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Educ Stud Math (2009) 72:6176 DOI 10.


Social representations as mediators of practice in mathematics classrooms with immigrant students

Nria Gorgori & Guida de Abreu

Published online: 24 February 2009 # Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2009

Abstract This article suggests that a critical perspective of the notion of social representations can offer useful insights into understanding practices of teaching and learning in mathematics classrooms with immigrant students. Drawing on literature using social representations, previous empirical studies are revisited to examine three specific questions: what are the dominant social representations that permeate the mathematics classroom with immigrant students? What impact do these social representations have on classroom practices? What are the spaces for changing these practices through becoming reflective and critically aware of these representations? These questions are addressed mostly in relation to teachers representations, though the article also draws on data from research with students and parents to illustrate the diversity of representations and to argue for a critical and reflective perspective. Keywords Immigrant students . Mathematics classrooms . Social representations . Teachers representations and practices

1 Introduction Contemporary schools are populated by students from many different origins and backgrounds. While in some countries immigration is a recent but fast-growing phenomenon, in others it has been a reality for several decades now. Moreover, the

N. Gorgori Department of Mathematics Education, Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra, Spain G. de Abreu Department of Psychology, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK N. Gorgori (*) Dpt. Didctica de la Matemtica i les Cincies Experimentals, Facultat de Cincies de lEducaci, UAB, Campus Bellaterra, E-08193 Cerdanyola del Valls, Spain e-mail:

DO9183; No of Pages


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immigrant population in small towns and rural communities is a new phenomenon everywhere. Regardless of the different scenarios, and despite some immigrant students performing considerably higher than their local peers, certain groups still have not found their place at school and, in particular, in mathematics classrooms, where their academic performance falls consistently below that of their native-born peers (see, for instance, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2006). The learning opportunities that society should provide for all children through institutionalized education are far from being equally distributed. The aim of this article is to explore the ways in which the notion of social representations can offer useful insights in understanding practices of teaching and learning in mathematics classrooms attended by immigrant children or children born into immigrant familiesfrom now on, referred to as immigrant children. Mathematics classrooms attended by immigrant students constitute an empirical domain that has scarcely been explored in its specificity. Moving beyond the individual, and viewing the processes of teaching and learning mathematics through the lens of social psychology, allows us to ask new questions and try to find answers for them. We are particularly interested in a critical perspective on social representations as a notion that has the potential to address contemporary issues in education in ethnically and culturally diverse societies (Howarth, 2006; Zittoun, Duveen, Gillespie, Ivinson, & Psaltis, 2003). This notion will enable us to exemplify different social representations that circulate in mathematics classrooms with immigrant students and examine the processes through which teachers take on (Howarth, 2006), make use of (Zittoun et al. 2003), and transform specific social representations. A classroom with immigrant students can be approached as a prime example of an environment that brings together persons enculturated and socialized in a variety of different cultural communities. One way in which we can detect cultural diversity in such classrooms is through a consideration of the use of different cultural artifacts, such as culturally distinctive algorithms or symbolic representations of numbers that mediate students cognitive processes. There are, however, more subtle ways in which cultural difference enters the classroom. There are different understandings of what it means to teach and learn mathematics, what these processes are thought to consist of, and the value assigned to mathematical knowledge (Gorgori, Planas, & Vilella, 2002). These diverse understandings shape peoples ways of acting and interacting in the mathematics classroom (Gorgori & Planas, 2004, 2005a, b). The research that the group EMiCS1 has been developing in Barcelona aims to understand the complexity of teaching and learning mathematics in classrooms attended by immigrant students, in situations where their participation is at stake. In those classrooms where cultural distance is most evident (Gorgori & Planas, 2005c), students are not only expected to learn mathematics, or to value mathematical artifacts and mathematics as a tool, but are also expected to learn how to do mathematics and how to behave in the mathematics classroom (Chronaki, 2005). In the initial stages of the group work (Gorgori et al., 2002), social and sociomathematical norms (see for instance Cobb, Yackel, and Wood (1992), Cobb and Liao Hodge (2002), or Yackel and Cobb (1996)) were used to understand the classroom culture. With the development of our study of transition processes (Abreu, Bishop, & Presmeg, 2002; Gorgori et al., 2002) we asked ourselves how norms were

The group EMiCS, Educaci Matemtica i Context Sociocultural [Mathematics Education and Sociocultural Context] is a Grup de Recerca Consolidat, 2005SGR 00211, Direcci General de Recerca, Generalitat de Catalunya. Guida de Abreu, Sandra Burgos, Nria Gorgori, Montserrat Prat and Montserrat Santesteban are members of the group. The authors would like to express their thanks to the members of the EMiCS Wednesday Seminars, who were a lively and critical audience for the earlier versions of this article.

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established, how norms could be agreed on, negotiated or changed, and how norms were orchestrated into practice in the mathematics classroom with immigrant students. Norms refer to regularities of a practice and of the social interactions and are established by the individual and group interpretations of what is perceived as acceptable or desirable. In the classrooms studied, there were different perceptions of a particular contribution as being acceptable or desirable, a fact that was causing obstacles to some students participation. Therefore, the meaning of the word social in social norms and sociomathematical norms needed to be revisited. From a sociocultural perspective, the learning of mathematics is affected by what takes place within the classroom and its nearest contexts. We could no longer understand the social without considering that all participants were, in turn, social individuals, with their own social and cultural experiences, expectations, and interpretations of the world. It was this need to link the classroom microcontext with the larger macrocontexts (Abreu, 2000) to which students belonged and where classroom practice was includedfrom the school institution to society at largethat led us to the idea of social representations. In the following section, we explain the key dynamics through which social representations operate, outline our perspective on social representations as mediators of mathematical practices, and examine our reasons for using the notion of social representations to conceptualize learning in classrooms with immigrant students.

2 On social representations as mediators of practice 2.1 On social representations as a particular type of cultural artifact We understand social representations to be an interpretive framework that allows people to impose meaning on and organize their reality, both social and physical, and establish relationships with other persons and groups. They are reconstructions of reality that arise out of interpersonal communication, reconstructions that, in a practical sense, regulate practices and behavior within and between groups. Particular aspects of the object of the representation are elaborated and come to constitute an implicit theory that allows individuals to explain and evaluate the contexts in which they find themselves. Although structured, they are also dynamic since they also are the products of the construction of meaning. The purpose of Moscovicis theory of social representation is to explain a process whereby individuals and groups can manage to construct a stable and predictable world out of the diversity of persons, attitudes, and social phenomena (Moscovici, 1984). This diversity is organized through social representations that carry previously constructed meanings concerning the past and make these meanings available for new applications. When individuals learn about their world, they do so on the basis of presentations of this world which are then re-interpreted (Howarth, 2006). These presentations are constructed socially in accordance with the persons experiences and knowledge, and become re-presentations; from this perspective, one could better refer to the process as social re-presenting. According to Jodelet (1991), social representations are images that condense multiple meanings that allow people to interpret what is happening; categories that serve to classify circumstances, phenomena, and individuals with whom we interact; theories that permit us to establish facts about them. This notion may be easily applied to mathematical practices or mathematical learning. People interpret what happens around them as mathematical when it fits their image of what counts as mathematics. Teachers categorize their students as good, bad, or indifferent based on their images of what is entailed in


N. Gorgori, G. de Abreu

learning mathematics. Analyzing the impact of these images on the dynamics of teaching and learning in the mathematics classroom is more complex, especially in classrooms with immigrant students. Social representations do not simply inform practices, they become mediating elements for the processes through which people interpret what happens around them and for peoples actions in the world. As mediating devices, social representations become constitutive of what we do, in the same way as cultural artifacts. For instance, a counting systema cultural artifactis constitutive of our mathematical practices. Someone performing a calculation does so with cultural tools (Wertsch, 1998). In the same way, we make sense of, interpret and re-present what is happening around us by means of social representations. If we use a definition of culture based on Coles cultural psychology (Cole, 1995, 1996), social representations can be seen as a special type of artifact. Similarly, for Duveen culture can be taken as referring to a broader network of representations held together as an organized whole by community. Social representations, in this sense, can be seen as particular cultural forms (Duveen, 2007, p. 545). Approaching social representations as cultural artifacts helps us to understand how they limit or broaden the practices found in culturally diverse mathematics classrooms. 2.2 On the dynamics and functions of social representations Although the social construction of classroom mathematical practices may be approached in many ways, the existing lenses of analyses have not yet fully examined the impact of changes imposed by macrosocial structures on classroom practices. The theory of social representations can contribute to explanations that aid our understanding of the object of study, namely mathematics classrooms with immigrant students. What follows then, is an introduction to several reasons why the idea of social representations seems central in confronting the challenges that immigration represents for society, and in particular for schools. First of all, according to Moscovici (2001), social representations help us to make familiar what is strange, disturbing, or uncanny. A glance at the media is sufficient to show us that immigration is constructed as a disturbing, disquieting, discomforting phenomenon, a social representation that engenders strong emotions in those who feel that their way of life is being threatened. As Raudsepp (2005) points out, the fact that social representations give rise to actions has a great deal to do with collective emotions. Second, social representations arising from the need to ascribe meaning to the unknown are neither neutral nor disinterested. They are constructed out of what is familiar to the social group, and involve taking a position with regard to the object they represent. In a way, it is as if they were there for the purpose of protecting spaces and defending existing identities (see, for example, Jodelet, 1991, and Howarth, 2006). According to Araya (2002), social representations position their users in particular ways and are therefore closely linked to processes of identification and creation of identities. A third dimension of social representations that interests us is the way in which they allow connections to be made between the culture of the mathematics classroom as a microcontext and the social macrocontext in which it is contained. Valsiner (2003) writes that social representations play the role of macrolevel cultural constraints on human conduct in its present to future transition, constraints that lead to microlevel meanings that guide thought, feeling, and acting processes. Fourth, the idea of conflict also makes social representations useful for understanding processes of learning and teaching mathematics in classrooms with immigrant students. As de Haan and Elbers (2005) observed, classrooms with immigrant students are spaces of

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great interest for the study of conflict and the negotiation of meanings, and conflict and tension are important in the formation of social representations, for example, in influencing processes between majorities and minorities, between the individual and the group, and so on (Moscovici & Markov, 1998, p. 394). Up to this point we have detailed our reasons for finding the theory of social representations to be a useful way of approaching our subject. However, it would be of little interest if the theory did not support the idea that people can reflect on social representations, opening the way to change. Despite the theory having been accused of being deterministic, social representations are not only plural, but are constructed and transformed in a dynamic fashion. Moscovici (2001) argues that cultural change is at the root of changes in representations, since culture and social representations are difficult to separate. The indissociability of social representations and culture explains the hegemonic character of some representations. Broadly accepted dominant representations end up fossilized as tradition, to the point where they are completely assimilated into social practice (Moscovici, 1984). Through socialization, social representations can become part of the individuals ways of interpreting their social world, often without the individual having any part in the process through which these representations were constructed. Until one is confronted with difference, one is often unconscious of the social representations that make us who we are and shape our behavior (Duveen, 2007). Although people make unconscious use of representations, we should not for this reason consider the theory of social representations to be deterministic. In the theory of social representations people are not understood simply as passive receptors but as beings capable of independent thought and agency. Agency requires knowledge of alternative social representations and how they are distributed socially (Raudsepp, 2005). When Moscovici (1976, 1984, 1988) introduced the notion of social representations, he was careful to emphasize the plural character of representations and their diversity within the group. Social representation, in the sense of representing, is a process of selective construction of an interpretation of the world, followed by its verification (Valsiner, 2003). These interpretations involve processes of a dialogic nature in which different and opposing possibilities are present. Because the theory emphasizes the multiplicity of social representations of a single phenomenon, it becomes possible to study processes of creative power and agency in the use and transformation of social representations. This aspect has been of central importance in explaining variation in the use and formation of representations both between and within groups, and even by the same individual. It is also centrally important for the way in which we use this theory, since one of our points of departure assumes that mathematical practices are by nature cultural, and thus social. Despite this, there are some dominant social representations of such a coercive nature that they resist questioning even by individuals whose practical experience exposes them to cultural differences and alternative meanings in mathematical practices. In the remaining pages of this article, we revisit some studies in which we have been involved2, presenting the interrelated social representations, some of them dominant, that permeate the mathematics classroom with immigrant students. We offer examples of the ways in which unreflective uses of social representations may limit some students ability to

The research reported that is being developed in the Catalan context is supported by the Direccin General de Investigacin, Ministerio de Educacin y Cultura (research grant SEJ2007-60111), and the Agncia de Gesti dAjuts Universitaris i de Recerca, Generalitat de Catalunya (research grant 2006ARAI 0001).


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learn mathematics, and we discuss the possibility of change through reflective uses of social representations. Although our empirical work included teachers, parents and students, teachers are the main focus of this paper. 3 Teachers representations of immigrant students as mathematics learners 3.1 Studying social representations The study of social representations of any particular object may focus on different aspects: (1) the process of social construction through which a group represents an object in a particular way; (2) the content of different representations of a single object resulting from the process of selection and anchoring in different frames of reference; and (3) the mediating effect of these representations on actions, interactions, and new representations. Incorporating all three of these aspects, in this article we are essentially interested in how the immigrant student as mathematics learner is re-presented and interpreted by the teacher and in observing how these representations mediate practice. The studies we are revisiting in this paper were conducted in line with Jodelets (1986) classic approach. This approach requires qualitative research techniques in order to gain access to participants experiences, thoughts, and meanings, expressed essentially in interviews or open-ended questionnaires and analyzed thematically (Flick, 2006). Our focus on culture has led us to use an ethnographic approach, which included school visits and classroom observations. A commonality in the studies was that the methods of data analysis focused on identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns and emerging themes within data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). A theme captures something important about the data in relation to the research question and represents some level of patterned response or meaning within the data set (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 82). The identification of themes is a constructive and flexible process, and can involve many steps, as identified or emerging themes can be grouped, systematically checked and reviewed in an iterative process of going backwards and forwards between data, research questions, and theories. Burgos (2007) research allows us to exemplify how teachers social representations have been examined. The study by Burgos is part of the research of the EMiCS group and was developed under the supervision of the first author of this paper. The second author also acted in an advisory capacity to the project. Burgos interviewed five teachers and four psycho-pedagogic co-ordinators in charge of five different transitional classrooms for immigrants (aula dacollidareception classes). Also interviewed were the mainstream classroom mathematics teachers. During the interviews, teachers and coordinators were invited to explain freely to the researcher the how and the why of the reception classes and the presence (or absence) of mathematics teaching in these classes. They were also asked to comment on how they saw immigrant students as (mathematics) learners, and how they would, or could help them to be ready to follow the mainstream lessons. The transcriptions of the accounts provided by teachers and coordinators constituted the raw data for the analysis. Often Burgos was invited to stay in the classroom and then she acted as an external observer who participated when the students sought her attention. The analysis of the data was based on thematic coding and recurrent comparison in order to establish concepts, themes, and relationships between themes. This process was supported by the use of a qualitative software package, in this case MAXQDA. The software facilitated the process of coding, comparing, and relating recurrent themes in teachers accounts.

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To understand the analysis of Burgos (2007) data, we should recall that social representations are constructed from such key elements as the cultural background accumulated historically by the social group. These would include the mechanisms of anchoring and objectification and the range of social practices associated with various forms of communication. As Duveen and Lloyd (1990) observe, objectification and anchoring explain how social structures affect the formation of social representations, and how existing frames of reference contribute to the development of new representations. Jodelet (1991) describes objectification as involving, among other processes, selective construction and naturalization. Selective construction is the process through which certain elements of already existing representations are retained selectively and the elements selected are then reorganized. Naturalization is the process through which what is perceived ceases to be information about an object and comes to be the image that has been constructed of it, which not only displaces the object but involves a series of consequences derived naturally (that is, culturally) from this image. Anchoring, a process complementary to selective construction, makes it possible to transform what is strange into something familiar by inserting the object of representation into a known pre-existing frame of reference. Through anchoring, social representations are inserted into social dynamics in such a way that they become tools for communication and understanding. The analysis of the data shows that when the teachers spoke of immigrant students as mathematics learners, they selectively constructed what they perceived using the information at their disposal, fitting it into an existing field of representations. From this field they selected and mobilized images to make sense of their perceptions (including first-hand experiences). The term referents was used to designate the images the teachers used in describing their perceptions of immigrant students, by reorganizing their perceptions of typical students to create new images that represent the immigrant students. In the analysis of textual data from teachers interviews, the different referents have been organized into what we have called themes, grouping the informants ways of characterizing immigrant students as mathematics learners according to the topics to which they refer. Social representations were examined in two stages: the first through descriptive analysis, and the second through relational analysis. Starting with the units of meaning originating in transcribed interviews, the descriptive analysis involved a recursive-inductive process that led to the identification of different themes. During the interviews, the informants talked about immigrant students in terms of diversity, ability and results, linguistic competence, the locus of students mathematics learning, and the nature of mathematical knowledge, among other themes. Within each theme, various referents were found; core elements of existing representations within which the informants anchored their new representations of immigrant students. Table 1 provides a summary of key themes relevant for the analysis of the teachers representations of immigrant students. The dominant referents that reflect the prevalent views of the participants are also outlined and exemplified. A close look at Table 1 shows that, as predicted by social representation theory, teachers draw from a variety of referents to think about, and talk about, immigrant students. What is especially worrisome, however, is the dominance of certain referents that contain the idea of a deficit, especially if one recalls that Burgos study was conducted in transitional classrooms aimed at providing a bridge for the integration of immigrant students into the local schools. Before going any further, it should be noted that contradictions frequently appear in informants accounts. Thus, for example, one of the informants in Burgos study says, The


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Table 1 Key themes and dominant referents (drawing on Burgos (2007) analysis) Themes In talking about immigrant students, the informants Dominant referents


Anchored their images on the idea of diversity, Diversity within diversity: immigrant a common one in the present discourse of students are not only different from schools and public administration native-born students, but constitute as internally diverse a group as nativeborn students Singularity: students are referred to in the singular, focusing on the individual characteristics peculiar to each Stereotypes: students are described in terms of cultural groups or nationalities, or stereotypes associated with immigration in general Abilities and Explicitly evaluatedeither positively or Failure or deficit: students are described results negativelystudents abilities and/or progress as having some failure or deficit, whether attitudinal or cognitive Linguistic Referred to the role of students linguistic Mediation-obstacle: lack of fluency in the competence competence as a mediator of their learning language of instruction is seen as an process, or as a facilitator of the integration obstacle, too often a sine qua non process condition, to learning mathematics Locus of Interpreted mathematical knowledge and Individual process: learning is seen as learning in terms of the locus of its something individual, with cognitive mathematical learning construction and affective components, but essentially localized in the individual learner Referred to the nature of mathematical Universal: implicitly or explicitly, Nature of knowledge in schools mathematical knowledge is mathematical conceptualized as a universal form of knowledge knowledge in schools

concept of newcomer is the same for any person on their first day at this school it makes no difference where they come from. (...) The only thing we want to know is where they come from and what their grade level is (Burgos, 2007, p. 74). These contradictions are usual in spontaneous communication processes and, as Duveen and Lloyd (1990) point out, they should be understood as transitory. 3.2 Dominant representations in teachers accounts In the previous section we presented some of the themes and referents that the teachers in Burgos study used in constructing their representations of immigrant students. In this section, we present some of the results of the relational analysis, emphasizing the dominant representations and identifying relationships among them in teachers accounts. As well as Burgos study, we also draw on research developed within the framework of the EMiCS group including a study by Santesteban (2006) and on similar studies by Abreu and her colleagues. The universality of school mathematics is probably the most significant dominant representation, appearing repeatedly in teachers accounts and not limited to Burgos study:

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All immigrant students have studied the same mathematics. After all, the Arabs invented the numerical system we use (Santesteban, 2006, p. 79). The universality of school mathematics is not only a dominant representation, but one which is uniform and coercive. Many teachers represent mathematics as a universal school subject even though their own experience should lead them to question this image because it lends itself poorly to so many situations. All the informants in Burgos study were deeply committed to the task of helping recently arrived immigrant students to acquire the basic skills and knowledge required for successful integration into the local schools. However, Burgos observed one informant teaching units of capacity in the metric system to a Chinese boy who had just arrived and did not yet speak the language of instruction. Asked whether he knew if the boy had already been taught units of volume or, at least, whether he knew if the metric system was used in China, the teacher replied, I suppose so, mathematics is international... and anyway, if he hadnt learned them, he would have said so (Burgos, 2007, p. 120). This teacher has taught students of widely diverse origins, was trained to teach in classrooms with immigrant students, and decided himself to teach mathematics in a transitional classroom. In fact, he put in more classroom hours than actually required. Despite this level of preparation and commitment, he may never have asked himself whether mathematics is in fact taught in the same way all over the world. He simply took for granted this representation of school mathematics. In the course of their own education and often in the process of professional training, teachers have been exposed to a fossilized representation of mathematics as universal, one that is accepted as valid in the social practice of teaching mathematics. Closely linked to the representation of school mathematics as universal is another dominant representation: learning depends on the students ability. This universal individualistic construction of the student is given greater weight than the cultural baggage the student carries. Thus, an elementary-school coordinator who was an informant in the study by Cline et al. (2002, p. 101) stated: As I see it, mathematics is taught in accordance with the students ability, not the students ethnic origin... I treat them no differently than I treat any other student and I would not expect them to behave differently than the others. This kind of representation originates in the idea that the students ability, located in the individual, is the determining element in learning mathematics. As Burgos study shows, a variant of this representation incorporates other individual characteristics such as motivation, interest, capacities, and learning rate. Teachers associate the universality of school mathematics with cognitive deficit, expressed in terms of grade level. A clear example of this is found in a statement recorded by Burgos, Teaching mathematics is a little easier because the numbers are the same even if the students are working below their grade level when they arrive (Burgos, 2007, p. 81). One of the most striking results of the relational analysis emerges from the association between individual student and the notion of deficit. One informant explained: We have a student who has just arrived from Colombia, who wasnt doing well academically in his own country (...) and another boy, Mohammed, who... well... Mohammed has language problems and though he was also sent to school in his country at least for a few years, hes also behind his grade level (...) we have Maria (Im inventing these names) whose cultural background is Gypsy (...) who is absolutely unmotivated to study. (Burgos, 2007, p. 89) It is distressing that an adult in charge of the education of immigrant students sees in them only negative characteristics: students behind their appropriate grade level, low achievement, a history of irregular school attendance, or lack of motivation. This dominant


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representation was also observed in Abreu, Cline, and Shamsis (1999) analysis of teachers assumptions about the causes of student success and failure in school mathematics in multiethnic primary schools in England. The image of mathematics as a universal school subject also supports the representation shared by many teachers who assert that the main (the only, in some cases) obstacle for immigrant students to learn is the lack of mastery of the language of instruction. For some teachers, this is the first and only crucial obstacle that immigrant students face in learning mathematics. Some of them say so explicitly. Santesteban (2006, p. 94) found that the question Do you think that there is any aspect of our educational system that could constitute an obstacle to learning mathematics for immigrant students? typically elicited answers such as Language is the only obstacle. Moreover, when teachers were asked about Which aspects of our educational system facilitate students success? the most common answer was similar: The Catalan lessons we provide them with. Teachers often express this idea of mastery of the language of instruction being a sine qua non condition for the learning of mathematics by saying things such as when immigrant students have learned the language of instruction they will be able to learn mathematics in the same way as local students do (Burgos, p. 95). Significantly, teachers images are not in consonance with those of their students parents. In their study exploring parents experience of their childrens schooling, Abreu and her colleagues found that their representations include culture-specific-elements, not limited to linguistic fluency. The extract below from an interview with the Portuguese mother of a primary school child living in England illustrates this issue. Though educated in her home country, the mother was a fluent speaker of English. Portuguese mother (8 year old girl): I have to tell her the things... But, it is different. The mode of teaching here, to do sums, it is not how I learnt it. (...) Last year I had to ask them to arrange a meeting with the teacher, so that she could explain to me the methods they do the sums so that I can help her at home. Sometimes she would have difficulties and would tell me: Oh mum, I do not know... how do I do this? And, if she saw me doing it, the way I learnt it, she would tell me You too do not know anything! It is not that way, because that is not the way the teacher does it (Abreu & Lambert, 2003, p. 161). Teachers representation of immigrant students as diverse encompasses both the representation of school mathematics as universal and the representation of learning as dependent on student ability, and confirms a-cultural views of the nature of mathematics. Both Burgos (2007) and Santesteban (2006) contain several examples that reveal teachers perception that diversity in classrooms with immigrant students is mostly an expression of individual differences. Thus, when Santesteban asked secondary-school teachers Do you think that in the mathematics classroom immigrant students should be treated differently?, all too often the responses were In any class there is a degree of inherent diversity that means that students (whether they are immigrants or not) learn as a function of their interests, how fast they can assimilate information, and their abilities, or No, as long as they control the language well enough. If they dont, they should be treated like any other student with special educational needs (Santesteban, 2006, p. 89). However, some students with a different cultural background have a different view than their teachers. Some of them even believe that their teachers representations do not include the cultural baggage of the student, as illustrated in the study of Cline and his colleagues (Cline et al., 2002).

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4 From unreflective to reflective uses of social representations 4.1 The impact of the unreflective use of social representations on teachers practices In this section, we present an example that shows how dominant social representations act as mediators of practice in the classroom, legitimating particular identities and forms of knowledge and participation. As Howarth (2006) writes, social representations are not a quiet thing without consequences in peoples lives. We take as our point of departure the framework proposed by Zittoun et al. (2003), which suggests that social representations, as symbolic resources, act as mediators of thought and action in three ways: (1) through their unreflective use, in which people use social representations without being aware that it is possible to choose among different representations, and what the choice of one representation over another implies; (2) becoming-reflective uses, in which people begin to realize that it is possible to choose among different representations and that different choices lead to different outcomes; and (3) reflective uses, in which choice is based on knowledge of different possible uses. As noted above, in the mathematics classroom the culture of the main social actors, the students and the teacher, is present in their actions. To begin with, cultural difference in knowledge is manifested in the use of different artifacts that are symbolic in nature, such as numerical and measurement systems or algorithms, which act as mediators in the processes of teaching and learning. Long division, for example, takes different forms in the school curricula of different countries, even in countries that share the language of instruction. Figure 1 illustrates how long division is done in schools in Ecuador and in Spain. The fact that long division with decimal numbers is represented differently in Ecuador and in Spain may not seem especially relevant. As we have shown elsewhere (Gorgori, Prat, & Santesteban, 2007), however, this difference gave rise to considerable difficulties for David, a boy from Ecuador who came to Barcelona at the age of 11. In his country of origin, David was considered a good student, and had never had difficulty with basic algorithms. When he arrived in Barcelona he already knew how to do division with decimals, which is what his teacher was teaching the class when he entered his new school. Since he already knew all this, when he did his homework he did the division exercises as he had learned to do them in Ecuador. When the teacher corrected Davids homework, he marked all the exercises wrong. David did not understand why, and told his mother, Mnica, about it. Mnica was employed as a cleaning lady, although she had completed high school in Ecuador. She went over Davids homework with him according to the way both of them had learned to do division in their home country. She wanted to be certain that David knew how to do long division correctly. Despite this, the next day David returned home with all his division

Fig. 1 Long division in Ecuador and in Spain


N. Gorgori, G. de Abreu

exercises marked wrong again. After a school parents meeting, Mnica decided to explain to Davids teacher how division was taught in schools in Ecuador. Paying little attention to her explanation, the teacher replied, In Ecuador you do it wrong. When Mnica described this episode to us, she was able to explain correctly her way of doing division: You have to multiply by 10, by 100, by 1000... on each side, as many zeroes as there are decimal points on the right, the numbers on both sides... so that you can take away the decimals, and get the result for the division. Having finished her explanation, she asked us with a worried expression, Do we do this right? Could it be that in Ecuador we do it wrong? The important issue in the case of David and Mnica is not whether there are or are not differences in the way the division algorithms look, but the reaction of the teacher to this difference. It is unlikely that the teacher really thought that in Ecuador division was taught wrongly. It is more probable that the teacher, unaccustomed to such conversations with parents, did not listen carefully enough to what Mnica was saying and made an unreflective use of social representations. Davids case shows that the cultural nature of mathematical knowledge involved more than simply differences between cultural artifacts in themselves. The cultural nature of mathematics is linked to social representations related to the process of learning mathematics, to who is believed to know and not know mathematics, and to culturally defined correct ways of doing mathematics. 4.2 Spaces of change: reflective uses of social representations Up to this point we have argued that the use of social representations is not without social effects, and have offered an example of their unreflective use by a teacher. For Davids mother, however, the confrontation gave rise to reflection about the existence of different algorithms for division, and about the fact that not all ways of doing division were considered legitimate. She made a reflective use of her representations, asking someone uninvolved in the episode to confirm that in her country people did not do division incorrectly. Moreover, in the course of the episode, Mnica used a social representation to position herself. She was laying claim to a particular identity as a person competent in school mathematics, and at the same time she was trying to protect herself against marginalizing and stigmatizing practices. For Mnica the episode resulted in a becomingreflective process. Crafter and Abreu (2009) describe a similar process in their study of children in multiethnic mathematical classrooms in England. They examine the case of Monifa, a 10-year-old daughter of a Black African family, who developed awareness, and became reflective, of the differences between the mathematical practices of her father and those of her teacher. Recounting her teachers attempt to convince her that her father s solution was not appropriate, she said: I wasnt too keen but I understand my dads more so I went with my dad. But shes my schoolteacher in school, so... Monifas way of coping was to use one mathematical practice or the other according to context. As she explained, however, the different practices of school and home often made demands on her that made her feel as if she were two people: Its like Im two people at the same time and its just hard (Crafter & Abreu, 2009). Cases like that of Davids mother and Monifa reveal processes in which immigrants are confronted with different representations of what mathematical knowledge is, and allow us to see how their becoming-reflective use of social representations helps them to address the questions this raises for their own process of cultural identity creation. It seems clear that in the contexts we have described, social representations of what mathematical knowledge is were re-interpreted and re-constructed. We should remember, however, that

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these re-constructions took place in a power-saturated context. In situations like this one, the immigrants may be able to find an explanation for why a form of mathematical knowledge they consider legitimate is unacceptable. This seems to be the only option available to them given that it is often difficult for them to question representations when power relations are so unbalanced. Cases like that of Davids mother show us how some teachers use existing social representations related to what an immigrant student is like and what mathematical knowledge consists of in a school context. The unreflective use of existing dominant social representations gives rise to: (1) an attempt to assimilate the immigrant student to the image of the monocultural learner, an image that is less disturbing because it is already familiar; (2) a minimizing of cultural difference in mathematical practices in favor of what is perceived to be universal, a minimizing that could be seen as a strategy to reconcile conflicts; and (3) an interpretation of the learning process from a psychological perspective focused on the individual, with less attention to the fact that learning is a social and cultural process. As we have argued, this attempt to assimilate the immigrant student into normality is often expressed in terms of reducing obstacles to learning by improving language competence and explaining learning difficulties as student deficits (special needs, cognitive problems, or lack of motivation). It is important to note that the previous paragraph was phrased as teachers use existing social representations. When introducing the dynamics and the functions of the social representation, we already mentioned the indistinguishable aspect of social representations and culture as an explanation for the hegemonic character of some of them. As we have said, social representations, through processes of socialization become part of the individual ways of understanding, often without the individual having any part in the process through which they were constructed. Therefore, we want our claims to be detached from individual teachers. Rather, the consideration of school mathematics as a universal subject and the individualistic view of learning are dominant representations broadly accepted in society, representations fossilized into tradition to the point that they have completely been taken into social practice. However, in the theory of social representations people are not understood simply as passive receptors but as beings capable of independent thought and agency. It is this process of thinking that allows people to realize that it is possible to choose among different representations and that different choices lead to different outcomes, thereby becomingreflective users of social representations. However, as we have already pointed out, it is not until we are confronted with difference that we may become conscious of the social representations that shape our behavior (Duveen, 2007) and agency requires knowledge of alternative social representations and how they are socially distributed (Raudsepp, 2005). Creating discussion spaces that fostered critical awareness of, and reflection on, social representations through the analysis of teaching cases (Llinares & Krainer, 2006) would help to introduce teachers into alternative possibilities. If teachers were confronted with dilemmas that could potentially be resolved in a number of different ways, and where choice was based on knowledge of different possible representations, this awareness could set in motion reflective uses. Therefore, those of us involved in teacher training should take into account that teachers education should not only contain teaching knowledge or domain knowledge, but should also include the discussion of the mechanisms involved in the social mediation of learning, of teaching, and of knowledge construction. We would not wish to end this article without questioning our own representations. In this case, the us to whom the possessive pronoun refers is the community of mathematics educators in general. We should ask ourselves to what extent research has contributed to


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our understanding of the complexity of classrooms with immigrant students. To date, theories explaining the processes of teaching and learning have mostly taken as their research context the prototypical mathematics classroom. This kind of work only gives us a partial view of classrooms in globalized societies. Those responsible for placing the learning opportunities of immigrant students at risk are not only society in general, educational institutions or educators. Researchers also bear part of this responsibility and therefore all of us should reconsider our own representations of normality. Perhaps, as we search for new and useful ideas, the research community should also revise its own understandings of what is significant, appropriate and valid in our own domain. As Quintana et al. (2006) argued in their introduction of a recent special issue on Race, ethnicity, and culture in child development, all research in the area should be guided by the principle of cultural validity. With globalization, cultural diversity has become the norm and the validity of educational research requires consideration of sociocultural processes. In the introduction, we shared with the reader the reasons why we entered into the field of social representations. We want to conclude by sharing what the social representations theory has added to our understanding of the teaching and learning of mathematics in classrooms with immigrant students. The notion of social representations enabled us to conceptualize some relationships between social changesthe increasing presence of immigrant students in schoolsand the psychological constructions of these learners as mathematical students. In a socio-cultural perspective, we locate social representation in the process of social mediation. More specifically, we see social representing as the process through which the social becomes constitutive of the psychological. This aspect of mediation is complementary to the process through which the cultural becomes psychological. Cultural tools, such as the different possible algorithms for division, operate on the psychological level as a resource to think mathematically. Social tools, such as the different possible representations about the legitimacy of these algorithms, also operate on the psychological level. They constrain or enable their use as resources to think mathematically, and they contribute to defining its users as competent (or not) in mathematics. The recognition of the complementarity of cultural and social processes is not new, neither in the field of cultural-developmental psychology (see Duveen, 2007), nor in the field of mathematics education research (Abreu et al., 2002; Bishop, 1991). Despite this acknowledgement, we would join Perret-Clermont (2009) when she says that this is an area still deserving attention: Social interactions in the classroom do not happen in a social vacuum: schools are institutions with traditions and political mandates that structure the field of interactions; students come into the schools with their life experiences framed by another major institution, i.e., the family and its own social nesting in the wider (ever more global) society. Only a better knowledge of the interdependence between these micro- and more macroprocesses can help design pedagogical situations fruitful both for the integration of minority students in the local schools and for the enrichment of the members of the other social groups. (Perret-Clermont, 2009, p. 1)

Abreu, G. de (2000). Relationships between macro and micro socio-cultural contexts: implications for the study of interactions in the mathematics classroom. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 41(1), 129. doi:10.1023/A:1003875728720.

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