Exploring the biographies of high-achieving students: how to social environments and classroom experiences enable them to identify as 'good at maths'?
University of Cambridge
Faculty of Education
Master of Philosophy (MPhil)
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Pomeroy, D. (2012). Exploring the biographies of high-achieving students: how to social environments and classroom experiences enable them to identify as 'good at maths'? (Masters thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.24948
School students are more likely to enjoy and succeed in the compulsory, high-stakes subject of mathematics if they are able to identify as ‘good at maths’. This study investigated the manner in which students’ social and classroom experiences regulated how easily they could adopt this learner identity. According to previous research, historical and popular discourses portray mathematics as cold, rational, and masculine, and mathematicians as socially incompetent ‘geeks’. Therefore, identifying with mathematics can conflict with femininity and sociality. Furthermore, mathematics is often perceived as a subject that puts intelligence, or lack thereof, on public display, inducing anxiety, shame, and a protective distancing from mathematics. Semi-structured interviews with seven postgraduate students at an elite British university, from a range of disciplines and nationalities, explored the processes by which the participants came to see themselves as (not) ‘good at maths’. All but one had achieved very good or outstanding mathematics results at school and identified as ‘good at maths’. Using open coding and cross-case analysis I identified two themes. Firstly, the participants were members of peer groups in which academic achievement was highly valued, contrasting with studies which report students downplaying their achievement to avoid being seen as a ‘geek’. Secondly, the participants derived a strong sense of pride and satisfaction from doing well in maths, and this emotional reward was reinforced by the perception that mathematics was ‘either right or wrong’ and therefore displayed their intelligence ‘objectively’. This study highlights the need to explore ways of fostering a classroom culture which values achievement, and to identify pedagogies which make mathematical success less one-dimensional, especially for students less privileged than this study’s participants. The analysis points towards some ‘pockets of hope’ in existing schools which provide blueprints for a more equitable approach to teaching mathematics.
gender, social class, mathematics education, Bourdieu, discourse, high achievement
Study funded by a Woolf Fisher Scholarship in Education at Cambridge. This scholarship is jointly funded by the Woolf Fisher Trust (New Zealand) and the Cambridge Trusts.
This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.24948
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Licence URL: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/