Classroom Culture, Mathematics Culture, and the Failures of Reform: The Need for a Collective View of Culture

From Section:
Theories & Approaches
Dec. 01, 2012

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 14, No. 12, December 2012, p. 1-45.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this study was to investigate the nature of classroom practice and how it is supported by the culture of a classroom.
The authors use five aspects or indicators of culture—language usage, standard practices, tools and equipment usage, ongoing concerns and values, and recurring problems—to describe how they work together to create a culture.

The primary participant in this study was an eighth-grade mathematics teacher renowned for being a good teacher whose teaching conformed to the intentions of the reform-oriented National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards, with a particular emphasis on problem solving.
The participant was Ms. Sylvia Bryans, who certified to teach mathematics in Grades 6–12 and has been teaching mathematics for 20 years.

The authors conducted an ethnographic case study.
They describe the participant's teaching by presenting a typical classroom observation and note the few exceptions observed in her routine.
They then use the typical class and other data to show the relationships among the aspects of her classroom mathematics culture, showing how her practices, materials, values, communication, and problems all support each other.


The authors found that although Ms. Bryans appropriated some of the rhetoric and practices of problem-solving-based practice, her goals and assessment methods and most of her instructional methods were not consistent with common ideas of problem-solving mathematics.

The analysis of the case shows that three conceptions of culture—individual, interactive, and collective—lead to quite different understandings of the problem.
From an individual perspective on social representations, this case study provides a detailed analysis of the participant's beliefs and values about mathematics education.
She learned the cultural beliefs and values that define her profession.

From an interactional perspective on social representations, this case study provides a preliminary analysis of the social interactions and discourse within Ms. Bryans’s classroom.
The authors might also analyze the norms established by the teacher, both explicitly and implicitly, and how these norms influence students’ and teachers’ learning opportunities in the classroom.

Finally, from a collective perspective on social representations, this case study provides a detailed analysis of the sui generis nature of a mathematics classroom culture.
This perspective helps them to understand her misappropriation of the language and practices of problem-solving mathematics education.
The complex, interdependent relationships among language, values, materials, practices, and problems support Ms. Bryans’s belief that she is engaging in problem-solving mathematics practices and do not present her with any evidence that her practice is contrary to the intentions of the NCTM standards.

Ms. Bryans’s classroom culture, situated in the broader culture of her school, supported a set of pedagogical practices that have particular consequences for her students and herself.
The analysis of Ms. Bryans’s class shows that it also provided a stable and coherent environment for Ms. Bryans, her students, their parents, and school administrators.
Her stable classroom routine made lesson planning much easier than planning and adapting to the challenges of problem-based mathematics.
Her instructional and classroom management practices supported a quieter and calmer learning environment, which was appreciated by administrators and students.
Her assessment practices reduced the amount of time that she had to devote to grading student work and appeared to be more objective, decreasing the potential for time-consuming and emotionally fraught disagreements.


This case suggests the importance of differentiating each of these three conceptions of culture.
This case study also claims that recognizing the complex interplay among aspects of culture suggests more subtle ways of recognizing teachers’ professional discretion over curricular and instructional decisions and the individual and organizational factors that influence those decisions.
Curricular and instructional policies and materials, local and high-stakes standardized assessment systems, professional development and collaboration, all can and should play some role.

Updated: Jan. 17, 2017
Classrooms | Culture | Educational change | Ethnographic study | Mathematics teachers | Problem solving | Teacher beliefs