Gresalfi, Martin, Hand, & Greeno (2008)

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Constructing Competence: An Analysis of Student Participation in the Activity Systems of Mathematics Classrooms


This paper investigates the construction of systems of competence in two middle school mathematics classrooms. Drawing on analyses of discourse from videotaped classroom sessions, this paper documents the ways that agency and accountability were distributed in the classrooms through interactions between the teachers and students as they worked on mathematical content. In doing so, we problematize the assumption that competencies are simply attributes of individuals that can be externally defined. Instead, we propose a concept of individual competence as an attribute of a person's participation in an activity system such as a classroom. In this perspective, what counts as "competent" gets constructed in particular classrooms, and can therefore look very different from setting to setting. The implications of the ways that competence can be defined are discussed in terms of future research and equitable learning outcomes.

Outline of Headings

  • Introduction
    • Competence, redefined
    • Why competence?
  • A framework for conceptualizing competence as it is realized in the classroom
    • The distribution of agency
    • Accountability to whom for what?
  • Methods
    • Participants
    • Data collection
    • Analysis
    • Challenges in seeing competence
  • Systems of competence: Examples from classrooms
    • Working hard and fixing mistakes: Two episodes in a sixth grade classroom
    • Mathematical task
    • Episode 1
      • Accountability
      • Agency
    • Episode 2
      • Accountability
      • Agency
    • Replicating and practicing: An episode in an eighth grade classroom
    • Mathematical task
    • Episode 3
      • Accountability
      • Agency
  • Discussion
    • Implications


Gresalfi, M., Martin, T., Hand, V., & Greeno, J. (2008). Constructing competence: An analysis of student participation in the activity systems of mathematics classrooms. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 70(1), 49–70. doi:10.1007/s10649-008-9141-5
author = {Gresalfi, Melissa and Martin, Taylor and Hand, Victoria and Greeno, James},
doi = {10.1007/s10649-008-9141-5},
journal = {Educational Studies in Mathematics},
keywords = {classroom culture,competence,discourse analysis,middle school,urban schools},
number = {1},
pages = {49--70},
title = {{Constructing competence: An analysis of student participation in the activity systems of mathematics classrooms}},
url = {},
volume = {70},
year = {2008}