I joined BSRLM at the beginning of my PhD journey. I’m now about 6 months away from the end. It’s a blessing and a curse that I think deeply about things. When I was teaching, I would reflect deeply on the learning process that my pupils and I had experienced simultaneously during our lessons together. The process of learning remains of interest to me in the context of the process of researching. This blog reflects on my involvement with BSRLM new researcher days and day-conferences during my PhD journey including my most recent presentation in June 2021, where I shared a philosophical dilemma with fellow participants.
When I took a sabbatical for one year from my primary classroom to study for an MA in mathematics education in 2003-4, I decided to attend ICME-10 in Copenhagen. This was my first ever mathematics education research conference. It was enormous. I was surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of mathematics education academics from across the world. They talked an academic language I wasn’t familiar with, and so I left, feeling intimidated. I’d placed myself in an environment that made me feel out of my depth and I wasn’t sure this was the world for me. On completion of my masters, I returned to my ‘safe’ world of my classroom for another 5 years before leaving to pursue a teacher-educator role in 2009.
Despite my early negative experience, I recovered and, by 2017, felt the calling to pursue a doctoral study which would inevitably require me to forgive the international mathematics education academic world. I confronted my demons and attended my first BSRLM conference at the new researcher day (NRD) in Oxford in June 2017. It was an event that would lift me from my anxieties about joining an academic community. It offered me a welcoming, supportive and enriching space to begin stretching my scholarly wings. Since then, the New Researcher Day (NRD) and BSRLM day-conferences have not only introduced me to the broad range of research interests in the UK and network with other researchers, but also provided opportunities to seek others’ views on my emerging doctoral work including sharing early iterations of my study design and anecdotal findings from a pilot study and most recently in June 2021, sharing a personal dilemma about philosophical considerations that I faced as my doctoral work has developed.
This dilemma resonated with my early experience of ICME-10, where, once more, I felt intimidated by the academic world but this time, rather than allowing my confidence to be dented, I wanted to confront this difficulty and then share this discomfort with others who are at different stages of their academic career.
My dilemma involved me struggling to identify with and make sense of an epistemological and ontological perspectives. Or in potentially less threatening language, what I perceive knowledge and reality to be. Even hearing and seeing these words as I type them, evokes an emotional response in me that challenges my self-confidence to pursue a doctoral study. This is because I was introduced to these terms right at the beginning of my PhD journey. I participated in a taught course, I read recommended texts and yet I could not see the relevance between these academic terms, the importance of the constructs that they were collective nouns for and my personal pursuit of knowledge from my own inquiry. Not until, that is, I had read extensively, designed my study, collected my data and begun to analyse it.
It was only at this later (and very recent) point that I appreciated that I had always held very strong views on how I perceived knowledge and reality to be, and significantly, that not everyone thinks the same as I do. I then struggled to convince myself that I’d taken an ‘authentic’ academic approach. My epistemological and ontological perspective had surfaced ‘a posteriori’, yet I’d been led to believe that because we study these terms at the beginning of a doctoral inquiry, that one should declare these from the beginning, that they should inform the shape of the data collection and how that data would be analysed.
The epiphany moment
I have reflected on two factors that have contributed to this belief structure. Firstly, many mathematics education research papers (that I have read) do not always explicitly declare epistemological and ontological perspectives. My research interests sit within a qualitative paradigm – a complex and wide-ranging space of which there are many different philosophical perspectives. To an untrained eye, it is not possible to discern the nuances of different epistemologies and ontologies – Ernest et al (2016) describe this as reading different philosophical ‘registers’ which I imagine is straight forward when one is able to shift from one register to another at a flip of a coin. To a novice reader and researcher however, this can mean that too many assumptions are left for us to discern.
Secondly, in those papers where epistemological and ontological perspectives are more transparent, why or how the authors chose to take those perspective is not usually described. Were those positions chosen ‘a priori’ or, as I experienced, ‘a posteriori’? What decision making processes took place? Reflecting on these questions, led me to an epiphany moment with my own dilemma.
All of the influences on my own teaching practices have also influenced my doctoral inquiry. My doctoral inquiry however, as a scholarly endeavour, has been as much about searching for what knowledge and reality mean to me as it has about answering my mathematics education research questions. What I experienced, was the construction of personal meaning of knowledge and reality through interactions with my study participants, my supervisors and with the BSRLM community. This is no surprise, given that my dilemma was resolved when I came across the work of Gergen (2015) and have finally been able identify with a social constructionist perspective.
As a novice researcher, the academic world can often feel intimidating. We are offered polished published research papers and little is said about the dilemmas and processes that happen behind the curtains of an ‘academic world’. BSRLM members have the potential to offer all of us, novice or experienced, the opportunity to be open about the challenges and difficulties that are faced in research. Those of us with teaching backgrounds, acknowledge the importance of creating moments of productive mathematical struggle (Hiebert & Grouws, 2007) for pupils and many teachers exploit this as an opportunity for discussion. I call for this to be extrapolated in the context of our mathematics education academic community. To encourage novice and experienced researchers to come together to wear their hearts on their sleeves to discuss wrong turns, hesitancies, dead-ends and acknowledge this as an authentic part of the work of a researcher.
I have since participated actively at ICME-13 and, as I write, have been participating in ICME-14.
Ernest, P., Skovsmose, O., Van Bendegem, J., Bicudo, M., Miarka, R., Kvasz, L., & Moeller, R. (2016). The Philosophy of Mathematics Education / by Paul Ernest, Ole Skovsmose, Jean Paul van Bendegem, Maria Bicudo, Roger Miarka, Ladislav Kvasz, Regina Moeller. (1st ed. 2016. ed., ICME-13 Topical Surveys).
Gergen, K. (2015). An invitation to social construction / Kenneth J Gergen. (3rd ed.)
Hiebert, J., & Grouws, D. A. (2007). The Effects of Classroom Mathematics Teaching on Students’ Learning. In F. Lester (Ed.), Second Handbook of Research on Mathematics Teaching and Learning (pp. 371-404). Charlotte, NC: Inf