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Support with caveats: advocates’ views of the Theory of Formal Discipline as a reason for the study of advanced mathematics

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journal contribution
posted on 23.02.2017, 14:23 by Elaine Wainwright, Nina Attridge, David Wainwright, Lara AlcockLara Alcock, Matthew InglisMatthew Inglis
The Theory of Formal Discipline (TFD) suggests that studying mathematics improves general thinking skills. Empirical evidence for the TFD is sparse, yet it is cited in policy reports as a justification for the importance of mathematics in school curricula. The study reported in this paper investigated the extent to which influential UK advocates for mathematics agree with the TFD and their views on the arguments and evidence that surround it. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of data from structured interviews revealed four themes: broad endorsement of the TFD; reference to supportive employment data; the possibilities that mathematics education might not always effectively develop reasoning and that study of other subjects might have similar effects; and concerns about causality and the extent of the evidence base. We conclude that advocates broadly support the TFD despite being aware of its limitations.


This work was supported by a Royal Society Worshipful Company of Actuaries Research Fellowship to Matthew Inglis.



  • Science


  • Mathematics Education Centre

Published in

Research in Mathematics Education


WAINWRIGHT, E. ...et al., 2017. Support with caveats: advocates’ views of the Theory of Formal Discipline as a reason for the study of advanced mathematics. Research in Mathematics Education, 19 (1), pp. 20-41.


© British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics. Published by Taylor & Francis (Routledge)


AM (Accepted Manuscript)

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Research in Mathematics Education on 07 Apr 2017, available online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14794802.2017.1285720.