By Rebecca Turvill
Bourdieu’s central concern with the way the education system reproduces social class is particularly relevant in the discussion of mathematics education. Academic success in mathematics is seen as a gatekeeper to life’s opportunities (Noyes, 2007). Importantly, such success may be cemented early in a child’s education. The English primary mathematics curriculum is largely concerned with the development of “number sense”. The concept is not universally defined within curriculum documentation, however extrapolation from the National Numeracy Strategy (DfEE, 1999) suggests it amounts to a confidence and flexibility using and calculating with number.
Drawing on Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and field, I propose that number sense itself acts as a gatekeeper to mathematical success. As such, a child’s life opportunities are restricted very early in their educational career, from their earliest encounters with number sense.
I am using primary mathematics education as the field. This presupposes mathematics can stand discretely and, whilst this may be debated, reflects the position of mathematics teaching almost exclusively in English primary schools. I also conceptualise primary mathematics as separate from secondary (or high school) mathematics as curriculum and pedagogy are distinctly split at this point. It is increasingly important for children to be seen as “secondary ready” placing a strong emphasis on the skills they are expected to master during primary school. By conceptualising primary school mathematics as a field, we can appreciate the opportunities and barriers presented by the system. Importantly, the field of primary mathematics education is not experienced equally by all those in it. Persistently, children from lower socio-economic classes leave school with lower attainment in mathematics. The concept of habitus allows us to consider this inequality.
Habitus, the “taken-for-granted” way in which we act (Bourdieu, 1984) is shaped throughout one’s early socialisation and is well established on entry to education. It is an embodiment of a child’s early experiences and thus directly their social class. Walkerdine (1988) demonstrates how language use in the home is class dependent, with mathematical terminology being heavily value laden in different settings. Even more specific to mathematics, is the work of Peter Bryant (2013) who demonstrates that children from more prosperous homes demonstrate stronger mathematical reasoning skills.
Where a child’s habitus does not align well with the field two consequences are observed. Firstly, a child receives a negative message about themselves. This is disabling as they believe mathematics is not for them. A negative learning spiral from the negative self-image developed is often the result (Ernest, 2011). Secondly, the curriculum is changed to “support” the child. This is often greater rehearsal and practise of failed skills – number sense skills – a limited mathematical diet. Thus children from lower socioeconomic classes are further excluded from learning just the type of mathematics needed to allow them access to the privileges mathematics provides.
Bourdieu’s key concepts of field and habitus thus provide a crucial way to critically examine how number sense skills in primary school are pivotal in reproducing social class.
Rebecca Turvill is a first year PhD student at Brunel University.
Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Bryant, P. (2013) Some Reasons for Reasoning, http://mad.ly/df6c83?pact=372119510284083140&fe=1 accessed 6.2.14
DfEE (Department for Education and Employment) (1999) The National Numeracy Strategy Framework for Teaching Mathematics from Reception to Year 6. London:DfEE
Ernest, P. (2011) Mathematics and special educational needs: theories of mathematical ability and effective types of intervention with low and high attainers in mathematics. Saarbrücken : LAP LAMBERT Academic
Noyes, A., (2007) Mathematics Counts…for what? Rethinking the Mathematics Curriculum in England, Philosophy of Mathematics Education Journal No. 21 Philosophy of Mathematics Education Journal ISSN 1465-2978 (Online)
Walkerdine, V. (1998) The Mastery of Reason. London: Routledge