as it is about what you teach. Each presentation stimulated group discussions which provided an opportunity to engage with and discuss ideas, teaching approaches, classroom resources and work in progress.

The four presentations included:

  • Minnie Gloor (St Michael’s Catholic School): Empowering black students through mastery and oracy in the classroom Link to slides
  • Hafsa Farhana (Sarah Bonnell School): Diversifying the maths curriculum Link to slides
  • Graeme Austin (Luton Sixth Form College): Discovery worksheets and power in the classroom Link to slides
  • Ines Makonga Kalubi (Hampstead School): The practice of TMSJ Link to slides

We are hoping to provide a series of short videos summarising the key ideas from each presentation in the near future (for those who were unable to make it in person).

Reflections from the second reading group meeting

Contributors: Sandra Beckford-Henry, Ben Breen, Alison Ford, Gwen Ineson, Ines Makonga, Cristina Mio, Lisa Pollard, Suchi Srinivas

The reading group is for those wishing to engage with research literature on TMSJ and discuss its relevance to practice. The second reading group meeting took place via Zoom on 27th April 2022 and was attended by 26 members of the Teaching Maths for Social Justice Network. We chose to discuss Ole Skovsmose’s 2021 paper: A philosophy of critical mathematics education. We began by breaking into smaller groups to discuss the following questions:

  • What is the author’s position on ‘social justice’ in relation to mathematics?
  • What are the implications of the paper for approaches to teaching mathematics?
  • To what extent do the ideas from the paper echo with your own practice and experiences?

We were joined for the second half of the meeting (from Sao Paulo, Brazil) by the author, Ole Skovsmose (a leading figure in the world of critical mathematics education).
Each group generated one question to put to Ole which prompted a thought-provoking and inspiring plenary discussion around the issues addressed in his paper.
Ole finished by recommending some other open-access papers for TMSJN members to read:
– Skovsmose (2020): Mathematics and ethics
– Skovsmose (2021): Mathematics and crises

Here are some reflections on the paper and the meeting from those who attended …

Ben Breen (Dartford Grammar School):

Primarily, I felt reassured by the article. The author argues that Mathematics Education for Social Justice is not about teaching what social justice is, but about getting students to consider what social justice might mean. This feels quite liberating, when I consider the activities I could use for this in my classroom, and also helps to avoid the pitfall of coming across as a preachy know-it-all when covering topics with a class.

Skovsmose mounts a powerful critique of the idea that Mathematics itself – or indeed Mathematics Education – can ever be value-free and neutral. I now have a perfect response to those who want to avoid discussing social justice and ethics in Mathematics: even if the knowledge being generated seems entirely abstracted from society, there is no guarantee it will remain that way. Additionally, the article provides a useful reference for the ways in which mathematics interacts with power: technological imagination; hypothetical reasoning; justification and legitimation; realisation; and the dissolution of responsibility. This is something I have struggled to articulate in the past, and I am sure the ideas will make their way into a department meeting or sixth-form Theory of Knowledge lesson in the future.

Skovsmose’s discussion of monologic versus dialogic epistemologies was something I found more difficult to grapple with. I think there is certainly a place for the teacher as an expert imparting knowledge to (hopefully willing!) pupils, but when I look at the ways this knowledge is actually constructed and internalised, they all involve a dialogue. That dialogue can take a variety of forms: student-student; teacher-student; or student-resource.

Alison Ford (Bideford College):

Whilst thinking back over the reading group, it struck me that we had been engaging in constructing our understanding of critical mathematics education through dialogue.  This neatly parallels the pedagogy that Ole argues for and was a great example of how it can be possible.  We had more than one form of dialogue, between peers, and then between ‘teacher’ and ‘students’.  We then came away to reflect individually, which to me is a further form of dialogue with the text and with the ideas of the evening. The discussions themselves reinforced for me how important it is to engage critically with the maths that we are teaching and to facilitate ways for our students to do the same.  I am becoming more aware of the power of my subject both as a tool to address issues of social justice but also as a key component of inequality itself. This raises the value of teaching beyond the sharing of knowledge and passing of exams, and gives us a roadmap of sorts to follow as we continue to discuss, consider and develop together.

Lisa Pollard (Palladian Academy Trust):

Skovsmose’s article was persuasively written, creating emotional responses in our discussion. A couple of members in our small group discussion shared how they had not only received resistance from colleagues to engage in openly social justice focused lessons, but that there were elements of resistance from the students themselves. “Is this maths?” “Is this in the exam?” “What does this have to do with mathematics?” These members were feeling disheartened, particularly those at the start of their career, especially when others including the leadership in their department or school, were much more didactic, engaging in monologic teaching and using knowledge sharing as their main teaching stance. 

As a group, we discussed overt and covert curricula, and how the colonisation of the curriculum did not happen overnight by children being forced to learn in detail about the mainly white, European men given as model mathematicians, but rather the relentless drip feeding that subconsciously accumulates bias and inequity over time. We discussed that, whilst a learning objective, for example, may be ‘to draw regular polygons that are reflectively and rotationally symmetric’, one could use visuals and information about, for example, ‘mandalas’, including what they are, where they can be found and occasions during which they are used. This lesson and its reflections could then be shared with colleagues who may wish to observe, reflect and collaborate in further planning and delivery.

Teachers talked about the tightness of the mathematics curriculum and whether there may be something cross-curricular to pull out overtly the maths for social justice. One example of this related to time and large numbers (Year 6 upwards in the national curriculum) and the example of estimating how long it would take to count to 6 million. Why 6 million? It is not only the approximate number of Jewish people killed by the Nazis during the holocaust but also the approximate number of deaths worldwide due to Coronavirus. The power of discussion of what is the same and what is different about the contexts, through the construct of one number, can be extremely powerful. 

During the question-and-answer session with Ole Skovsmose, our small group posed this question: “Have you any thoughts as to how mathematics being taught in other subjects, with non-maths specialists, can use this very powerful dialogue for social justice (e.g., History/Geography)?” Ole discussed uses in economics and humanities subjects, and we reflected on the collaboration between colleagues with subject expertise in each subject, coming together to use the content wisely but in a way that could open discourse and dialogue, thus empowering students to view the world and its injustices through exposure to elements of inequity and ethics. I have always known mathematics to be powerful and divisive but Ole’s paper, and the following discussions, reminded me that, whilst it is neither harmless nor innocent, maths can be used in a negative or even destructive manner. As Ole affirmed: “You cannot do without mathematics, but you can do wrongly with mathematics!”

Sandra Beckford-Henry (Conisborough College):

I really enjoyed the evening. It was refreshing to hear different viewpoints and share in such important discussions.

I recall during the discussions Ole mentioned the topic of social justice (SJ) as being a very important topic but with no set answers. I came away thinking all I can do as a mathematics teacher is to open up the dialogues around the subject of SJ through the pedagogies used to deliver a maths education and allow students to explore their own ideas and conceptions based on parameters within their own ‘life-worlds’. Facilitating where necessary – without exerting my own ideas or beliefs – in helping students formulate questions and articulate uncertainties regarding SJ. One could possibly employ hypothetical reasoning to facilitate. Students could hopefully see the relationship between mathematics and power. 

It was very encouraging to read the section on ‘Teachers’ Life-Worlds’; Just knowing that someone has acknowledged the daily demands on teachers, and writes/publishes it, contrasts with the notion in schools, which is, ‘It comes with the territory, so we just have to get on with it’.

Cristina Mio (University of Glasgow):

After the reading group meeting, and maybe because of my role as a teacher educator, I found myself reflecting on what the author calls the teachers’ life-worlds. He writes that “Teachers are not only educators but also salary workers”. I think we sometimes forget this, and we hold teachers to impossible standards. The demands and expectations that we have of teachers should be reconciled with the constraints they operate with, such as, among others, a finite amount of time and emotional energy. I felt that some of the questions we posed to the author in the second part of our meeting highlighted how much we, as teachers, feel the responsibility we have towards our students.  We (or maybe only me) were hoping for some answers that would tell us how to do things ‘right’. But the author stated a few times that social justice is a matter of concern, not a matter of solutions. So, maybe we, as teachers with our life-worlds and their constraints, should accept that there is no ‘closure’, no ‘recipe’ for engaging in social justice issues. Maybe all we can do is to remain committed to questioning what happens around us and the actions we take, so that, paraphrasing the last line of the article, we are permanently searching for what to do.

Suchi Srinivas (India):

Skovsmose’s idea of criticality in mathematics education is two pronged: being critical with respect to mathematics; and being critical by means of mathematics. A crucial construct in this discussion is the notion of ‘social justice’. Skovsmose argues that ethical conceptions like social justice are not to be discovered, but to be socially constructed, and a truly critical mathematics education would be one that engages students and teachers in this process of developing and refining this construct.

Skovsmose’s own notion of social justice is inspired by Rawls’ theory of social justice. But while Rawls’ idea, based on the notion of ‘fairness’ and equal distribution, is more of a thought experiment, Skovsmose takes a more pragmatic approach and dwells on how the process of constructing conceptions of social justice in real life contexts, in particular, the classroom. A part of this process, according to Skovsmose, is “addressing and reworking conceptions of social justice”. A discussion-point regarding this came up during our breakout group discussion. What if the process of ‘construction’ throws up notions of social justice that are radically different from those that are essentially based (like that of Rawls) on the idea of fairness? After all, with the strong neoliberal discourses that are prevalent in the present-day scenario, isn’t it likely that many students develop notions that are much more aligned, for instance, with Robert Nozick’s conception of social ‘justice’ – where unequal distributions of wealth and power are justified simply if they are considered a ‘legitimate’ entitlement? Skovsmose’s response to this question was that the responsibility of the teacher and the students is to engage in dialogue and deliberations on the idea of social justice, without trying to force any specific outcomes. This seems reasonable, although I do have lingering doubts about the efficacy of this approach in posing a real challenge to neoliberal discourses, and would like to know more about any successful experiments that have managed to achieve this even to a limited degree.

Another key idea propounded in Skovsmose’s paper was about the importance of dialogue in this process of developing a conception of social justice. While, on the face of it, this seems difficult to argue with, I believe there is some scope for debate. For instance, do all cultures accord the same value to dialogue? If not, might we not (perhaps inadvertently), be reaffirming Eurocentric epistemic approaches? There seems to be a need for more research and a deeper discussion on this issue.

One idea in Skovsmose’s writing that I consider extremely powerful is that of students’ “foregrounds”. While in this session this idea could not be discussed, I would welcome opportunities to discuss and understand it further.

Gwen Ineson (Brunel University London):

Many of the eight elements of mathematics education that Ole Skovsmose discusses in his paper (social justice, maths in action, students’ foregrounds, teachers’ life-worlds, sustainability, citizenship, dialogue and critique) resonated with my work in initial teacher (primary) education. One of the biggest battles I find myself having in discussions with my student teachers is about the extent to which they are able to digress from the dominant discourse around direct instruction, to free up space for dialogue. It seems that without dialogue, it is not possible to even begin considering the other seven ideas discussed in the paper, yet many beginning teachers are deterred from deviating from the prescribed lessons already planned in advance, or from the published scheme that the school follows. It is difficult to build in sufficient opportunities for student teachers on a teacher education programme to discuss and critique their ideas about mathematics education and, if schools aren’t open to this dialogue, how will beginning teachers learn to question their own developing practice?

Ole’s commentary on students’ foregrounds also caused me to reflect on the extent to which we consider pupils as “full human beings located in a complexity of life-worlds” (p.8). Despite the evidence of the benefits of mixed-attainment teaching, many schools persist with setting pupils by ability, so much so that often beginning teachers never have the opportunity to teach or observe mixed attainment teaching. Therefore, discussion about their teaching typically involves explanations about their “lowers” and the limits placed on their learning through rather closed and dull activities. Ole’s discussion about this includes the lack of motivation that these pupils may feel and suggests that “hopelessness is a devastating obstruction to learning” (p. 9).

Having considered these, and other excellent points in the paper, the discussion about Teachers’ Life-worlds offered a welcome acknowledgement that the critique presented was as a result of the limitations placed on teachers (i.e. through policy, curriculum and exam frameworks, etc). Ole suggests that teachers able to incorporate the elements of critical mathematics education discussed in their teaching are “super-teachers” (p.11), but also emphasises that it isn’t realistic or appropriate to expect this of teachers.

It was great to discuss our reflections with colleagues as part of the reading group, including the implications for our own practice, and to hear Ole himself talking about some of these ideas – a truly wonderful opportunity!

Ines Makonga (Hampstead School):

According to Ole, social Justice in terms of mathematical education is not about teaching what social justice is, but rather integrating it in our teaching to show students how it should look like in real life. After reading the article, because of the term critical mathematics education, I wanted to understand my place as a teacher: a powerful person transferring knowledge who tells students what to do? or a person who creates a safe place for discussion and who is open to criticism?

The author stated the importance of dialogue in critical mathematical education. In that respect, the teacher has many roles: to facilitate dialogue between students; to allow students to engage in investigations. The role of the teacher is still different from that of the students; the teacher is still powerful but helps students’ understanding. However, with regards to social justice, the teacher and students can both challenge each other.

The author stated that the purpose of critical mathematics education is about dealing with concerns rather than finding solutions. The challenge with implementing critical mathematical education can be found in what the author called ‘pathological learning’. Currently, students learn to get ready for national exams, and addressing social justice in the classroom can impact students’ exam preparation and create/maintain inequality in opportunity between different socio-economical groups.

Reflection: I have enjoyed the meeting, but I have found that critical mathematical education for social justice is full of contradictions. Mathematics is beautiful and very powerful: it impacts all aspects of life and has the power to build and destroy lives. It has implications for all aspects of life and, as mathematics teachers, we are in positions of power. However, teachers need to know and understand ways to utilise this power to shape students’ lives. In order to do so, teachers need to understand mathematics and its implications for different aspects of life. However, I believe in the need to change the curriculum and the assessment/exam system to allow for students, as well as teachers, to implement critical mathematical education for social justice in the classroom.

TMSJN workshop at ATM Conference (April 2022)

Contributor: Graeme Austin (Luton Sixth Form College)

The first face-to-face Association of Teachers of Mathematics (ATM) Conference since BCME ’19 gave us an opportunity to share and discuss our thinking about social justice in Maths teaching. Pete Wright and Graeme Austin ran a workshop on the first day of the event where Pete presented the network’s activities and Graeme gave attendees a taste of one of the discovery worksheets that a working group was focusing on in 2022.

Attendees were treated like students and experienced first-hand the change in hierarchy and expectations of student agency that ‘discovering’ Maths for themselves brought to them, in contrast to a more traditional explain-then-practice structure.

In fact, the lack of advance information meant some attendees asked for the facilitator-teacher to provide an explanation of the connection between their algebra work (in finding KS5 equations of motion) and social justice. Perhaps the best assessment of the workshop is that we ran out of time for our discussions and questions. Some attendees also continued the dialogue the following day.

Download the PowerPoint presentation from the workshop

Notes from the TMSJN writing group meeting

The writing group is for those interested in designing, developing, trialling and disseminating teaching ideas and resources focused on teaching maths for social justice. The first writing group meeting took place at UCL Institute of Education on 22nd January 2022 and was attended by 14 members of the network. We identified three ideas to develop and divided ourselves into three ‘design groups’ to work on these ideas over the coming months. The plan is for each design group to meet online to refine their idea, pilot aspects with students and develop the idea into an activity ready to be trialled more widely. We aim to circulate these activities to all TMSJN members to trial in schools/colleges in the Summer Term.

Reflections from the first reading group meeting

Contributors: Graeme Austin, Yasmine Fahmy, Alison Ford, Elizabeth Lake, Lilian Nyaranga, Fin McLaughlin, Lisa Pollard, Helen J Williams

The reading group is for those wishing to engage with research literature on TMSJ and discuss its relevance to practice. The first reading group meeting took place via Zoom on 17th November 2021 and was attended by 28 members of the Teaching Maths for Social Justice Network. We chose to discuss the 2017 paper: The socio-politics of teacher explanation in mathematics education. We began by breaking into smaller groups to discuss the following questions:

  • What are the key messages in the paper about teacher explanation and power relations between mathematics teachers and students?
  • Is it possible for teacher explanation to play a more empowering role in the mathematics classroom?
  • To what extent do the ideas from the paper echo with your own practice and experiences?

We were very fortunate to be joined by the author, David Kollosche (Professor of Mathematics Education at University of Klagenfurt, Austria) for the second half of the meeting. Each group generated one question to put to David which prompted a stimulating and insightful plenary discussion around the issues addressed in the paper.

Here are some reflections on the paper and discussions from members of the network …

Alison Ford (Bideford College):

Although I do think carefully about my explanations, this is not a part of my pedagogy that I have previously thought about in regard to teaching for social justice and so I really appreciated the prompting to do so. It made me aware of how important this aspect is to the students, how the teacher’s attitude and pedagogical values can impact on their explanation design and practice, and how the wider classroom culture is itself a factor of inclusion in understanding. I have been much more aware of my own explanations this week and have started to question their impact and their level of inclusivity. I have noticed differences in my explanations between classes, particularly in how much more attention I give them in lower attainment classes over higher attainment ones and how the pace of explanations also varies. This has led me to want to examine how this may impact on disadvantaged students in higher attainment classes and how this might relate to Jo Boaler’s work on setting and pace.

Graeme Austin (Luton Sixth Form College)

Between reading David Kollosche’s article and attending the meeting, I found myself asking for silence in my sixth form classroom and noticed the guilt I experienced by doing so in light of what I had read.

The article was challenging in that it appeared to present the teacher’s voice as embodying Foucault’s disciplinary power, even though teacher explanations should be brimming with explanatory power instead. During the meeting, David noted that no matter how much a teacher might wish to minimise the impact of their surveillance of the class and attempt to democratise their classroom, while they mark student work and provide other judgements about performance, then their classroom authority is unavoidable.

In my discussion group, we shared ideas of different ways of facilitating increasing student understanding without relying on explanation. We considered flipped classrooms and discovery learning. Both these proposals have inspired me to carve out time to construct KS5 discovery worksheets. And I might attempt to operate some flipped lessons too.

Yasmine Fahmy (Royal Academy of Engineering)

Finally having the opportunity and time to work with like-minded professionals was incredibly inspiring for me.  I learnt so much from them and really appreciated their sharing of knowledge, skills and experience.

Attending the TMSJN was a great opportunity to engage in conversation with other maths educators around a number of topics that we all felt passionate about. Having the literature as a foundation for discussion was a great way to guide conversation, allowing us to pull out many key topics around existing and accepted classroom dynamics and how we might be able to disrupt these, how we can include more young learners in exploratory learning, and sharing of great ideas that others already have in place. I left the session feeling motivated, inspired and unified in attitudes to others at the session.

Helen J Williams (Early Years)

“Deeper insights could lead the way to a teaching practice which incorporates teacher explanation without constructing the student as a passive subject to mathematics.” (Kollosche 2017: 8)

I was struck by the above sentence in David’s paper, and by the question asked in the ensuing discussion, which I think was: “How can we use teacher explanation to disrupt the power relations in a maths classroom/maths teaching?”

There is no doubt in my mind, having worked in maths education for over 30 years, that mathematics is used as a tool to maintain power structures. As someone who has worked mainly with children who are under 7 years of age (and their teachers), explanation plays a different role in our maths work to that described in David’s paper. I don’t begin with an explanation, I want children to bring something to our maths session, and to do this I start with some exploration of an idea to ascertain what they already know, and we build from there. My explanations and interactions include ponderings, questions and noticings as we work on the maths. I cannot think of one maths session which has not included a teacher explanation of some sort, and to polarise ‘explanation’ (or more commonly, currently, ‘direct instruction’) and ‘exploration’ as two diverse approaches to teaching maths is unhelpful. I have learned that how I begin a session, along with the tone I use when I respond to – often surprising – noticings and questions that occur, not only fundamentally affects how children respond, but how they feel about maths over time. I was struck in the session this evening that perhaps making sure that students come to a lesson having already ‘done’ something themselves (such as through ‘flipped-teaching’, pre-teaching and assigning competence) might work in a similar way to disrupt the power structures in a classroom and send a message to older students that mathematics is as much about what they do and think as it is about what someone else does and thinks.

Lilian Nyaranga (Elimu Shop):

I had a great time being part of the group meeting discussions yesterday. I had fun sharing and learning from math educators with diverse experiences. As a math educator from Kenya, my biggest takeaway was that our students have similar challenges and experiences in math classrooms, even though infrastructure and resources vary geographically. And that the role the teacher plays, and the teaching methodology used, is pivotal in ensuring equity in the mathematics classroom. I can’t wait to be part of the next meeting. Thanks.

Lisa Pollard (Boolean Maths Hub):

The paper from David Kollosche raised questions and thought for further exploration. In our small group discussion, we spent time attending to the potential levels of confidence and skills of the participants’ teachers involved in the study. Relating the teaching within this paper to practice we have seen, one might ask if the use of explanation as referred to in this article is about control and confidence, rather than power. Where a teacher has the subject knowledge, both content and pedagogical, there is a higher quality of teaching and thus greater confidence in empowering the students in leading their learning. One student in the paper, Ingo, spoke of how, (if he were a teacher) he would adapt the level of explanation for the individual students. This could be inferred as scaffolding the support (differentiating) to ensure all students achieve, which the student did not feel happened in the maths class.  What was evident was the clear understanding that the students from across the study had of their own standing within their maths class. They have a perceived picture (whether accurate or not) of all the groups and individuals in their maths class, either with regards to behaviour or the speed of understanding any explanations given. However, whilst the seating plans have been implemented by the teachers, the subsequent support and challenge appears, from the views of the young people, not to have been. It was interesting to hear from David that the teachers were not engaged at all in the paper; it was written purely from the view of the students in interviews. It would be interesting to hear the teachers’ reflections on the quality of their own practice and what impact, if any, the paper had on their own practice with regards to explanation or otherwise.

Fin McLaughlin (Cabot Learning Federation):

Great to have time to discuss ideas with colleagues that all share a passion for maths education. The space created for dialogue based on a piece of research enabled everyone to share their own perspectives and for us to learn from each other. The research emphasises a gap between the maths education research community and day to day classroom practices and this also surfaced in the perspectives of our small group. The persistent belief that ‘what teachers do is explain’ is perhaps unsurprising; it is one of the important tools we employ to aid learning. However, if the responsibility of the teacher ends with the giving of the explanation (as perceived by students interviewed in Prof Kollosche’s study) then it seems unlikely that learning will take place. If an explanation is offered as a conjecture and as one opportunity (amongst others) for co-construction of knowledge, then explanation may be seen as ‘useful’ but not ‘central to’ teaching and learning. The discussion provoked some questions:

  • Do teachers need to be more explicit with learners about how they are being (or expected to be) active in the learning process by identifying the opportunities they are given to engage with, interrogate and reason about an explanation?
  • Does ITE (or the ECT framework) need to more pro-actively tackle the engrained beliefs / understandings of the role of explanation in teaching?
  • Is the education system (e.g. DfE, OFSTED) discouraging a belief that learners need to be active participants in developing their understanding and entrenching the belief that ‘to teach (well) is to explain (well)’?

Elizabeth Lake (University of East Anglia):

The discussions that we had were quite challenging as they brought into question my beliefs about what actually happens in schools. In my role of training mathematics teachers, I am continually discussing and encouraging the early career teachers to use techniques which we might consider appropriate if we are using a social justice agenda. This would include, for example, continual articulation by students of mathematical thinking, group work and teaching to misconceptions. The discussions we had in a small group made me wonder about how significant the barriers are between what teachers want to do (including what they have learned about in university), compared to what is realistically possible once they are in the classroom and are exposed to the constraints of school cultures and ethos, which are in themselves likely barriers to pursuing practices that support social justice in the mathematics classroom.

Report from the TMSJN Introductory Event

The first meeting of the Teaching Maths for Social Justice Network was held via Zoom on 15th June 2021 and was attended by 60 members of the network. The meeting began with a short presentation by Pete Wright on ‘TMSJN: Current opportunities and challenges’ (a short video and the PowerPoint presentation are available on the About page). This prompted a lively discussion in breakout groups which was followed by a ‘question and answer’ session with Pete.

The presentation highlighted constraints teachers face in addressing issues of equity and social justice in the maths classroom, including a scarcity of time and resources, demands of the scheme of work, and high levels of accountability leading to low-risk teaching. The TMSJ Network can help members to overcome these challenges through providing mutual support, sharing ideas and practice, and through developing teaching ideas and resources. Responses to the launch of the TMSJ Network highlight the enthusiasm amongst teachers of mathematics for tackling social justice issues (170 members joined within 2 months of its launch). The network offers teachers an opportunity to re-engage with the reasons why they came into teaching in the first place.

Three members of the network then gave a brief introduction to some TMSJ-related work they have been carrying out in schools. Graeme Austin outlined his school’s efforts to raise girls’ participation in maths through his involvement with the Advanced Mathematics Support Programme. Alba Fejzo presented some strategies, developed through her participation in the Visible Maths Pedagogy research project, that enabled students (particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds) to engage more successfully with progressive pedagogies. Tiago Carvalho (from the same mathematics department) outlined some of the participatory action research methods that were used in the project.

Sinead Vaughan then invited members of the network to discuss three questions in breakout groups and to feedback via a Padlet. Their responses are summarised below.

1) What is it about TMSJ that interests you and why?

  • A passion for teaching maths lessons that are relevant to the experiences of students from diverse backgrounds.
  • A belief that teaching maths can help develop informed and critical citizens able to contribute towards a fairer and more equal society.
  • A desire to build a more inclusive and accessible maths curriculum, in which all students can develop as confident learners.
  • A wish to engage with research literature, to better understand disadvantage in maths lessons, to identify and challenge the barriers students face in learning maths, and to critically reflect on practice.

2) What ideas do you have for TMSJ in schools?

  • Get students to analyse and question information presented to them, rather than accepting it at face value.
  • Embed more social justice issues (such as differing access to finance between different ethnic groups) into the teaching of Core Maths.
  • Draw on real-life scenarios (such as the Sally Clark case) that enhance students’ interest in maths.
  • Identify genuine cross-curricular links between maths and other subject areas, and run cross-curricular projects.
  • Help students appreciate that learning maths involves communication, discussion and solving real-life problems.

3) What would you like to get out of the TMSJ Network?

  • Embed social justice issues into my own teaching.
  • Increase the engagement of all students in maths.
  • Create teaching resources, share ideas and lesson plans.
  • Network with other teachers who share my passion for equity and social justice issues.
  • Get involved in collaborative research, inquiry and professional development.
  • Receive support in tackling controversial issues and implementing changes in my school.
  • Identify strategies for narrowing the attainment gap in maths.

The meeting finished with a poll of participants on which type of meeting they would like to see organised first in the Autumn Term. The most popular option was a Reading Group (to engage with research literature on TMSJ and discuss its relevance to practice), followed by a Writing Group (to facilitate the development and sharing of teaching resources focused on TMSJ).

Introduction to the TMSJN

The TMSJN (launched in April 2021) is a network for teachers of mathematics (in all school phases) committed to addressing issues of equity and social justice in the mathematics classroom.

The principal aim of the Teaching Maths for Social Justice Network is to share teaching ideas, resources, and practices with each other, and to provide mutual support and encouragement.

The meetings will be held every half term to begin with – some meetings will be held online and others face-to-face (hosted initially at UCL Institute of Education, London) – meetings will be either twilight sessions or on a Saturday morning.

Background/further information:

The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to longstanding inequities and injustices within education, and more widely in society, as their consequences have become more visible. It has highlighted the need to critique conventional mathematics pedagogies and to explore more engaging and empowering teaching approaches that can help prepare mathematics learners to address the social, economic, political, and environmental challenges facing our society.

Teaching mathematics for social justice (TMSJ) aims to:

  • Employ collaborative, discursive, problem-solving, and problem-posing pedagogies, which promote mathematical sense-making and the engagement of all learners with mathematics.
  • Promote mathematical inquiries that resonate with learners’ real-life experiences and that help them develop greater understanding of their social/ cultural/ political/ economic situations.
  • Facilitate mathematical investigations that develop learners’ individual and collective agency, enabling them to take part in future social action for the public good.
  • Challenge common myths surrounding school mathematics, expose processes that lead to the marginalisation of some learners, and open up to scrutiny what it means to be successful.

Future activities of the TMSJN might include (other suggestions welcome):

  • Seminars/meetings/workshops with presentations/speakers/discussions.
  • Engaging with research literature on TMSJ and discussing its relevance to classroom practice.
  • Online discussion forum to share updates/news/ideas within the network between meetings.
  • Developing and disseminating teaching resources focused on TMSJ.
  • Fostering, supporting and disseminating collaborative research projects in schools.

The Network will initially be convened by Dr Pete Wright (UCL Institute of Education):
Email = ; Twitter = @petewrightioe

Pete has written extensively about his collaborative research with teachers on issues of social justice in the mathematics classroom. You can find out more about his work (including a recent book published by ATM) by following these links: