Kenton de Kirby

My dissertation is an extension of varied aspects of my academic and professional experience. My dissertation explores children's developing participation in a fundamental semiotic practice in academic mathematics: treating diagrams as representations of stipulated mathematical objects.

As an undergraduate studying linguistics as UC Berkeley, I took a course with notable linguist George Lakoff on mathematical cognition. I was deeply taken by the way that fundamental cognitive processes that manifested in everyday language could so elegantly capture the conceptualization and historical development of mathematical ideas.

After graduating, I was motivated to put to use the knowledge of cognition I had acquired in ways that would be consequential for people's lives. After graduating, I worked for two consulting firms for social change organizations, where I applied insights from cognitive linguistics to analyze the narrative landscape surrounding social issues.

Later, as a full time mathematics tutor I found another practical outlet for interest in cognition. I found clinical work so rewarding that I pursued a credential as an educational therapist at Holy Names University. There, I met faculty member and neuropsychologist Charles Ahern, with whom I would eventually co-author a book on the implications of fundamental findings in neuropsychology for classroom teaching. Writing this book rekindled my interest in academic work on cognition and its practical implications, which motivated me to pursue a PhD in Education.

I applied to and subsequently entered the PhD program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education in 2010 and in large measure found ways in which my academic interests in cognition and my interests in understanding and supporting individuals’ development met some resolve. I identified two principal contexts of research linked to faculty members programs of work. One strand has been language, social interaction, and autism, which I have pursued through research and writing projects with Professor Laura Sterponi. The second area of interest has been on children’s developing mathematical understandings with particular regard for social and cultural processes, an area I have pursued in working with Prof. Geoffrey Saxe, and it is this strand of work that I am engaging in my dissertation research.

Working with prof. Saxe, I have gained a breadth and depth of experience on research and writing. With prof. Saxe, I have been involved in the refinement and efficacy evaluation of an elementary mathematics curriculum, and I have co-authored several articles, including a literature review on culture-cognition relations and others on mathematics teaching and learning in classroom communities. He and I have recently returned from a month of fieldwork in a remote mountainous region of Papua New Guinea, investigating the evolving use of an indigenous system of mathematical representation in elementary mathematics education.

I envision my dissertation topic as contributing to a broader program of future empirical research, which aims to reintegrate neuropsychological constructs such as ‘executive functions’ with their roots in sociocultural approaches to cognitive development—an agenda with important implications for how the educational world conceives of and attempts to support cognitive development. 

Publications and Presentations

  • Ahern, C.A., & de Kirby, K. (2011). Beyond individual differences: Organizing processes, information overload, and classroom learning. New York: Springer.

  • Saxe, G. B., & de Kirby, K. (2014). Cultural context of cognitive development. WIREs Cognitive Science, 5, 447-461. doi:10.1002/wcs.1300
  • Saxe, G. B., de Kirby, K., Le, M., Sitabkhan, Y., & Kang, B. (in press) Understanding learning across lessons in classroom communities: A multi-leveled analytic approach. In A. Bikner-Ahsbahs, C. Knipping, & N. Presmeg (Eds.), Doing (qualitative) research: Methodology and methods in mathematics education, ZDM research handbook series: Advances in Mathematics Education. New York: Springer.
  • de Kirby, K., & Saxe, G. B. (in press). Using geometrical representations as cognitive technologies. Journal of Cognition and Culture.
  • de Kirby, K., & Saxe, G. B. (under review). Idealized objects and material diagrams: Definition use in early geometrical problem solving. Mathematics Thinking and Learning. 
  • Saxe, G.B., de Kirby, Kang, B., Le, M., & Schneider, A. (under review). Studying cognition through time in a classroom community: The interplay between everyday and scientific concepts. Human Development.
  • de Kirby, K. (2013, April). The development of an idealized number line: Differentiating physical inscription from mathematical object. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, San Francisco, CA.
  • Saxe, G., de Kirby, K., Le, M., & Kang, B. (2013, April). The co-construction and elaboration of mathematical definitions in mathematical discussions. In M. Gearhart (Chair), Engagement in Mathematical Discussion: Practices and Outcomes. Symposium conducted at the Research Pre-session of the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Denver, CO.

  • Sterponi, L., de Kirby, K., & Shankey, J. (2014). Rethinking language in autism. Autism. Retrieved from
  • Sterponi, L., de Kirby, K., & Shankey, J. (invited; under review). Subjectivity in autistic language: Insights on pronoun atypicality from three case studies. In M. O'Reilly and J. Lester (eds.), Handbook of Child Mental Health: Discourse and Conversation Studies. London: Plagrave.
  • Sterponi, L., de Kirby, K., & Shankey, J. (2013, October). Subjectivity in autistic language: A reappraisal of pronoun avoidance and reversal. Paper presented at the annual Language and Social Interaction Working Group, New York, NY. 
  • Sterponi, L., de Kirby, K., & Shankey, J. (2013, May). Toward understanding autistic language as social action and mode of experience. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Language, Interaction, and Social Organization, Santa Barbara, CA. 
  • Sterponi, L., de Kirby, K., & Shankey, J. (2014, June). Subjectivity in autistic language: Insights on pronoun atypicality from three case studies. Paper presented at the International Conference of Conversation Analysis, Los Angeles, CA.