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Finding Social Mechanisms Behind the Failure of Mathematics Education

Sverker Lundin
Department of Mathematics
Chalmers University of Technology
June 2002

The purpose of my research is to improve mathematics education. Contrary to popular belief, the most important role of mathematics education is not helping people solve math problems, but instead, I believe mathematics education propagates differences in society. Many people leave the education system strongly disliking mathematics. By explaining the social mechanisms behind this pattern, I want to help teachers create a better mathematics education.

My research is in the field of sociology. I will study empirical data from Swedish registers of students in high school, college and university by conducting interviews with mathematicians, teachers and students, and by studying texts relating to mathematics. My goal is to investigate the support these data lend to the following three hypotheses:

1) The mathematics taught in school is not very useful in everyday life. The people who design mathematical curriculum, namely mathematicians and professional educators, have a very special relationship to mathematics, where mathematics plays an important role in their lives. Because of this, they overestimate the role of mathematics in other people's lives, which is why so much effort is put into teaching people basic mathematics.

2) People change their life goals based on whether or not they believe they are "intelligent" enough to handle mathematics. This is why mathematics, more than other school subjects, creates differences in society. For instance, picture your childhood friends: before school everyone was more or less alike, then school created differences. One of these differences is between those who turned out to be good at mathematics and those who did not.

3) There are several strong groups in society, such as mathematicians, mathematics educators and engineers, whose social status is dependent upon the status of mathematics. They benefit from the connection between mathematics and intelligence because they are the ones that are perceived as intelligent. They do not mind if only a few succeed in mathematics, because this only makes their achievement seem greater. I don't think any mathematician or mathematics educator actually wants anyone to fail in mathematics; they all have good intentions. But the situation is complicated and social structures affect not only what it is possible to do, but also what can be seen and thought. It is as if thoughts about mathematics and mathematics education were fixed by a magnetic field, with everything lining up in a perfect pattern. The aim of my research is to bring this pattern to peoples' attention.

So far, my research has mainly been focused on my second hypothesis about if, and how, ability in mathematics influences students' choices for higher education. I am currently working with a register containing information about Swedish students who attended college in 1998. In these data, I can study the importance of the parents' mathematical education, as well as the importance of previous grades in mathematics and other school subjects with regard to my hypothesis. The preliminary results show that the parents' background in mathematics is important for the students' career choices, but not as important as previous grades in mathematics. These grades are as important, or more important, than grades in other school subjects. The results also show significant differences between boys and girls, which indicate that mathematics plays a part in the issue of gender.

Through my research, I hope to gain a deep understanding of the role mathematics education plays in society. Armed with this knowledge I want to disconnect mathematics from its social function as a marker of intelligence and general ability. It is the social function of mathematics that makes it boring, difficult and often a cause of suffering. In the right context mathematics can represent freedom and joy. If the social structure of mathematics education works against anyone who wants to change it, knowledge about this will be a step in the right direction.