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Steven Watson


University Lecturer in Mathematics Education

Fellow of Wolfson College and Director of Studies for Education

E-mail Address


+ 44 (0) 1223 767584

For the latest on my research and thinking see


  • 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), membership secretary
  • British Education Research Association (BERA)
  • European Society for Research in Mathematics Education (ERME)
  • European Sociological Association (ESA)

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I taught mathematics and was head of department in secondary schools in North East Lincolnshire. Before becoming a teacher I worked as a telecommunications engineer. But I have done a number of things.

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.

My research interest began with researching professional learning in the context of state education. For this I used Social Cognitive Theory and self-efficacy as social psychological processes. Within in this I have attempted to consider the relationships and dichotomies between social and sociological perspectives with individual, cognitive and psychological perspectives on learning. Key to this has been reflexivity and self-referentiality and this led to an interest in sociological theory such as Critical Realism. The essence to bridging the social and the cognitive world is to see how individuals negotiate themselves in their environments. My more recent research is concerned with the sociology and political economy of state education, while keeping an eye on the mathematics classroom and teachers' professional learning. Latterly I have been working on cybernetics and systems theory to develop new theoretical approaches to education systems including at a macro level but also seeing the classroom, teacher, students and curriculum from a systems perspective.

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Research Interests

Cybernetics and systems theory

I began thinking about cybernetics last year, where I was influenced by a reading of Andrew Pickering's Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (2010) on the podcast General Intellect Unit. This led me to an interest British Cybernetician Stafford Beer. Beer draws on Cybernetics to propose hierarchical but democratic and adaptive systems for organisations and even at state level (see Project Cybersyn). Cybernetics and systems theory goes beyond the reflexivity that comes from Critical Realism and in Social Cognitive Theory to see self-referentiality as the means by which an open system has many of the characteristics of an closed system – self-referentiality is the essence of identity in any system. Beer's Viable Systems Model (VSM) shows that for any system to remain viable it the complexity of the system must match the complexity of the environment, systems achieve this matching of complexity (or 'variety' in Gordon Pask's terms) through attenuation or selection (see Niklas Luhmann). Cybernetics can be used to explain how systems create order in complexity and can explain how individuals and social systems respond to their contexts. This has implications for information and communication. Gregory Bateson described information as the "difference that makes a difference". The importance of distinction is central to systems theory and is particularly developed by mathematician George Spencer Brown in his 1969 book Laws of Form. While I am at the beginning of my research using a systems theory perspective, I agree with Luhmann that the approach is a powerful analytical tool that can be used for understanding, society, institutions and organisations as well as individuals. I am attempt to use the theory to provide original insights into education systems and think about the my ongoing research into teacher decision making, the political economy of education, learning (mathematics) and the philosophy of education.

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Course involvement

  • PGCE Secondary mathematics
  • MEd/ MPhil
  • EdD/ PhD
  • Director of Studies (DoS) for Education, Wolfson College

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Principal and Recent Publications

Journal Articles

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. (2020). New Right 2.0: Teacher populism on social media in England. British Educational Research Journal.

Watson, S., & Marschall, G. (2019). How a trainee mathematics teacher develops teacher self-efficacy. Teacher Development, 1–19.

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

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.