Spotlight on the Profession: Dr. Kathleen Nolan

In this monthly column, we speak with a notable member of the Western Canadian mathematics education community about their past, present, and future work, and about their perspectives on the teaching and learning of mathematics. This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Kathleen Nolan.

2016 April - Kathleen Nolan - Photo (crop)Dr. Kathleen Nolan is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in mathematics curriculum, qualitative research, and contemporary issues in education. Dr. Nolan’s current research focuses on mathematics teacher education, exploring issues of teacher identity and the regulatory practices of schooling, learning and knowing. Bourdieu’s social field theory and theories of critical mathematics education feature prominently in Dr. Nolan’s work. She is the author and co-editor of two books, as well as author of more than 40 published articles, book chapters, and conference proceedings papers. In 2012, she was awarded a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant for her project entitled Reconceptualizing Secondary Mathematics Teacher Education: Critical and Reflexive Perspectives. Within this qualitative research program, Dr. Nolan seeks to strengthen connections between teacher education, curriculum reform and mathematics education research by studying the interplay of different perspectives, or dimensions, of teacher education. One such perspective includes research into the design and facilitation of a professional learning community approach to teacher education internship.

First things first, thank you for taking the time to have this conversation during this busy time of year!

According to your website (, you studied mathematics and physics as an undergraduate at Saint Mary’s University, and obtained a Master’s degree in physics from the University of Toronto. What drew you to education, and then to research in the field of mathematics education?

My own positive high school experiences drew me to study mathematics and physics at the university level. After completing my M.Sc. degree in physics, I almost accepted a position as a health physicist at a nuclear power plant! That seems like such a long time ago. However, at the same time, I had the opportunity to volunteer (with VICS) for two years as a high school mathematics and physics teacher in Grenada (located in the West Indies). The rewards of that experience were many, leading me to pursue my diploma in education at McGill University, followed by several years of teaching at both high school and college levels. A few years teaching at Nova Scotia Teacher’s College in the 1990s convinced me that mathematics teacher education was my passion, and so I moved to Saskatchewan in 1998 to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Regina, where I took up a Faculty position a few years later. Because my research and teaching both focus on secondary mathematics teacher education, I thoroughly enjoy the intersections and overlaps that my scholarship affords me.

Much of your current research focuses on (mathematics) teacher education, including the issue of theory-practice transitions. In your view, how wide is the disconnect between mathematics education research (the “theory”) and the teaching of mathematics in our classrooms (the “practice”)? What contributes to this disconnect, and how can the gap be narrowed?

Teacher education, I think, should be viewed as an opportunity to enrich and expand understandings of teaching and learning, not as a place where new teachers are ‘trained’ in techniques and strategies that serve to maintain status quo practices in schools.

I don’t think it is so much that the gap between theory and practice is wide, but rather that these two very important aspects of teaching and learning are frequently isolated from each other without appreciating just how much they actually shape and inform each other on a daily basis. For example, I frequently hear prospective teachers discuss that the most valuable part of teacher education is the experience they have in ‘real’ classrooms, with ‘real’ students. However, in my view at least, a teacher education classroom is very real, and so are all of the pedagogical practices and theories that we discuss and work with there. Teacher education, I think, should be viewed as an opportunity to enrich and expand understandings of teaching and learning (and maybe even to unlearn a few things!), not as a place where new teachers are ‘trained’ in techniques and strategies that serve to maintain status quo practices in schools. I like to think that my own research attempts to narrow this perceived gap by proposing that teacher education faculty members become more invested in the field experiences, working closely with student teachers and cooperating teachers in schools.

As such, I have been reconceptualizing my own role as a faculty advisor during internship, which has led to the design and facilitation of an enhanced version of our traditional internship model—one I refer to as a Teacher-Intern-Faculty Advisor (TIFA) professional learning community model. In this model, I collaborate with three cooperating teachers and three interns to create a learning community based in the professional development practices of lesson study and video analysis, a process I call an Integrated Noticing Framework. It’s been very rewarding for me to have the opportunity to work with interns and cooperating teachers at this deeper level, and my research interviews with past participants in the community point to the many benefits for them as well.

Changing gears, I would like to touch on a more controversial issue. In recent years, interest in the state of mathematics education in Canadian schools has grown (read: exploded) in the public sphere, partly due to the efforts of movements such as WISE Math in Alberta. Typically, the media frames the issue in terms of a traditional/reform dichotomy (the conflict is sometimes referred to as the “math wars”). Could you offer your perspective on this debate and how you see it evolving in the future? Will teacher educators such as yourself have a greater role to play in resolving the conflict?

Along with diversifying pedagogy (to include both traditional and reform-based practices), we need to become more creative in how and what we ‘measure’, that is, in our assessment practices.

This topic is a fiercely debated one, that’s for sure, so my response could be a lengthy one. However, my views can probably be summed up quite simply: Disrupting well-established (and often unquestioned) pedagogical practices by trying ‘new’ reform-based approaches to student learning (such as inquiry) can be daunting and discouraging because many still want to measure the results or outcomes (that is, student learning) in the same ‘old’ ways. In other words, it is not reasonable to think that one can draw conclusions regarding the successes of teaching and learning through inquiry using a measuring stick derived from direct forms of pedagogy. It just doesn’t make good sense. Along with diversifying pedagogy (to include both traditional and reform-based practices), we need to become more creative in how and what we ‘measure’, that is, in our assessment practices. To me, this is where we need to become WISE.

Some of your work has explored issues of equity and social justice in mathematics education. In one of your articles (Nolan, 2009), you write:

“I […] dream of a social justice-oriented mathematics classroom that begins by challenging the often invisible normative and regulatory aspects of schools and mathematics.” (p. 214)

Could you elaborate on this for teachers who are interested in developing a social justice-oriented mathematics classroom? How does this vision differ from the more common “‘statistics and figures’ approach” to tackling issues of social justice in the mathematics classroom?

It is tragic that our society readily accepts people announcing that they’ve “never been very good at math,” but doesn’t seek to unpack underlying messages about what it means to “know” in mathematics, and who says so.

As I wrote in that article, a ‘statistics and figures’ approach to teaching about/through social justice is not to be dismissed; I think it needs to be part of the journey toward understanding and challenging dominant (and unjust) practices that generally serve in the interest of only a very few. A problem exists, however, when such a ‘statistics and figures’ approach becomes nothing more than an intermission in the regularly scheduled programming of teaching and learning mathematics. Let me give an example: with a ‘statistics and figures’ approach, one might introduce local poverty statistics or data on low graduation rates of Aboriginal students into a data management class for students to analyze, graph, come to conclusions, and maybe even mobilize toward action. However, if, at the same time, there are underlying messages being conveyed in the classroom regarding who can succeed at mathematics and who cannot, who is good at mathematics and who is not, then these discourses also need to be challenged—that’s an example of what I mean by the often “invisible” and “regulatory” aspects of mathematics. It is tragic, I think, that our society readily accepts people announcing that they’ve “never been very good at math,” but doesn’t seek to unpack underlying messages about what it means to “know” in mathematics, and who says so.

Your work has been published in a variety of notable journals, books, and conference proceedings, including the Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, Educational Studies in Mathematics, For the Learning of Mathematics, and the Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, and in 2007, you published your own book (How should I know? Preservice Teachers’ Images of Knowing (by Heart) in Mathematics and Science; Sense Publishers). Which of your publications would you recommend to Saskatchewan mathematics teachers (and beyond) who are looking to grow in their practice and their understanding of the teaching and learning of mathematics?

I think that the article in the Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education (Nolan, 2009) that you mention above, which discusses social justice and mathematics education, would be valuable to read since it connects directly to my own classroom experiences, and so it may connect to other mathematics teachers’ experiences as well. If teachers are drawn to learning more about social theory, in particular my use of Bourdieu’s social field theory, then they might read my articles in Educational Studies in Mathematics (2012; 2016). In those articles I write about how, without a critical approach, education (schools, policies, teacher education, etc.) can function to reproduce status quo practices. Full citations and links for those articles can be found on my website ( In fact, lately I’ve been working on my website, especially on the SSHRC Insight Grant page (, to insert some media files and links to articles. So, for example, if someone wanted to learn more about my TIFA internship community, they could view a video of the presentation that I gave with two teacher colleagues at the Hawaii International Conference on Education (Nolan, K., Rogers, K., & Sundeen, January 2016) or listen to the audio for a similar presentation that I gave at the International Technology, Education and Development (INTED) Conference (March 2016).

[For even more information about Dr. Nolan’s use of Bourdieu’s social field theory, TIFA, and more, see her recent conversation with Innovation International: – Ed.]

Looking ahead, what do you have planned in terms of your research program?

Even though my SSHRC grant has recently come to the end of its term, I still have quite a bit of data to analyze, papers to write, and results to share from this research program. The good news is that I will be able to run another TIFA internship learning community in Fall 2016, having received funding from the Saskatchewan Instructional Development and Research Unit (SIDRU). I’d like to continue that project because I enjoy enacting my role as a faculty advisor through a collaborative community approach, but it does require funding for resources and substitution days for teachers. I may look into involving school divisions more closely, because I think that the community professional development model benefits both interns and cooperating teachers—that is, it is beneficial in both the processes of being and becoming mathematics teachers.

Another area of interest that I will continue to pursue in the next couple of years is in connection to my study on perceptions of middle years mathematics teaching specialists. Research reports from that study are also available on my website. So far, the study points to the benefits of developing and offering a certificate program in the teaching of elementary school mathematics, so stay tuned for that exciting possibility!

Thank you, Dr. Nolan, for taking the time to share your research and perspectives with our readers. We’ll be following your future work with interest!

If you would like more information about Dr. Nolan’s work, you can find a list of her publications, grants, service work, contact information, and more at her website:

Ilona Vashchyshyn



Nolan, K. (2007). How Should I Know? Preservice Teachers’ Images of Knowing (by Heart) in Mathematics and Science. The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Nolan, K. (2009). Mathematics in and through social justice: Another misunderstood marriage? Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 12(3), 205-216.

Nolan, K. (2012). Dispositions in the field: viewing mathematics teacher education through the lens of Bourdieu’s social field theory. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 80(1), 201-215.

Nolan, K. (2016). Schooling novice mathematics teachers on structures and strategies: A Bourdieuian perspective on the role of “others” in classroom practices. Special Issue on Contemporary Theory II, Educational Studies in Mathematics.

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