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Steven Watson


Associate Professor

Co-convenor of the Knowledge, Power and Politics (KPP) research cluster

Fellow, Wolfson College

E-mail Address


+ 44 (0) 1223 767584


  • PhD (University of Nottingham)
  • MA ERM - Educational research methods (University of Nottingham)
  • MEd (Open University)
  • PGCE Secondary Mathematics (University of Sheffield)
  • MA Chemical Engineering (University of Cambridge)

Membership of Professional Bodies/Associations

  • British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics (BSRLM)
  • British Education Research Association (BERA)
  • European Society for Research in Mathematics Education (ERME)
  • European Sociological Association (ESA)

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I taught mathematics state secondary schools in England from 2001 to 2010. As a teacher, I became interested in supporting the learning of disaffected and disengaged learners of mathematics. This led to teacher research in inquiry-based learning, problem-solving, student-centred approaches and teachers’ continuing professional development. I carried out research projects funded by the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM). He also organised local networks and worked with regional networks in collaboration with the NCETM.

In 2010 I joined the Centre for Research in Mathematics Education and the Shell Centre for Mathematics Education at the University of Nottingham in a full-time research role investigating the nature of teachers’ professional learning in the context of student-centred problem-solving and inquiry-based learning. In that time I was involved in other large research projects in professional development and design-based research including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded Mathematics Assessment Project in the United States as well as a European funded project on inquiry-based learning.

The research I undertook at the Shell Centre between (2010-2013) drew on social psychology to offer a reflexive account of how teachers navigated between thinking and action in and beyond the classroom. When I took up my position in Cambridge my research became more sociological, as I became increasingly aware that individual psychological and cognitive processes were reciprocally linked with the 'social'. At the same time is conducting further research about the nature and relationship between teachers' thinking and action (as part of the DfE funded Underground Mathematics project), I also became interested in the role of social media in teachers professional learning. What was of particular interest was the moral polarisations that were constructed on social platforms, especially Twitter. The so-called 'culture wars' and even populist ruptures have become an increasing feature of education policy making in England and also in other parts of the world.

My scholarly trajectory has taken me from asking questions about mathematics teachers' professional learning and development, to consider more general sociological questions about the nature of education (and mathematics education) and educational experiences within society and in relation to media, politics, the system of science (i.e. knowledge making and evidence) and the economic system. This has led me to consider the reflexive social psychology of individual teachers' and learners but to think about this in a connected way to world society, a transnational sociology of education in the context of modernity, globalisation and risk.

My overall aim is to articulate a non-normative theory of education and society drawing on the traditions of sociocybernetics and social systems theory. 

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Research Interests

I would be interested to hear from potential doctoral students in the following or related areas of sociology of education, sociology of mathematics or STEM education or in other areas that might draw on social systems theory.

Media, education policy and evidence (knowledge making)

Education policy, media (traditional print and broadcast) and the making of knowledge and use of evidence is becoming an increasingly complex terrain at both national and global levels. The mass media and social media have become an important aspect in formulating public opinion, political participation and political legitimacy. The proliferation of information on all forms of media has contributed to a growing sense of uncertainty (e.g. risk society). Similarly, the system of science (knowledge making and evidence), in its efforts to distinguish between what is true and not true, has revealed that we are not progressing toward an absolute truth, nor that the scientific project is unfruitful, but that there is no consensus about what is 'true' and that there remains uncertainty. The capacity for technology to automate within strictly causal boundaries perpetuates the need for ongoing technological solutions within society, since technology itself reveals the limits of causal relationships, i.e. uncertainty and unknowability.

Social media has given space for those who recognise that they have not benefitted from risky political decision making, this has given rise to social movements, protest movements and the proliferation of populism (as the 'people' against an 'unjust elite'). The uncertain nature of information in the media and knowledge from science has contributed to heightened moralities, in which certainty is sought from attributing 'good' or 'bad' to people, groups, communications and actions. The fundamental paradox of morality becomes resolved through moral polarisations like, for example, culture wars. 

Education policy as rational process has long been challenged and presented in terms of a discursive endeavour. However, there has been limited attempt to try and theorise the complex ecology of media, science (in its broadest sense as knowledge making), politics, economics and education. This is currently my primary area of interest.

Social systems theory in the context of education

Social systems theory is widely misunderstood or misinterpreted in the anglophone academic world. It attempts a sociology that is able to theorise society transnationally and with all of its plurality and contradictions. While attempting a theory of society, social systems theory acknowledges that it is observing society from within society as a system of communication: there is no position of objectivity. And while this might suggest a relativism, social systems theory does not abandon theory to subjectivities. Neither does it attempt a normative rationale of society. The starting point is a radical constructivism, a distinction between self-reference and other reference, an abstraction that is in itself paradoxical, since it is a difference in unity. The central question - the central conundrum - for individuals and for society is how is this paradox stabilised? The approach taken by Niklas Luhmann (following Humberto Maturana and George Spencer Brown) provides us with the concepts of autopoiesis or re-entry: a distinction is made between a 'marked' and 'unmarked' space or between system and environment in which the system operates on itself to remake itself in response to its environment. 

This is, as many critics of social systems theory argue, a little abstract. So let me make it a little more concrete with an example. An individual teacher in a classroom uses their cognitive system within an environment of the classroom a social environment. The fundamental processes are meaning making or sense making: what is the actuality within an horizon of possibility? What actions are taken are shared generalities, stable forms of language and behaviour that are influenced by society's communications (that might be political and policy, economic, media attitudes and perspectives) but also by the enduring norms of the education system. Norms or structures that are made and remade or abandoned. There is an alluring sense of choice and that the teacher can make decisions to influence learning and outcomes. But also there is a strong sense of uncertainty and an awareness that the causalities are unpredictable and uncertain. The teacher operates somewhere between the rational and the intuitive - this can be articulated through the very term 'cybernetic' form the Greek κῠβερνάω (kubernáō, “to steer”). 

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Course involvement

  • Undergraduate: Education Tripos - I teach the sociology of risk and the sociology of knowledge on the part IB (2nd year) paper, Modernity and Globalisation in Education, and I teach social systems theory on the part II (3rd year) paper, Toward a Transnational Sociology of Education.
  • MEd/ MPhil - I teach and supervise on the Mathematics Education masters programme, I supervise on Knowledge, Power and Politics in Education and Transforming Practice
  • EdD/ PhD Supervision and teach on the Doctoral Pathways course - Conceptual overview of methods and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA).
  • PGCE Secondary mathematics
  • Senior Examiner PGCE Secondary Mathematics

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Principal and Recent Publications

Journal Articles

Barnes, N., & Watson, S. (forthcoming). That’s just your opinion: Think tanks, education policy and the Overton Window.

Watson, S., Marschall, G., Major, L., & Kimber E. (forthcoming). A phenomenological study of a novice mathematics teacher’s instructional decision making.

Marschall, G., & Watson, S. (2022). Teacher self-efficacy as an aspect of narrative self-schemata. Teaching and Teacher Education, 109, 103568.

Watson, S., & Barnes, N. (2021). Online educational populism and New Right 2.0 in Australia and England. Globalisation, Societies and Education 1–13.

Watson, S. (2021). New Right 2.0: Teacher populism on social media in England. British Educational Research Journal. 47(2), 299–315.

Watson, S. (2020). George Spencer-Brown’s laws of form fifty years on: Why we should be giving it more attention in mathematics education. Mathematics Teaching-Research Journal Online, 12(2), 161–187.

Watson, S., & Marschall, G. (2019). How a trainee mathematics teacher develops teacher self-efficacy. Teacher Development, 23(4), 469-487.

Watson, S. (2019). The politics of ability and online culture wars. FORUM, 61(1), 67–75.

Major, L., & Watson, S. (2018). Using video to support in-service teacher professional development: The state of the field, limitations and possibilities. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 27(1), 49–68.

Book Chapters

Carrigan, M., & Watson, S. (forthcoming). Gazing in through the walls of the ivory tower: the political faultlines of the post-pandemic university. In M. Carrigan & S. L. Robertson (Eds.). The post pandemic university

Bamber, S., & Watson, S. (forthcoming). Teaching the lesson. In S. Morgan, D. Swanson & R. Archer (Eds.) A practical guide to mentoring beginning mathematics teachers. Routledge

Watson, S., Dawes, M., & Marschall, G. (forthcoming). The role of mentoring when learning through experience. In S. Morgan, D. Swanson & R. Archer (Eds.) A practical guide to mentoring beginning mathematics teachers. Routledge

Watson, S. (2018). Educating the working class. In I. Gilbert (Ed.), The working class, poverty, education and alternative voices (pp. 14–29). London: Bloomsbury.

Watson, S. (2017). A manifesto for control: democracy, scholarship, activism and solidarity. In L. Rycroft-Smith & J.-L. Dutaut (Eds.), Flip the system UK: a teachers’ manifesto (pp. 68–75). London: Routledge.

Watson, S., & Dawes, M. (2016). Learning mathematics: a cognitive focus. In S. Johnston-Wilder, C. Lee, & D. Pimm (Eds.), Learning to teach mathematics in the secondary school: a companion to school experience (4th ed.) (pp. 32-51). Routledge: London

Watson, S., & Crawford, M. (2016). Connecting leadership, professional development and affect. In B. Apelgren, P. Burnard, & N. Carbaroglu (Eds.), Transformative teacher research: theory and practice for the twenty-first century (pp. 73-86). Sense Publishers.

Book Reviews

Watson, S. (2016). Review of the book Algebra teaching around the world, edited by Frederick K.S. Leung, Kyungmee Park, Derek Holton and David Clarke, Rotterdam, Sense Publishers. Research in Mathematics Education, 18(2), 211–214.

Conference Papers

Marschall, G., & Watson, S. (2019). Social Cognitive Theory as an integrated theory of mathematics teachers’ professional learning. Presented at the Conference of the International Group of Psychology in Mathematics Education (PME-43), University of Pretoria.

Watson, S. (2019). Revisiting teacher decision making in the mathematics classroom: a multidisciplinary approach. Presented at the Eleventh Congress of the European Society for Research in Mathematics Education (CERME-11), Utrecht University.

Watson, S. (2019). Bridging theory and practice: a posthuman perspective on mathematics teacher education. Presented at the 15th International Conference of The Mathematics Education for the Future Project, Theory and Practice: An Interface or A Great Divide?, Maynooth University, Kildare, Ireland.

Major, L., Watson, S., & Kimber, E. (2016). Teacher change in post-16 mathematics: a multiple case analysis of teachers in the Zone of Enactment. Presented at the 13th International Congress on Mathematics (ICME-13), Hamburg, July 2016.

Major, L., Watson, S., & Kimber, E. (2015). Developing instructional and pedagogical design for the Cambridge Mathematics Education Project: A Design-based research approach. In Adams, G. (Ed.) Proceedings of the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics (BSLRM) 35(2). BSRLM Day Conference, University of Durham.

Watson, S. (2014). The impact of professional development on the teaching of problem-solving. Proceedings of the 8th British Congress on Mathematics Education. University of Nottingham.

Nardi, E., Biza, I. & Watson S. (2014). What makes a claim an acceptable mathematical argument in the secondary classroom? A preliminary analysis of teachers’ warrants in the context of an Algebra Task. Proceedings of the 8th British Congress on Mathematics Education. University of Nottingham.

Watson, S. (2013). Understanding mathematics teachers’ professional development from the perspective of social learning theory. In: B. Ubuz, C. Haser, & M. A. Mariotti (Eds.), Proceedings of the 8th Congress of European Research in Mathematics Education (CERME-8), Antalya, Turkey  (pp.  3287-3295). Ankara: Turkey

Watson, S. (2012). The effects of professional development on teaching self-efficacy. In: The proceedings of the 12th International Congress of Mathematics Education, Seoul, South Korea.

Watson, S. (2012). Developing teaching efficacy for inquiry-based learning. The Fibonacci Project European Conference Inquiry Based Scienceand Mathematics Education: Bridging the gap between education research and practice, University of Leicester.

Watson, S., & Evans, S. (2012). Observing changes in teachers' practice as a consequence of taking part in professional development: developing a protocol for the observation of lessons In: C. Smith (Ed.), Informal proceedings of the British Society for Research into Learning of Mathematics, University of Sussex.

Swan, M. & Watson, S. (2011). Designing professional development for mathematics teachers: A case study. In: Ubuz, B, (Ed.) Proceedings of the 35th Conference of the International Group for Psychology of Mathematics Education, vol 1. p. 414.

Watson, S. (2011). The influence of teaching efficacy and professional life-stage on secondary mathematics teachers' use of problem-solving in their teaching In: C. Smith (Ed.), Informal proceedings of the British Society for Research into Learning of Mathematics, University of Oxford.

Textbooks and teaching materials

Steel, T., Thomas, C., Dawes, M., & Watson, S. (2015). GCSE Mathematics for AQA/Edexcel/OCR Higher/Foundation problem-solving book. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Commissioned reports

Haßler, B., Major, L., Warwick, P., Watson, S., Hennessy, S. & Nicholl, B. (2016).
Perspectives on Technology, Resources and Learning: Productive Classroom Practices, Effective Teacher
Professional Development
Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

Haßler, B., Major, L., Warwick, P., Watson, S., Hennessy, S. & Nicholl, B. (2016).
A short guide on the use of Technology for Learning: Perspectives and toolkit for discussion. Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.


Watson, S. (2009). Implementing collaborative planning in the mathematics department of a secondary school. Teacher Enquiry Grant Report for the NCETM.

Professional journals

Tomalin, J., Watson, S., Swan, M., Mason, J. and Watson, A. (2012). Mathematical friends and relations. Mathematics Teaching. 226.

PhD Thesis

Watson, S. (2014). The impact of professional development on mathematics teachers’ beliefs and practices (Unpublished PhD thesis). University of Nottingham.