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Democracy and Justice in Mathematics and Science Curriculum

Summary and Keywords

How mathematics and science curricula connect to democracy and justice is understood through the examination of different perspectives of mathematics and science education as political. Although frequently conceived of as neutral, these school subjects have been central in recent modern education for governing the making of rational, science-minded citizens who are necessary for social, political, and economic progress. Three main perspectives are identified in the existing research literature. A perspective of empowerment highlights the power that people can acquire by learning and using mathematics and science. A perspective of disadvantage focuses on how the pedagogies of mathematics and science intersect with categories such as ability, gender, class, ethnicity, and race to generate and reproduce marginalization. A perspective of subjectivation examines the effects of mathematics and science curricula within the context of historical and cultural processes for the making of desired modern, rational, and techno-scientific types of citizens, thus creating categories of inclusion and exclusion. All together, these perspectives point to the ways in which mathematics and science, as privileged forms of knowing in contemporary school curricula, simultaneously operate to include or exclude different types of students.

Keywords: mathematics, subjectivation, empowerment, disadvantage, cultural politics, globalization, glocality, geopolitics, poststructuralism


Mathematics and science nowadays are considered to be central subjects in the school curriculum because—besides mastery of language and reading—knowledge, skills and competence in these subjects are considered to be key for citizens’ possibilities of participating in contemporary culture, productive work activities, and political processes. In other words, learning mathematics and science is linked to society’s cultural, political and economic processes. Thus the role of these subjects, as part of the overall purposes of formal education through their inclusion in the school curriculum, is being discussed politically—that is, as part of and in relation to power. Such politicization of mathematics and science makes it possible to associate education in these school subjects with both democracy and justice, and simultaneously to processes of classification, closing of access, and exclusion.

The view that learning mathematics and science is important for society is frequently held by educators, politicians and the public alike. However, this has not always been the case. Indeed, the idea is relatively recent that mathematics and science education and democracy and justice are related, as is the political view of these subjects. John Dewey’s educational philosophy connecting notions of democracy and science in new pedagogies at the beginning of the 20th century is frequently taken to be the predecessor of a view of science and mathematics education as being relevant for democracy (Dewey, 1944). Nevertheless, the emergence of a systematic and decided interest in such a connection needs to be understood in the context of the consolidation of modern mass schooling, and the expansion of the scientific and economic optimism that characterised the post–Second World War period. In this context, the state-driven organization and regulation of mathematics and science as compulsory school subjects became an imperative for progress. Renewing and improving pedagogical technologies leading to effective learning became a focus of political as well as educational attention. Recent modern mathematics and science curricula in different countries were configured not only in relation to the push towards more science as an important motor for progress and development (Rudolph, 2003), but also in relation to the growth of specialized educational research fields such as mathematics and science didactics—in the European sense of the word—or pedagogy and education.

The overview of the connection between mathematics and science with democracy and justice is limited to the literature on mathematics and science education as part of compulsory formal schooling and curricula. We deliberately leave aside a relatively recent trend of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, as well as a discussion of science and mathematics as part of informal settings for learning such as museums or work places. The overview starts with a short historization of the emergence of the connection, as a way to highlight the idea that a discussion about school subjects—even mathematics and science—and democracy and justice needs to be rooted in an understanding of the social, economic, and political configurations in which education takes place. Secondly, three perspectives concerning different conceptualisations of the connection will be discussed. The perspectives of empowerment, disadvantage, and subjectivation constitute distinct answers to the question of why and how mathematics and science education are political. The main assumptions of these perspectives will be outlined and exemplified with studies in mathematics and science education that illustrate the arguments of each. We do not unfold an exhaustive literature review for each perspective; such a task would extend the limits of this paper. Finally, tensions in these perspectives will be pointed out.

Mathematics and Science for Progress

While nowadays primary and secondary schooling around the world would be unthinkable without a considerable amount of school time being dedicated to the teaching and learning of mathematics and science, at the beginning of the 20th century the study of these subjects was not salient in the curriculum. Firstly, not all countries had well-functioning, state-organized, mass education systems with a large coverage of the population (Meyer, Ramirez, & Soysal, 1992). As education became more clearly an area of political control of the state, the issue of what to teach in schools, in order to educate the desired citizens of a nation, became an issue of policy. Secondly, discussions about what comprised the adequate content for citizens to learn in schools favored arithmetic and geometry through drawing, and some types of science, such as geography and biology. Even what could be now recognized as elements of the natural sciences were connected to moral purposes (Jenkins, 2013) such as learning goodness from the study of nature—as God had created it (Peñaloza & Valero, 2016), the teaching of biology for developing a sense of hygiene and, for women, some elements of chemistry involved in adequate housekeeping. A diversified mathematics curriculum and more elements of science belonged mainly to the area of specific professional and military schools that in many countries would later form the basis for technical or engineering colleges.

Indeed, revising historical accounts of mathematics and science teaching practices in public mass schooling shows that, around the time of the Second World War, elements of mathematics were present in several plans of studies. However, the idea that classical studies in the humanities and letters were the subjects that would best form the mind and spirit of the educated citizen dominated the selection and organization of subjects in the curriculum (e.g., Karp & Schubring, 2014). This does not mean that diverse elements of mathematics and science were not taught in particular forms of schooling—military schools and colleges of engineering, for example (Howson, 1974)—and that there were not elements of them in the provision of education in private and existing public schools in higher levels of education. It means that, at the turn of the 20th century, knowledge of mathematics and the empirical natural sciences and their applications in technology and industry were considered to be lower-status knowledge of a practical, technical character that had little interest for the forming of virtuous citizens.

The idea that mathematics and science are important subjects to form and develop the intellect and spirit of the new desirable modern citizen started forming in many countries in the change between the 19th and the 20th centuries (DeBoer, 1991). As progressivism expanded through education (Tröhler, 2017), the idea certainly gained momentum. The expansion of mathematics and science in school in Western countries took place in periods of incredible scientific and technological advancement connected to the production of war, particularly the Second World War (Tröhler, 2015). As an explicit priority for governmental education policymaking, mathematics and science became key subjects in compulsory school curricula, in the context of the expansion of scientific and technological advancement after the war (Rudolph, 2002). Furthermore, a push began to make mathematics and science available to all students. High achievement in these subjects started to be regarded as key to the creation of human capital (Valero, 2017). Mathematics and science in the school curriculum, after the Sputnik shock, began to be promoted by a variety of international organizations, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as a carrier of central knowledge, skills, and competence indispensable for an educated citizen in a modern, technological society and expanding market economy. The rise and consolidation of modern universities and the development of mathematics and the natural sciences as academic fields of research also contributed to the demand for adequately skilled students to enter higher education, in a time when science, industry and technological advancement together required a highly qualified workforce (Lövheim, 2014). In other words, mathematics and science qualifications became a requisite for what citizens should be able to do and who they should become. This new focus on mathematics and science for all emerged in a context of conditions that clearly made their inclusion in the school curriculum a matter of politics and economy.

Furthermore, mathematics and science education as fields of educational research also consolidated themselves in the assemblage of conditions mentioned above. Both fields are broad in terms of areas of specialization (e.g., algebra or geometry teaching and learning; or physics, chemistry or environmental education), as well as of theoretical and pedagogical approaches (e.g., Piaget-based constructivist approaches to learning, a Vygotsky-rooted sociocultural approach to learning, or inquiry-based mathematics and science education). The terms “mathematics education” and “science education” cover a wide range of educational practices as well as accompanying specialized research practices (Ernest, 1998). Since their beginnings in the first half of the 20th century, these fields of academic study have been committed mainly to supporting improvements in mathematics and science design and instruction in schools. In research, however, the discussion of how mathematics and science are part of politics and power is more recent (Atwater, 2012; Clements, Keitel, Bishop, Kilpatrick, & Leung, 2013). As mathematics and science have clearly been made a part of school curricular for all, researchers as well as policymakers have started constructing ways of understanding mathematics and science curricula in relation to democracy and social justice. When mathematics and science are viewed as being important knowledge, skills and competence for all citizens, they are posited as requirements for democracy. Simultaneously, deviations from such a criterion construct failure to achieve adequate learning for all as a problem of justice. In this way, mathematics and science as subjects in compulsory school curricula are unavoidably political—that is, they are immersed in the space of constant struggle between inclusion and exclusion in the power dynamics of education (Pais & Valero, 2011).

Since the 1980’s, research exploring the connection between mathematics and science education and democracy has grown and expanded. The concrete meaning that these terms take vary according to the theoretical positions that researchers adopt (Carter, 2015; Skovsmose & Valero, 2001). In what follows, different views will be discussed concerning how mathematics and science in the curriculum contribute (or not) to democracy and justice. The assumptions of each perspective and exemplification of arguments supporting them will be provided.

Mathematics and Science Empowerment for All

The forms of knowledge that are now part of mathematics and science became powerful languages and tools for the creation of technologies that could help humans control and transform nature and society. The world has transformed largely into an improved environment for all. The recognition of the transforming power of science and mathematics became an important justification for including and strengthening maths and science as subjects in the compulsory school curriculum. The idea that these forms of knowledge, when passed to learners—children, youth and adults alike—through appropriate pedagogies would contribute to their empowerment has been a way of understanding the political dimension of the mathematics and science curriculum. In the research literature, however, there are differences with regards to what is considered to be empowerment and why it is an element of democracy and justice; and there are also differences in how these arguments unfold with respect to mathematics and to science.

The Intrinsic Power of Mathematics and Science

One sense of the term empowerment relates to the belief that mathematics is the language of the universe and a type of reasoning that can lead to truth. The ancient Greeks believed that those who can access the world of the ideas—where, according to Plato, mathematics is located—would be the most apt to rule the city. The possibility of accessing higher levels of thinking and of being through studying the mysteries of numbers and geometrical figures would enable an individual to gain wisdom and would show the qualities of his soul and mind. These characteristics were seen as fundamental for governing. Besides this argument, which may still reside in unquestioned Platonic philosophies of mathematics informing school mathematics teaching and learning, the mastery of the axiomatic method that is part of Euclidean geometry has been seen as a source of rational argumentation and as the essence of scientific reasoning (Andrade-Molina & Ravn, 2016). Such type of argumentation, Hannaford (1998) suggests, was the heart of the notion of deliberation in Athenian democracy, and is one of the reasons for empowering students though the learning of mathematics, and for making mathematics classrooms a seed-plot of democracy. For science, the idea that the scientific method is an adequate way to obtain knowledge about the physical word, and that scientific concepts encapsulate truths about the world, make science a privileged source of knowledge about the physical world. Acquiring the characteristics of inductive reasoning was argued, by the early promoters of the inclusion of science in the school curriculum, to be intellectual training at a high level. Learning to work experimentally in laboratories was conceived as training for independent thinking. All together, the characteristics of learning science would “help protect individuals from the possible excesses of arbitrary authority and enable them to participate more fully and effectively in an open democratic society” (DeBoer, 2000, p. 583).

From this perspective, there is an assumption that the intrinsic characteristics of mathematics and science, when transferred to learners through education, would transform them and grant them the powers of the very same knowledge and ways of knowing that they would learn. This type of assumption is not necessarily expressed explicitly in the research literature. More often than not, it is an implicit assumption in most research that strives to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics and science. The possibility of learning good science and mathematics is in itself beneficial, desirable, and empowering. For example, the arguments behind the curricular reform in the United States during the early 2000s—the Common Core Standards reform—advocate strengthening school curricula with the conceptual core of scientific disciplines. It is assumed that high-level conceptual learning in mathematics and science is empowering, enlightening for students, and therefore more desirable than other kinds of curricular proposals. This position is central in debates about what is the appropriate view of knowledge and how it is to be articulated in a curriculum that will service the empowerment of students through and with mathematics and science knowledge. Venville, Rennie, and Wallace (2012) illustrate the tensions of this position when discussing differences between content-centered and integrated curricula, and open the space for other understandings of empowerment in line with views that emphasize the uses and applications of science and mathematics.

The Power of Use and Applications

Other views of empowerment with and through mathematics and science build an argument on how it not only derives from the intrinsic characteristics of the knowledge, but in particular the possibility of using this knowledge in tackling real problems and acting out the core of their empowering force. Building on views of mathematics and science as problem solving, but also combining with a pedagogical philosophy such as John Dewey’s problem orientation to science (and knowledge) to transform the social and natural world, mathematics and science are viewed as areas of the curriculum that provide powerful tools for learners to understand and transform their world. In other words, the core of empowerment resides in the capacity to use and apply scientific and mathematical knowledge that results from having learned mathematics and science. It is clear that this type of view is rooted in the transformations that took place in the beginning of the 20th century concerning the value of knowledge, the desire to transform school pedagogies, and above all, the technological optimism mentioned before.

In mathematics education, this type of view appears strongly in, for example, the trend of research that explores the pedagogical potential of mathematical modeling when teaching students how mathematics concepts and procedures come to life through the construction of models as part of solving complex problems in the world (Stillman, Blum, & Biembengut, 2015). The main purpose is to help students to understand mathematics as a powerful tool that can be connected to a diversity of aspects of natural and social life, thus contributing to “enhancing knowledge, but also ensuring or advancing the sustainability of health, education and environmental well-being, and the reduction of poverty and disadvantage” (Niss, Blum, & Galbraith, 2007, pp. 17–18).

Since the 19th century, the use and application as a source of the power of science, and the empowering nature of its learning, seems to have been emphasized in early arguments in favour of science teaching. The argument that the concepts of science, its empirical and experimental methods, and its worldviews are deeply connected with the human capacity to tame, control, and transform the world seems to be at the heart of notions of how science can produce understanding of and solutions to lived problems. Thus this argument appears strongly in notions of scientific literacy, which have emphasized use, application, and action as key elements of what it means to be scientifically competent. Furthermore, the possibility of scientific-based action to address the problems that humans face brings to students a democratic engagement, in contrast to action that is based on belief or misinformation. This type of position is present in what Roberts (1982) calls the “everyday coping emphasis” in science curricula, which values “an individual and collective understanding of scientific principles, as a means of coping with individual or collective ‘problems’” (p. 246), emerging from changing social or natural conditions, with the purpose of improving them.

The Power of Critique

The two previous views suggest that the key to power and empowerment is in the nature of mathematics and science and their applications. These views also suggest that as transforming the world with mathematics and science is desirable. A critical view posits the core of the political in learners’ possibilities of recognizing not only the positive effects, but especially the negative effects, of the functioning of mathematics and science forms of knowledge in the world. Such a view would argue that it is not enough to know and use the knowledge; it is also an important part of being empowered with and through science and mathematics to develop the capacity to recognize the implication of these forms of knowledge in the creation of risks and evils of technological and scientific advancement. In other words, the competence of a critique that brings ethical considerations is a fundamental part of empowerment.

Skovsmose (1994) proposed critical mathematics education as a type of philosophical approach to mathematics education concerned with turning a critical gaze toward the scientific optimism embedded in the previous two views mentioned above. In an increasingly technological word, mathematical literacy has to be concerned with how mathematics and its uses in science and technology have been implicated in the creation of risk structures that have negatively impacted human life. A mathematics-empowered person can also take a critical stance to recognize that mathematics has become an invisible element in models that support all kinds of decision making, in science and technology, as well as in economic and political decisions that affect people’s lives. Democratic competence supposes a critical mathematical literacy in order to take a stance towards the working of modern democracies where actions are based on expert knowledge.

The influence of the Science–Technology–Society (STS) movement on the forming of views in science education, such as the socioscientific issues approach (SSI), illustrates this type of concern (Sadler, 2011b). SSI provides a contextualization for science, and addresses students’ perceived lack of connection between the “real world” and the contents of science education in schools. It also focuses on how the multiple uses of science, when bringing solutions to social and natural problems in current times, are not simply a matter of clear-cut facts and knowledge controlled and produced by experts. Rather, science in society has become a “matter of concern” where scientific knowledge and applications are part of a complex network of actors, experts and non-experts, who may have different positions and interests (Latour, 2011). Scientific literacy develops in relation to controversies, where the debate on the multiple positive or negative sides of scientific action is considered in socially relevant dilemmas. For citizens, it means to “be able to confront, negotiate, and make decisions in everyday situations that involve science” (Sadler, 2011a) and not simply know about the concepts and procedures of science.

What is common to these three perspectives on empowerment—intrinsic power, uses and applications, and critique—is the view that, if mathematics and science teaching and learning were to be carried out adequately, learners would gain power or become empowered through the knowledge, its uses, and the recognition of its (positive and negative) effects. It is also common to connect to views of the political in mathematics as science education as something that can be transferred or “passed” through pedagogy from the teacher—the knowledgable one—to the learners—the ones who need to know. Furthermore, there is the assumption that, due to all these characteristics, a good learning experience that empowers has with it an intrinsic democratizing force since learners—the future and present citizens—would acquire important forms of knowing that are necessary for the healthy functioning of informed democratic action and participation. At the core of the notion of empowerment with and through mathematics and science there is the assumption of human beings being driven by reason, acting rationally, and making decisions primarily on the grounds of the tools and calculations provided by science and math. As a consequence, these types of views, when given space in school curricula, will lead to more just societies. Such view of human as mainly rational is part of the narrative of progress through reason and science that the Enlightenment and modernity have constructed. Thus, it is important to sustain the central role of mathematics and science in current curricula. This view has been challenged by studies that show how people receive information, think about socioscientific problems, and take stances in the duality between science-based rational reasoning and culturally based identity reasoning (Kahan, 2015). While the narrative of empowerment through reason has been compelling, the analysis of how students and people in their adult life actually come to be empowered with and through mathematics and science requires a more fine-grained understanding of how such empowerment may play out in different contexts of practice.

Mathematics and Science Disadvantage

During the 20th century, systematic large-scale measurements of school achievement in mathematics and science emerged within countries and internationally. Access to higher education has been, in many cases, dependent on such measurements as indicators of students’ preparation for and success in higher education. Thus, it became a fact that many people—specially those belonging to traditionally marginalized groups—in different levels of schooling failed to reach the expected outcomes in mathematics and science. For mathematics in particular, the recognition of its role as a gatekeeper for further studies started being a concern for many mathematics educators during the 1980’s (Lerman, 2000). Since learning in mathematics and science is considered important for social and individual progress and well-being, for higher education, and also for the economy, the world has increasingly relied on measurements of achievement in these school subjects. As a consequence, expected levels of attainment became objectified in standardized measurements, and underachievement became a problem of access, democracy and justice. The analysis of who were the students who systematically fail to reach politically determined, desired achievement levels became a concern for mathematics and science educators. Underachievement then started to be constructed as a research problem. Simultaneously, the adoption of sociocultural theories of learning, multicultural and multilingual studies, and the overall palette of critical social science studies as theoretical standpoints to understand mathematics and science teaching and learning resulted in the advancement of new analyses of the “facts” of lack of success (Atwater, 2012).

The discussion of who fails points to the observation that predominant forms of teaching and learning in mathematics and science are not appropriate for all students. The inadequacy of teaching and learning has produced different results in science and mathematics for many learners. In other words, inappropriate teaching and learning practices, as well as curricular organization, common to many schools around the world, have resulted in learners not achieving the expected levels of knowledge and competence, and potentially reducing their chances for gaining the necessary requisites for educational success, and for future employment. In this sense, the problem of mathematics and science education concerns how these school subjects are implicated in preventing equal access to educational success, thus contributing to exclusion from work and life opportunities. As a result, increasing inequality in societies is exacerbated by mathematics and science education, and differentiated opportunities for participation in social and cultural benefits are made available to different groups of learners.

A wide variety of research has highlighted how views of content of instruction, pedagogical practices, and institutional arrangements offer differentiated access to different types of students on the grounds of categories such as ability, gender, race, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, and social class. The international handbooks of mathematics (Clements, Bishop, Keitel, Kilpatrick, & Leung, 2013) and science (Fraser, Tobin, & McRobbie, 2012) education offer sections with an overview of such research variety and the key issues identified. The following section delineates three different trends present in the research literature regarding the sources and operation of inequality.

Epistemological Disadvantage

A first discussion in this perspective raises the question of whether mathematics and science, as forms of knowledge built in academic communities and transposed into the school curriculum, are a factor of disadvantage and exclusion in themselves. Against the commonly held belief about the universality and neutrality of mathematical and scientific knowledge, they have been examined as particular historically and culturally bound forms of making sense of the world. Studies unpacking the situated constitution of mathematics and science in the particularities of time and space conditions show that there is nothing universal and neutral in the whole construction of mathematical and scientific knowledge and practice. Rather, one may see these fields as bearers and expressions of a modern, Western worldview. Bishop (1988) proposed to use the terms Mathematics—with capital M—to refer to the dominant narratives of Western maths; and mathematics—with small m—to refer to all the forms of knowledge produced by non-Western cultures when engaging in practices of explaining, dealing with quantities, relating to space, creating rules for games, and designing and measuring.

Following Bishop’s suggestion, one could propose a similar differentiation for Science(s) and science(s). Furthermore, one could argue that what seems to be universal in the Scientific or Mathematical enterprise of the West is no more than a particular example of many other possible culturally bound scientific and mathematical systems of knowledge. As forms of knowledge, they all have emerged in different cultures in different times. However, Mathematics and Science have constructed a regime of truth around themselves, which has made them appear as epistemologically superior. This is not something intrinsic to the forms of knowledge in themselves; rather, it is an effect of power (Knijnik, 2012). Now the issue can be formulated in other terms. As forms of knowledge, Western Mathematics and Science have the same epistemological value as all other forms of mathematics and science. However, the historical dominance of the West over other cultures and the use of Mathematics and Science in the making of the West’s cultural, political, and economic power through history have reinforced the idea of the superiority of the West and its Science and Mathematics over other cultures and their scientific and mathematical forms of knowledge. Thus, “other” cultures and their forms of knowing and living have been constructed as epistemologically disadvantaged.

Research on the many cultural forms of mathematics and science has been important in thinking about epistemological disadvantage. Ethnomathematics is a research program examining the forms of mathematics generated and connected to the practices of different cultural groups (D’Ambrosio, 1985). With a political critique of the expansion of the regime of truth of Mathematics as the highest and almost unique form of knowledge, ethnomathematics raises concerns about how different maths enter the field of education. It provides tools to think about the epistemological and political valuing of different forms of mathematics knowledge that may be available to learners (Knijnik, 2012). The field of ethnomathematics has grown prolifically and brings awareness of how mathematical practices which are part of cultural activity meet dominant school curricula that positions Mathematics as the privileged contents and structures to be learned.

Few studies exist that unpack mathematics as particular cultural expressions (e.g., Lizcano, 1993; Radford & Empey, 2007), while there are many cultural and social studies of the natural sciences and technology that have put forward a critique of the dominance of unified, triumphalist and exceptionalist narratives about Western Scientific knowledge and Scientific practices (Harding, 2008). Feminist and postcolonial studies have raised a critique of the epistemologies of science as being primarily male-dominated, Eurocentric forms of knowledge. The conventional epistemology of modern science relies on an internalistic view that prioritizes the success of experimental methods and its standards for reaching objectivity and rationality through the use of abstract mathematical language to express the regularities of nature. Although perceived as a singular, universal activity, science emerged out of the particular practices of people in the historical conditions of Europe and, later, North America. As such, Science articulates a view that is deeply rooted in the economic, political, cultural, and gendered configurations of those particular Western, capitalist conditions. Such a view constructs other possible knowledge systems as prescientific and premodern, and thus makes possible an ordering of desired forms of knowledge to bring progress and advancement (Harding, 2011).

Studies on indigenous science systems and ethnoscience (Ellen, 2004) which are part of the “ethnographic turn” (Brandt & Carlone, 2012) in science education have provided multiple examples of how different communities develop forms of knowing about their environment as part of their cultural and productive activities, in relation to their economic and political struggles. The tensions between the knowledge in school curricula and the experience-based knowledge about nature tend to disregard the value and misrepresent the explanatory power of such knowledge. Attention to the cultural practices in which indigenous forms of thinking and doing emerge, in and with nature, have the potential of highlighting the value of such forms of knowing in relation to school, but mainly with regards to the functions that such knowledge fulfils in the life of communities. Padawer (2012) illustrates this point in her study of children’s participation in the productive activities of the Mbyà-Guaraní communities in Argentina. Children’s understanding “about plants, insects, animals, birds, their customs, food preferences, reproduction methods and environment” (Padawer, 2012, p. 227) emerge as they form part of the household routines and practices of the community. Contrary to a Western view, this community sees knowledge as emerging in work practices, and labor as part of the whole education of the members of that group. In this way, education is not just a matter of possession of knowledge but of belonging to a group with shared epistemologies also about nature.

The impact of these studies for mathematics and science education resides in the awareness that school mathematics and science, as transpositions of Mathematics and Science in the school curriculum, bear with them epistemologies that are formed under the rationality of particular cultural and gender positions. Thus such epistemologies will very likely clash with and devalue a variety of worldviews that students in different cultural groups have gained. A curricular organization of mathematics and science that builds on the key concepts of Western Mathematics and Science bears in itself the high risk of excluding women and people who belong to other nonwestern—or “indigenous”—or nondominant cultures. Thus the core point of disadvantage is in the very same epistemological assumptions about the nature of mathematics and science and their related school subjects (Jenkins, 2013).

Reproduction of Social Disadvantage

A different discussion, often connected to the previous one, is the argument that mechanisms of classification of people that lead to disadvantage function at large in society based on categories such as ability, ethnicity, gender, language, socioeconomic status and social class, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Since classification is a general mechanism in a society that differentiates who has access or not to social goods and to participation, and education is one of the arenas in which such mechanisms operate, mathematics and science education also become an arena in which such classifications take place. Furthermore, mathematics and science curricula and its pedagogical practices are prone to reproduce such differentiation, and to make it even more effective given the high value assigned to mathematics and science knowledge, skills and competence. Mathematics and science classrooms are sites that potentially contribute to set in place differentiated positioning of learners depending on which category or intersection of categories of differentiation comes into operation. In these types of studies, a variety of sociological (e.g., Bourdieu’s cultural reproduction, and Bernstein’s educational sociology and language codes); social-psychological (e.g., identity formation); and cultural studies (e.g., multicultural education) have been recontextualized into the study of mathematics and science teaching and learning.

This type of research has been growing in amount and depth since the 1990s, and it is produced mainly in English-speaking countries, particularly the United States, England, and Australia. It is plausible to think that such research interest connects with larger social movements fighting for the expansion of equality and equity through education. In the case of the United States, for example, the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s can be seen as the predecessor of important initiatives such as the Algebra Project, initiated by Civil Rights activist Robert Moses. This initiative expanded a view that access and success in algebra for marginalized children—particularly African American, at the beginning of the project—was a way of fighting educational segregation and exclusion (Moses & Cobb, 2002). In South Africa, the movement of People’s Mathematics for People’s Power (Vithal, 2003) opened a political discussion of the school curriculum, and proposed alternative, meaningful forms of mathematics that recognized the segregation of disparities effected by the Apartheid regime. However, there is not always such a correspondence. Some of the recent motivations for studies of equity in mathematics and science are connected to the policy impulse to improve national and international performance results in mathematics and science, since these are being taken as indicators of human capital and economic growth (Andrade-Molina, 2017).

A complete overview of the main results and discussions is present in a variety of publications for mathematics education (e.g., Atweh, Graven, Secada, & Valero, 2011; Forgasz & Rivera, 2012; Secada, Fennema, & Adajian, 1995) and for science education (Barton & Upadhyay, 2010; Bianchini & Akerson, 2013; Maulucci, 2012). Common threads of these studies are the recognition of the tension between the desire to improve mathematical and scientific literacy and measurements of achievements for all students, and the under-achievement and lack of success of students not belonging to dominant groups of a given society. Mathematics and science education are recognized to be gendered in that they bring forward particular gendered values and create differential positions for boys and girls with respect to what kind of knowledge each group can effectively learn (Barton, 1998; Boaler, 1997; Chronaki, 2011). Furthermore, in the case of particular school subjects such as biology, the very same teaching of topics related to human sexuality presents to children particular ways of understanding themselves as male or female (Orlander Arvola, 2014).

The creation of a deficit perspective on students with respect to their race and ethnicity as a result of the continued pedagogical practices of mathematics and science is one of the recurrent findings for African American children and youths (Hanson, 2009; Martin, 2000), for indigenous communities (Kassam, Avery, & Ruelle, 2017; Meaney, Edmonds-Wathen, McMurchy-Pilkington, & Trinick, 2016), or for immigrants (Civil, 2014; Harper, 2016) and ethnic minorities (Doğan & Haser, 2014). The pervasive identities as unsuccessful learners of mathematics and science are built in the interplay between learners’ individual experiences and the actions of teachers within institutional settings in the historically formed, larger politics of racial and ethnic differentiation. School mathematics and science in dominant curricula operate as a device of the white institutional spaces that install ideas of white supremacy in all participants in school practices. Through them, (school) mathematics and science continue to be perceived as belonging to white dominant groups (Martin, 2011). Suffice to say that what counts as a “white dominant group” changes from context to context.

Indeed, science education research, drawing on the critical studies mentioned above about the cultural constitution of science, and adopting a sociocultural and postcolonial theoretical framing, emphasizes how students’ experiences of learning science can be understood as a border crossing between cultures of knowing in families and communities and school science (Aikenhead, 1996). Furthermore, the recognition and valuing of a variety of indigenous knowledge systems, and how these may also enter school and become entangled with Western scientific knowledge systems, is a way of recognizing the multiple epistemologies of nature that students may encounter in their experience (Aikenhead & Ogawa, 2007). Dominant acultural views of the nature of science in school curricula can potentially disadvantage non-Western, indigenous, and minority students (McKinley & Stewart, 2012).

Studies addressing differentiation through the focus on socioeconomic status and social class have highlighted the tensions between the middle- and upper-class cultural norms embedded in the pedagogical practices of mathematics and science and the cultural capital and habitus of lower-class students. Students who live in poverty are seen as not engaged or motivated, and even resistant to learning (Tobin, Seiler, & Walls, 1999). However, an understanding of their engagement shifts the attention from individual characteristics to characteristics of the pedagogy of mathematics and science. Not to be perceived as competent in mathematics and science is not a factual matter of students’ cognitive deficiency but rather a difficulty in “cracking the code” of the language and references used to convey concepts (Cooper & Dunne, 1999; Jorgensen, Gates, & Roper, 2014). Furthermore, as students advance through schooling the tendency toward more specialized vertical pedagogical discourses connected to the conceptualization of higher levels of mathematics and science also conflicts with more horizontal discursive forms to which students are used to in their everyday language in or out of school settings (Straehler-Pohl, Fernández, Gellert, & Figueiras, 2014).

The study of disadvantage on the grounds of language offers insight into how students whose home language does not correspond with the language of instruction tend to be positioned as incompetent learners. In a context where many classrooms in the so-called developed countries are more and more diverse, given an increasing presence of immigrant students, possibilities of learning are attached to mastery of the dominant culture’s language. This phenomenon has been pointed out at an international level where students with immigrant backgrounds in certain countries with very closed immigration policies systematically perform lower in mathematics and science (OECD, 2006). A series of studies has focused on how the language of instruction is a barrier for participation in mathematics and science learning. Bilingual or multilingual students’ language proficiency might limit their achievements in science and mathematics education, which implies a gap between these students’ language repertoires and the language proficiency needed in class. Taken together, studies have shown how bilingual students’ proficiency in the language of instruction results in limited possibilities to learn science and mathematics (Ünsal, Jakobson, Molander, & Wickman, 2016, 2017). However, other research has documented how students’ multiple languages can be used as resources for learning mathematics and science (Norén, 2008). Such studies help to move beyond deficiency assumptions about multilingual learners, and propose possibilities for effective participation in learning environments (Barwell et al., 2016).

Geopolitics of Disadvantage

Another perspective focuses on how increasing processes of globalization and neoliberalization since the end of the 20th century have changed the world and the demands for education, as well as the provision of education, resulting in an altered educational landscape. A reconfigured world with marketized education; a global increase in poverty, war, and economic related migration of people; Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-intensive relationships; and even the rise of cultural conflicts and terrorism constitute new conditions in which mathematics and science education operates to create differential classifications and segregations of learners. Such conditions also challenge the understanding of science and mathematics as fields of knowledge, of mathematics and science as school subjects, and of the pedagogical practices in schools. The narratives of stability in the progress of humanity, the increased influence of supranational agencies defining global economic agendas for education, and global environmental crises enter into the ways of thinking about the assumed traditional core organization of the curriculum and of pedagogical practices. Concomitantly, educational research is called to take a stance beyond analysis and be involved in educational/political activism as ways of working critically but, at the same time, in close partnership with people working in the sites of practice where mathematics and science education unfold.

In these studies, sources of potential disadvantage are closely connected to the politicization of mathematics and science education in a global, neoliberal, competitive order, where certain notions of mathematics and science are put forward as both the cause of and solution to many individual and social problems. Carter (2015) argues that this tension is clearly identifiable in how new evidence-based, student-centered pedagogies building on constructivist learning theories are seen as a way of overcoming the lack of students’ interest and motivation to learn science and to continue with a career in STEM. At the same time, these very same pedagogies align with neoliberal agendas of individualization and of the creation of competition among students to reach high-level science learning. These pedagogies are not neutral tools for the improvement of learning results; but are highly politicized and ideologically-bound techniques. The pedagogies themselves operate new distinctions and new categorizations among students, according to how they are seen to have acquired the scientific knowledge that is functional to an increasing capitalist market logic. This results in a situation where the value assigned to the success of some in these areas is built at the expense of the failure of many (Pais, 2013). In this sense, science and mathematics education generates even more inequality.

In a world with such configuration, disadvantage is experienced differentially glocally, that is in local and global scales. Studies that place science and mathematics education in a new geopolitical system of differentiation and disadvantage zoom in and out of local and global systems of practice (Jurdak, 2009). The studies call for an ethical and political stance of mathematics and science educators and researchers towards society in general, as a way of mitigating the effects of growing antidemocratization, inequality, and injustice (Atweh et al., 2007).

What is common to all these perspectives on disadvantage—epistemological, reproduction, and geopoliticalis the effort to adopt social, political, and cultural theories to bring about an understanding of the contents, the pedagogical practices, and their context in order to provide a critique of the assumed universality of mathematics and science. Mathematics and science as privileged forms of knowing are entangled in the school curriculum and its pedagogical practices, within given social orders that may empower and include, as well as classify, select, and exclude. Such a focus allows the exploration of the intermeshing of different processes of differentiation in society and culture with their instantiations in the settings where mathematics and science education unfold. Thus these perspectives allow attending to the political effect of differentiation and inclusion or exclusion or both as they operate through the epistemologies and practices of mathematics and science education in classrooms and in society, in relation to classical categories of classification.

In this sense, mathematics and science as part of the school curriculum are not only seen as areas that contribute to empowerment, but also as school subjects that may systematically prevent some children from having success and thus gaining access to better educational possibilities. Research that investigates how these processes operate often tries to propose pedagogical alternatives to remediate exclusion and promote a change of educational practices so that learners can improve their achievement. In this way, research engages in addressing the power effects of (inadequate) mathematics and science teaching and learning. Activist science and mathematics education offers a response to analysis and engages in the invention of new, emancipatory pedagogical practices. The research literature offers many examples of such types of new interventions to readdress and compensate the effects of exclusion in mathematics and science education, in an attempt to generate inclusion (Bencze & Alsop, 2014; Williams, 2012).

Subjectivation and the Making of Citizens

The understanding of how mathematics and science are political has more recently been connected to poststructural theoretical views of power in the field of education. In particular this critical perspective builds on the work of contemporary philosophers to examine power in terms of subjectivation with and through the practices of math and science in the school curriculum, within the discursive orders that govern individuals and populations. From this point of view, mathematics and science as forms of knowing and as school areas are at the very center of the constitution of rational, productive citizens in a given modern political, capitalist order. Such a perspective does not ask how mathematics and science education are or are not factors contributing to democracy or social justice. Rather, it is concerned with showing how mathematics and science education are significant practices where learners are confronted with notions of whom they should become. Newer studies offer alternative readings of the broad historical and cultural constitution of mathematics and science as school subjects in the curriculum and of their governing of learners’ subjectivity. These studies deploy analytical strategies to explore the epistemological functioning of education discourses and practices, and their effects of truth in generating ways of thinking about mathematics and science education. This view of mathematics and science education tries to displace the understandings of the fields of study from the realm of didactics and pedagogy towards the realm of the cultural politics of education.

An important starting point in these studies is the recognition of the gap between young people’s identities and subjectivities as learners in an ICT-intensive, globalized world, and the identities that having success in mathematics and science education demands (Valero, 2015). Schreiner and Sjøberg (2007), based on data from an international, comparative study on interest in science (ROSE), point to the schism in developed countries between young people’s acknowledgement of the importance of science in their lives, and, at the same time, their unwillingness to invest themselves in the study of science and mathematics. The incompatibility is made evident between their identities as youths in late modern society and the identities needed to become successful students of mathematics and science. Other studies have pointed to the tensions between youth identities and becoming a mathematics- and science-minded self in relation to gender, cultural capital, and ethnicity (DeWitt et al., 2013). These studies open the discussion of how individual learners make sense and relate to the increasing social value of becoming a scientific self, and interpret these tensions in terms of processes of identity formation or of subjectivation (Bang Jensen & Valero, 2015).

In mathematics education, studies of the cultural politics of mathematics education show how ways of thinking about mathematics as an area of the curriculum live in a broad network of historically constituted practices, where institutions and individuals meet. The research attempts to shed light on the truths that circulate in mathematics education discourses and how they shape learners’ subjectivities. For example, Knijnik and collaborators (Knijnik, Wanderer, Giongo, & Duarte, 2012) have provided cultural histories of statements that navigate as truths and have become the common sense of mathematics education in Brazil, such as “we need to bring reality to the classroom” as a pedagogical strategy for learning, and “we need to use concrete materials for teaching mathematics.” Bringing together the history of mathematics and the recent history of the German mathematics school curriculum, Kollosche (2014) examined how logic and calculation are part of an “institution which (alongside other functions) identifies and trains a calculatory-bureaucratic elite and teaches the rest to subordinate to the calculatory-bureaucratic administration of our society” (p. 1070). In England, Llewellyn (2015) has shown how, in the pedagogical practices in primary teacher education, in the official maths curriculum, and in mathematics education research, there navigate assumptions of progress associated with the normal mathematical performance of the child.

On a different but related line, de Freitas and Sinclair (2014) challenge the persistent dualistic philosophies of mathematics that build on the mind-body divide and place mathematics as a cognitive activity. Drawing on posthumanist theories and on recent mathematics philosophy, they show how the emergence of mathematical activity and thinking is entangled in a wide network of material bodily action. The proposal of an inclusive materialism directs attention to the limitation of the ways in which mathematics and mathematics education have been conceived, and opens new possibilities of politically challenging categories of disability that are at the core of historically formed conceptions of both mathematics in the curriculum and of those who can succeed in learning mathematics.

Critical studies in science education address and also challenge how social and cultural arrangements of school science frame narrow understandings of science and the scientific subject. In a social context where “wicked” problems challenge knowledge, institutions, and people, Bazzul (2016) argues that science education is “a site for ethico-political engagement with the major problems of our century: environmental destruction and growing social inequality” (p. 2). As part of a larger network of different sites that compete in the forming of truths about and solutions to problems based on the authority of science, education is a political space for making ethical subjectivities. Ethical subjectivities are not only those that relate to the ethical challenges of the working with science in society, but also those that embody particular notions of science being ethical.

Such a perspective allows questioning and imagining the entanglement of science with the making of modern subjectivity. For example, notions of sexuality and heteronormativity in society frame teaching as well as textbook content, maintaining a binary presentation of sexes as normal, as a kind of truth (Bazzul & Sykes, 2011). Hillbur, Ideland, and Malmberg (2016) presented an analysis of the way Swedish curricula for environmental education constitute a hub for the fabrication of the eco-certified citizen, a desired global individual who can use information and act in rational responsible ways for the environment. Such subjectivity functions as a discursive device that governs other possible, non-desired subject positions and constructs them as “dangerous” and in need of salvation. The challenge to stereotypes of gender, or of the right scientific-minded person, not only questions the types of subjectivity that science education inserts in children, but also the generation of particular narratives based on science about the natural world.

Some of the culturally and historically formed ideas of the scientific endeavor have been recently challenged by new trends involving lay people in scientific processes for the purpose of gathering new and larger data. In the approach called Citizen Science (Silvertown, 2009), the collaboration of nonexperts with experts in some of the scientific processes of data gathering and processing opens perspectives to enable traditional institutional boundaries of science making to be crossed. Examples of particular projects involving school children are offered as examples of new possibilities, not only of sense making in relation to socioscientific issues, but also as a way for school children to engage in other ways of doing science and becoming scientific. So far, the involvement of school children in this type of citizen science projects has been inspiring and positive (Portas et al., 2016). The question remains of which kinds of notions of science and scientific self are promoted in these settings, and how they will connect or clash with the notions that are part of the practices of school science and mathematics in the compulsory curriculum.

What is common to the studies in this perspective of subjectivity is the way in which science and mathematics education are analyzed as practices and discourses that generate concepts, distinctions, and categories. These concepts and categories regulate the possibilities of thinking and being in or with these subjects as a privileged area of knowledge in the school curriculum in current configurations of education. The critical stance that they provide connects mathematics and science curricula with larger sites of production of knowledge, culture, economy, and politics. More than offering pedagogical solutions to perceived problems of pedagogical practices to generate inclusion of all students, this perspective provides an understanding of mathematics and science and their function in school curricula as important sites in the assemblage of contemporaneity. They also take a critical stance towards the narrative of progress that mathematics and science curricula have built around the teaching and learning of these school subjects.

The Tensions

Today’s dominant and naturalized views on how to achieve democracy, equality, and justice for all are connected with the desire to embrace and expand people’s knowledge in mathematics and science. This view has become the common way to think about what could be political in mathematics and science education. On the one hand, mathematics and science education are presented as important promoters of democracy and as the saviors of national and global economy. This type of discourse is exacerbated by the emphasis on international comparative assessments of education—such as OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Such assessments take individuals’ and countries’ attainments in mathematics and science as indicators of wealth and progress. On the other hand, mathematics and science are the areas of the curriculum that nowadays operate the most brutal classification of students in the world. In other words, the appeal to the need to bring mathematics and science to all operates within a clear classification and ordering of those who do not manage to achieve the established desired goals of learning, potentially positioning them as irrelevant to national and global economy and society. This tension calls for a critical examination of the existing views of the political function of mathematics and science in the school curriculum.

A first evident point is that no neutrality of these subjects can be assumed any longer. The three types of perspectives identified—empowerment, disadvantage and subjectivation—all tap into how mathematics and science education can be understood as political. A second point is that views of empowerment relying on the special nature of mathematical and scientific knowledge would only account for the few cases where some students actually manage to succeed in pedagogical practices and achieve the expected results. From the point of view of the intersections between societal processes or from the point of view of the making of subjectivities, it becomes clear that the mathematics and science curricula in modern, massive school systems fulfil two apparently contradicting functions: enabling people to be the carriers of socially valued forms of knowledge and being and at the same time securing that that many people will be distanced from the techno-scientific rationality. Therefore, the questions of why and how mathematics and science education may or may not promote democracy and justice are always political issues.

Pedagogical activism, remediation, and compensation are strategies that can be taken to mitigate the (negative) effects of classifications of students and thus facilitating access to success in these subjects. The research literature in mathematics and science education offers an increasing number of examples of research projects designed to address the disadvantaging of students on the grounds of their lack of participation in school mathematics and science. Most often than not, these projects propose concrete alternatives to the organization and pedagogy of mathematics and science to improve learning for different groups of children considered to be “at the margin.” Such strategies may also involve other actors and settings for science and mathematics education beyond the boundaries of the school—for example, involving work with parents, companies, science centers and museums, and a wide variety of informal learning environments. Most of the research documents successful initiatives that produce better learning of mathematics and science for marginalized students. What such strategies cannot so easily do is to alter the historical fact that, at least in Western cultures, the modern, capitalist worldview inserts us all—by inclusion or by exclusion—in a mathematical-scientific-technological understanding of the self. Such realization invites us to combat scientific fundamentalism which relies blindly on the perceived superiority of math and science to enlighten humans and tame the natural world. It also raises awareness to resist the pastoral narrative of salvation in mathematics and science education. As a result, it invites us to understand the historical, cultural, economic, and political constitution of science and mathematics as fields of knowledge and practice, and their translations and transpositions into the realm of schooling through curricula.


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