Open collaborative problem solving tasks in mathematics as inclusive practices? A discursive investigation of agency and power

Year: 2019

Author: Nieminen, Juuso, Chan, Man, Ching, Esther, Clarke, David

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper critically examines the proposition that open collaborative tasks might be a way to promote inclusion in mathematics classrooms. This proposition is based on the idea that such tasks could provide the opportunity for all students regardless of mathematical abilities to participate and use their personal knowledge to collaborate in the problem solving processes

In the present study, the collaboration process during open mathematics tasks was examined through discourse analysis. A discursive framework (Mueller, Yankelewitz, & Maher, 2011) was used to analyse whether students with various mathematical abilities (as classified from the teacher’s descriptions of the students elicited by teacher interview), showed different levels of agencies in determining the directions of the problem solving process. Further, the discursive practices of the students were analysed in the Foucauldian terms to further understand how the students constructed their agency through their knowledge. The research questions were: What kind of agency was evident during the collaborative problem solving process, and how equitably was this agency distributed? What kind of knowledge was valued by the students during the problem solving process and in what way did this reflect power in the Foucauldian sense?

The present qualitative study is a part of the Social Unit of Learning project at the University of Melbourne (Chan, Clarke, & Cao, 2017). Two secondary student groups (N = 8, four in each group) were videotaped solving an open mathematical task. These video recordings were transcribed for further analysis. First, different collaborative problem solving processes were classified using a framework by Mueller et al. (2011). Based on this analysis, different forms of student agency were identified, followed by discourse analysis in Foucauldian terms of knowledge and power.

Preliminary results suggest that the students who were labelled by the teacher as ‘low achievers’ were able to contribute equally as primary agents in problem solving processes when their discourse was colloquial rather than mathematical. Further, their personal experiences were not always considered to contribute to the problem solving process by other students; their experiences were not taken as knowledge. The study highlights the importance of understanding agency and power during collaborative mathematical problem solving processes, since according to the findings agency is not automatically shared through the use of open ended tasks.