Symposium on the Occasion
of the 100th Anniversary of ICMI

(Rome, 5–8 March 2008)


Mathematics Education and Society


ICMI has played an important role in giving impetus and space for the emergence and growth of the study of social, cultural, political and economic issues in mathematics education. These have spawned diverse areas of scholarship – such as gender, class, ethno-mathematics, critical mathematics education, equity and social justice – which have found expression in the scientific activities and programmes of ICMI. The working group will explore a selection of these with respect to how they have found expression and the new directions they suggest for curriculum and policy. In this introduction, we suggest some possible starting points for the working group.


There has been an increasing recognition over the last two decades that the context in which learning occurs profoundly affects what is learnt and by whom. In much early mathematics education research, knowledge was conceived as being simply a property of the individual consciousness. The realisation that knowledge is produced in situations (Lave, 1988; Wenger, 1998; Lerman, 2000) requires us to move beyond analysis of learning which is dependent on a psychological representation of the mind alone and to consider instead the setting – its social relationships, its cultural locality, the discursive frameworks available in the locale, the social and political environment which frames it – and how that setting functions generatively in the construction of knowledge. In other words, mathematics education research has taken ‘a social turn’ (Lerman, 2000:19). However, those researchers who are mostly likely to be found together in a forum focused on Mathematics education and society usually mean something more than this.

Mathematics education itself is understood by such researchers as being a profoundly political activity – political in the sense of being intimately bound up with issues of power, authority and the legitimisation of knowledge: who is able to decide what happens, who is recognised as having the authority to set the agenda, whose interests are served by currently dominant conceptions of learning, whose voice ‘counts’, whose knowledge is deemed legitimate and authoritative and so on (Hardy and Cotton, 2000, Klein, 2002). Thus, education is a moral activity because it is deeply value-laden. Similarly, conducting mathematics educational research is also a political and moral activity involving issues of values, power, authority and legitimacy. Researchers interested in Mathematics education and society are likely to suggest that the aim of inquiry for social justice is ‘the critique and transformation of the social, political, cultural, economic, ethnic, and gender structures that constrain and exploit humankind’ (Guba and Lincoln, 1998: 211, original emphasis).

Such a stance may have implications at a methodological level. Research methods and methodologies are not neutral with respect to social justice, but the potential of any specific research work to contribute to the development of a fairer world is not determined by either the methods or methodologies adopted. For example, taking an example from England, the research reported in Experiencing School Mathematics by Jo Boaler (1997) uses a fairly standard ethnographic approach to conduct research on, not with, teachers (Setati 2000) and their classroom practices. Vithal (2003) has been a strong advocate for approaches that explicitly acknowledge the politics of methodology and its impact on research. Others who have become frustrated with the work in equity have argued that there is a strong need to bring teachers into the research process and focus on issues of equity as they relate to classroom practice (Rousseau & Tate, 2003).

This recurrent concern with transformation has generated a large body of mathematics education research focused on gender as a key area of structural disadvantage (Barnes, 2000; Becker, 1996; Burton, 1999; Fennema, 1996; Forgasz et al, 2000; Grevholm and Hanna, 1995; Leder et al, 1999; Mendick, 2006). Much of this will be well known to ICMI participants since this concern led to the creation of the ICMI Affiliated Study Group, the International Organisation of Women and Mathematics Education (IOWME), which has been active for more than two decades. During this time, the attainment profile for girls in mathematics has changed significantly in a number of countries but issues remain: young women opting out of mathematics, who identifies with mathematics and how, the ways that mathematics classrooms permit and perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes and many more.

Other research has focused on 'race' and ethnicity (Atweh et al, 2001, Ladson-Billings, 1997, Powell, 2002); or on class (Frankenstein, 1990; Povey and Boylan, 1988; Zevenbergen, 1999; Lubienski, 2002). Others have specifically identified the issues of indigenous people coming to learn mathematics (Zevenbergen, Mousley and Sullivan 2004). Tate (1997) also draws on all these areas to identify the difficulties of multiple areas of disadvantage on the learning of mathematics. And through much of this research, these sites of structural disadvantage have been conceptualised as fundamentally interconnected (Keitel, 1998). If the social is not used as one key frame through which to view mathematics classrooms, issues of social justice and equity disappear.

If young people are to learn to think mathematically, to manifest mathemacy (Alro and Skovsmose, 2002), to develop as persons and to acquire those democratic competencies needed to live as citizens – critical consciousness, sustained and sustainable action and co-operation (Moreira, 2002) – there are implications for mathematics classrooms. They will need to be places where learners set up productive relationships with the process of coming to know. For many learners in mathematics classrooms these disciplinary relationships are fraught with difficulty. Mathematics is experienced as being only a body of already established abstract knowledge, always known and belonging to experts, a discipline which is ‘without fuzziness or debateable results … no experiment, no interpretation of evidence, no comparison of criticisms’ (Rodd, 2002:2). Learning mathematics becomes only a process of acquiring received knowledge of already existing rules and procedure and doing mathematics becomes performance. Rather, tasks are needed which can be approached in a variety of ways, and for which a wide range of tools can be offered as appropriate; which provide useful opportunities for learners to see themselves as active, as choosing, deciding, producing arguments for and against, assessing validity and generating questions and ideas. Such practices profoundly affect the nature of the resulting knowledge. How we know, and how we come to know, are inseparable from what we know.

In this introduction we have touched on many issues related to Mathematics education and society. Inevitably space has precluded doing justice to the themes mentioned – there are, of course, many more which have not even surfaced. We hope the Working Group will provide an open, supportive and critical forum for taking debate forward.


Alro, Helle and Skovsmose, Ole (2002) Dialogue and Learning in Mathematics Education: Intention, Reflection, Critique, Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Atweh, B., Forgasz, H. & Nebres, B. (Eds.) (2001) Sociocultural Research on Mathematics Education: An International Perspective (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.).

Barnes, M. (2000) Effects of dominant and subordinate masculinities on interactions in a collaborative learning classroom, in J. Boaler (ed.) Multiple perspectives on mathematics teaching and learning (Westport, CT: Ablex publishing).

Becker, J. R. (1996). Research on Gender & Mathematics: One Feminist Perspective. Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics, 18(1,2 & 3): 19-25.

Boaler, Jo (1997) Experiencing School Mathematics: Teaching Styles, Sex and Setting, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Burton, L. (1999) Fables: the tortoise, the hare, the mathematically underachieving male? Gender and Education, 11 (4): 413-426.

Fennema, E. (1996) Scholarship, gender and mathematics, in P. Murphy & C. Gipps (Eds) Equity in the classroom: towards effective pedagogy for girls and boys (London: Falmer).

Forgasz, H. J., Leder, G. C. and Vale, C. (2000) Gender and mathematics: Changing perspectives, in K. Owens and J. A. Mousley (Eds.), Research in Mathematics Education in Australasia 1996-1999 (Sydney: MERGA).

Frankenstein, M. (1990) Incorporating Race, Gender, and Class Issues into a Critical Mathematical Literacy Curriculum, Journal of Negro Education, 59(3): 336-347.

Gorogrio, Nuria & Planas, Nuria. (2005). Social representations as mediators of mathematics learning in multiethnic classrooms. European journal of psychology of education, 20 (1), 91-104.

Grevholm, B. and Hanna, G. (Eds) (1995) Gender and Mathematics Education: An ICMI study in Stiftsgården Åkersberg , Höör, Sweden 1993 (Lund: Lund University Press).

Guba, Egon and Lincoln, Yvonne (1998) ‘Competing paradigms in qualitative research’ in Denzin, NK and Lincoln, YS (eds) The Landscape of Qualitative Research: Theories and Issues, London: Sage.

Hardy, Tansy and Cotton, Tony (2000) Problemetising culture and discourse for mathematics education research: tools for research, Proceedings of the 2nd InternationalMathematics Education and Society Conference, Montechorro, Portugal.

Keitel, C. (Ed.) (1998) Social Justice and Mathematics Education: Gender, Class, Ethnicity and the Politics of Schooling (Berlin: Freie Universitat).

Klein, Mary.(2002) Teaching mathematics in/for new times: A poststructuralist analysis of the productive quality of the Educational Studies in Mathematics.

Knijnik, Gelsa. (2004). Lessons from research with a social movement: A voice from the south. In P.Valero & R. Zevenbergen (Eds). Researching the socio-political dimensions of mathematics education. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Press.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. (1997) It doesn’t add up: African American students’ mathematical achievement. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. 28 (6), 697-708.

Lave, Jean (1988) Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leder, G. C., Brew, C. and Rowley, G. (1999) Gender differences in mathematics achievement-here today and gone tomorrow? in: G. Kaiser, E. Luna and I. Huntley (Eds.) International comparisons in mathematics education (London: Falmer).

Lerman, Stephen (2000) The social turn in mathematics education research, in: Boaler, Jo (Ed) Multiple Perspectives on Mathematics Teaching and Learning. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.

Lubienski, Sarah Theule. (2002). A Closer Look at Black-White Mathematics Gaps: Intersections of Race and SES in NAEP Achievement and Instructional Practices Data. The Journal of Negro Education, 71, (4). 269-287.

Mendick, H. (2006) Masculinities in mathematics (Maidenhead: Open University Press (McGraw-Hill Education)).

Moreira, Leonor (2002) Mathematics education and critical consciousness, in: Cockburn, Anne and Nardi, Elena (Eds) Proceedings of the 26th Annual Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (PME), Norwich.

Povey, Hilary and Boylan, Mark (1998) ‘Working class students and the culture of mathematics classrooms in the UK, Proceedings of 22nd Psychology of Mathematics Education (PME) Conference, Stellenbosch, South Africa, July 1998.

Powell, Arthur (2002) Ethnomathematics and the challenges of racism in mathematics education. Proceedings of the 3rd International Mathematics Education and Society Conference. Denmark.

Rodd, Melissa (2002) Hot and abstract: emotion and learning mathematics, Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on the Teaching of Mathematics at Undergraduate Level, Crete: John Wiley and the University of Crete.

Rousseau, Celia & Tate, William, (2003) No time like the present: Reflecting on equity in school mathematics. Theory into Practice, 42 (3), 210-216.

Setati, Mamokgethi (2000) ‘Classroom-based research: from with or on teachers to with and on teachers’ in Proceedings of the Second International Mathematics Education Society Conference, Montechoro, Portugal, March 2000.

Vithal, Renuka (2003). In Search of a Pedagogy of Conflict and Dialogue for Mathematics Education. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Press.

Wenger, Etienne (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zevenbergen, Robyn (1999) Boys, mathematics and classroom interactions: the construction of masculinity in working-class mathematics classrooms, Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (PME), Haifa.

Zevenbergen, R. Mousley, J. & Sullivan, P. (2004). Disrupting pedagogic relay in mathematics classrooms: Using open-ended Tasks with Indigenous students. International Journal of Inclusive Education.8 (4), 391-415.

Co-chairs: Hilary Povey (UK), Robyn Zevenbergen (Australia)


All abstracts


Mathematics education and society: an overview, by Hilary Povey and Robyn Zevenbergen