Mathematics for Social Justice

Ending one school year means transitioning to thinking about the next one and to summer reading – two activities that are not always mutually exclusive.  I’m starting with a book I picked up at the NCTM Annual Meeting: Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice: Conversations with Educators.  The first chapter is an introduction written by the editors of the volume, Anita A. Wager and David W. Stinson, entitled A Sojourn into the Empowering Uncertainties of Teaching and Learning Mathematics for Social Change, in which the authors give a brief history and inspiring overview of their topic, which they tie intimately to critical theory and critical pedagogy.  A few pages in, I was grateful for the experience of reading the book, and eager to continue to dive in, to continue to grow ideas for next year (the details of which I’ll outline in an upcoming post).

For their introduction to the idea of critical theory, the authors invoke an array of research around the idea “that the hidden curriculum of schooling is the invisible, yet visible, positioning of some children for specific tasks within a socioeconomically stratified society through differing curricular and pedagogical and evaluation practices that emphasize different cognitive and behavioral skills.  These differences make certain relationships between children and physical and symbolic power possible – and others impossible.”  These claims are attributed to the research of Jean Anyon in her 1980 paper, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.”  From this vantage point, here in 2012, I think that most educators – particularly those in poorer school districts – take all of this as a given.  What remains is the question of what we can do about it, and for me, that question is as open as ever.

The authors go on to reference Diane Ravitch’s “Ethnomathematics” as an example of a critique against teaching mathematics for social justice.  It was my subsequent reading of that short opinion piece that uncovered for me problem on which I’ll be chewing in the coming weeks, which I’d like to outline here.  Ravitch concludes:

It seems terribly old-fashioned to point out that the countries that regularly beat our students in international tests of mathematics do not use the subject to steer students into political action. They teach them instead that mathematics is a universal language that is as relevant and meaningful in Tokyo as it is in Paris, Nairobi, and Chicago. The students who learn this universal language well will be the builders and shapers of technology in the twenty-first century. The students in American classes who fall prey to the political designs of their teachers and professors will not.

This is precisely the thing.  I believe that my students need to “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves,” (Freire 1970/2000, as quoted by Wager & Stinson).  I believe that one place for this to happen can be in the mathematics classroom, as students build their fluency with numbers by taking a critical look at their world.  Mathematical analysis can be a powerful tool for use in getting anyone to pull back the curtains and trying to figure out what’s really going on the world.

Even as I write those words, however, I’m forced to be very aware of myself: a 31 year old, suburban-educated teacher of mathematics.  Over the years, I’ve developed a strong taste for analysis around questions of social justice.  It is certainly not a given that all high school students – no matter what their socio-economic background – are interested, willing, and able to approach these same questions.  Undoubtedly, some are, but how are we reaching the most possible students?

If, as Wager and Stinson suggest, our primary goal is to abolish the differences in schooling that perpetuate social stratification, we must consider the mathematics education that high school students at the highest strata are receiving.  It is deep, and rich, and rarely accompanied by the “Why?” that will come later at, or ever after, their educations continue at world-class universities or liberal arts colleges.  All of that advanced mathematical knowledge will provide the background to be Ravitch’s “builders and shapers of technology in the twenty-first century.”  Let there be no doubt that the Why? will come, but only after these leaders have deeply developed their math skills.

So, what should I do here, when my students are already a few years behind in their deeply mathematical education, and also often aimlessly seeking a reason to try in the first place.  Do I incite them with reasons to engage with their world with which, in which, or do I push them to the perceived limits of their mathematical understanding and beyond, as a way of showing them what’s possible, so they can join the ranks of the educated classes, in the hopes that they’ll one day discover critical theory for themselves?

And if, as often happens, the one is made possible with the other, but that time only allows for so much, on what should I dedicate most of my energy?


One comment

  1. I’d argue that the students in the upper social strata are just as handicapped by the way they are taught math as the students in the lower social strata. They focus just as much on skills development, and less on the why as well. Imagine they were really informed about the inequalities in the world (in a deeper fashion than the colonialism that passes for service learning I see too often) and those of them with a deep sense of compassion realized just how completely unfair the world was AND they actually had some power and influence to change it?

    The problem is, of course, hardly anyone in the upper social strata actually wants radical change in how we value each other, and so they handicap their children in the same way your students are handicapped, the chains are just less visible for them. Hence, the lack of a why in most independent/private school math classes as well.

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