Critical mathematical agency: urban middle school students engage in mathematics to investigate, critique, and act upon their world

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Turner, Erin Elizabeth

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This dissertation presents the findings of a collaborative critical ethnographic study of the impact of ‘teaching and learning mathematics for social justice’ for urban youth, specifically, for students in a diverse middle school mathematics classroom in New York City. The study drew upon critical theory’s stance towards schooling, mathematics, and society to craft a vision of teaching and learning mathematics for social justice, and investigated how this approach might support students in developing and enacting a sense of critical mathematical agency. Critical Mathematical Agency refers to students capacity to (a) view the world with a critical mind set and imagine how the world might become a more socially just, equitable place, and (b) identify themselves as powerful mathematical thinkers who construct rigorous mathematical understandings, and who participate in mathematics in personally and socially meaningful ways. To examine how students enacted critical mathematical agency, and how their sense of agency interacted with their engagement with the discipline of mathematics, data from 12 case study students, including individual / group interviews, classroom observations, and student work samples, were collected over a seven month period. Analysis of this data revealed that students enacted agency in a variety of ways, including through acts of asserting intention, positioning and authoring, improvisation, critique, and transformational resistance. Analysis of students’ participation also indicated that students’ efforts to assert personal intentions, and therein, enact agency, can generate possibilities for potentially rigorous, and personally meaningful, mathematical investigations. The extent to which students’ ideas for analysis materialized into mathematically significant and personally transformative investigations depended on the affordances and constraints of the figured worlds in which they participated, in particular, how their intended investigations were supported, mathematically, by the dominant activity and discourse of their classroom. Detailed case studies of four students are presented to illustrate these themes, and tensions that cut across students’ stories are discussed.