20 Pages

On Explaining Change in School Subjects

During the late fifties and early sixties a major reform of the content of selective secondary school mathematics was carried out throughout Europe and the USA. In a climate in which a 'crisis' was believed to exist within the subject, elements of 'modern mathematics' were introduced into new textbooks and syllabuses and much previously valued content seemed destined to disappear. Recently, nearly twenty years after these events, various individuals and groups have again successfully argued that a 'crisis' exists in mathematics and another phase of redefinition is currently in progress (Keitel, 1982; Cockcroft, 1982). It is therefore clearly important that sociologists interested in the curriculum continue to develop conceptual tools for understanding such apparently cyclical processes of redefinition. In a recently completed study (Cooper, 1982) I have attempted to contribute to this development by constructing a sociological account of the social process of subject redefinition in English secondary school mathematics in the late fifties and sixties, concentrating on the origins of the School Mathematics Project (SMP) and the Midlands Mathematical Experiment (MME). Here, drawing on this work, I wish to stimulate further discussion of sociological approaches to the study of subject redefinition by examining several theoretical issues which had to be resolved in constructing my account. In particular, I shall be presenting a model for the explanatory analysis of those social processes which determine the reproduction and/or transformation of the legitimacy of established definitions of school mathematics and science at the level of the textbook and syllabus. I shall argue that, in order to understand change in these subjects, we have to understand the nature and effects of interaction across a series of boundaries between subject sub-cultures practising (that is, teaching, developing, applying) mathematics and science in different social locations, and between these sub-cultures and other non-disciplinary arenas. To the extent that, over time, within these relatively insulated social settings, different versions of mathematics or science and their practice are constructed we are therefore concerned with understanding the responses of actors to various 'discontinuities' which may be perceived to threaten their occupational interests.