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Epistemological beliefs and the communication in mathematics education

Research project If students and teachers have different epistemological beliefs (i.e., beliefs about what knowledge is), what effects could this have on how they communicate? Can you affect a person's epistemological beliefs through how you communication?

A person's epistemological beliefs can be an important factor in teaching and learning, since this is a place where knowledge is at the center of attention. For example, if a student regards knowledge in mathematics as a set of certain rules of calculation, it seems reasonable that this student focuses on memorizing such type of information in the mathematics classroom. The students' teacher might have another view of mathematical knowledge and perhaps this difference in epistemological beliefs between a student and a teacher is an important source for confusion when communicating with each other.

Head of project

Magnus Österholm
Associate professor, research fellow

Project overview

Project period:

2009-02-26 2014-06-30

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Science and Mathematics Education, Faculty of Science and Technology

Research area

Educational sciences, Mathematics

Project description

Beliefs of many kinds, and perhaps especially epistemological beliefs, are often described as an important factor in relation to learning – both from a more general perspective and also in particular when it comes to learning mathematics. However, the study of beliefs is not a trivial matter. There exist many different types of definitions of the term belief that are being used within the research community. For example, if we limit ourselves to a cognitive perspective, we can on the one hand distinguish between knowledge and beliefs, where beliefs are of a more subjective nature, for example that you are aware that different persons can have different beliefs about the same matter, while knowledge is something that is more collectively in common. On the other hand, we can focus on similarities between beliefs and knowledge, for example that both can affect how you express yourself when communicating with others or how you interpret situations you are faced with.

This project will study the communication in mathematics education at upper secondary and university levels, where focus is on epistemological beliefs. Thereby, the mathematical content in itself is not primarily in focus, but the questions focus on how the mathematical content is treated, from an epistemological perspective. Regarding epistemological beliefs and communication, the following perspectives will be studied:
• How epistemological beliefs can be seen as a part of communication; what types of beliefs are mediated in different situations?
• How epistemological beliefs can affect communication; how can beliefs affect how you express yourself and how you interpret what others have expressed?
• How epistemological beliefs can be affected by communication; how can beliefs be affected by how someone expresses oneself and how you interpret this?

Existing differences between upper secondary level and university level regarding mathematics education have been attended to in research, both internationally and also specifically for Sweden. For example, a gap between the content that is covered at the different levels has been noted in Sweden, and also a kind of cultural gap has been noted (e.g., regarding the use of calculators). Whether such differences stem from differences in epistemological beliefs is unclear, and also if and how these differences affect the students’ epistemological beliefs.

Regarding mathematics education at the university level, the teacher education could be of special interest to study, since student teachers not only go through the transition from upper secondary to university level, but also go through a transition from being a student to becoming a teacher. Therefore, student teachers can be exposed to different epistemological perspectives through different kinds of courses; content courses focusing on the students’ own learning of mathematics and didactical courses focusing on their development as future teachers of mathematics.

The perspectives and questions mentioned above will be studied at different educational levels:
• At university level, the variation of communicational situations that the students face will be studied; the communication between students and other persons (such as lecturers, teachers, and tutors) and the communication in different types of courses within teacher education (such as content courses and didactical courses).
• Upper secondary level is studied for comparison with university level.

This project aims at producing results that are of interest from different perspectives:
• Theory: To deepen the knowledge about beliefs, in order to create more in-depth models about how beliefs can affect or are affected by different educational situations.
• Methodology: To develop existing methods for studying beliefs.
• Practice: To deepen the knowledge about possible differences between upper secondary and university levels. To gain knowledge about possible variations within teacher education programmes and how these can affect students.