Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Math and Social (In)justice

When I told friends and colleagues last week that I was excited to go to a conference on Math and Social Justice, I saw a lot of curious and confused faces.  Many of them said that it sounded interesting, but what does math have to do with social justice?

Well, did you hear the one about the math teacher in Georgia who assigned slavery-themed word problems to a class of third graders?

The Creating Balance in an Unjust World 2012 conference brought together over 300 educators, youth and community members at Mission High School in San Francisco.  The conference featured 31 workshops and 50 workshop facilitators who engaged attendees in discussions of equity, justice, pedagogy and practices.  The keynote speaker was Dr. Lisa D. Delpit, the author of Other People's Children and Multiplication is for white people.

I quickly understood that this was a very hands-on conference, with most of the attendees being math or science instructors eager to learn about the intersection of math and social justice, forge partnerships, share best practices, discuss challenges and plan for advocacy.  The major themes of the conference were:

Social Justice in the Mathematics Classroom
Understanding the math around us is important for all youth, and perhaps especially for at-risk and marginalized populations.  At the conference, Jessica Hopson from Portland Youth Builders presented a powerful lesson she developed about the impact of gun violence on children and teens.  By using current events or historical information as a jumping off point in the math classroom, teachers shared new and culturally relevant ways to motivate students to understand graphs, charts, statistical trends, causal relationships, percentages and other math.

Additionally, educators interested in incorporating a social justice component in their classroom or after school programs presented how to convey concepts and information through math.  Teacher educators who believe that mathematics courses for preservice teachers should have a social justice and equity focus met at the conference to design courses with social justice-oriented lessons.

Mathematics literacy as a "gatekeeper"
We already have a good sense that the mastery of math, and the corresponding test scores, act as a gatekeeper for higher education and better jobs.  But a good understanding of math is also the key to some basic "gatekeeping" life skills.  Teachers from El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in Brooklyn, NY presented a 9th grade math unit called "Finance My Life" which gives students a basic understanding of budgeting, loans, taxes and savings.

Gatekeeping also comes into play in the sense that a student gets 'locked out' of higher math, and therefore related science, engineering and technology fields, without a solid base of knowledge.  A presentation by the Boston Public Schools' Secondary Math Department and MathPOWER, a Boston-based non-profit, described an innovative partnership to attempt to keep the 'gates' open under new district demands on the 8th grade algebra requirements.  In this partnership, teachers and students elected to spend 3 or 5 weeks in the summer to focus on pre-algebra skills and prepare for the school year.

It may seem as though math is an international language, but math instruction can be alienating without equitable teaching practices.  The term "ethnomathematics" was used first used by a Brazilian mathematician named Ubiratan D'Ambrosio to describe the mathematical practices of different cultural groups.  He said,
Mathematics is absolutely integrated with Western civilization, which conquered and dominated the entire world. The only possibility of building up a planetary civilization depends on restoring the dignity of the losers and, together, winners and losers, moving into the new. [Ethnomathematics, then, is] a step towards peace.
By far the most heady and philosophical theme of the conference, being introduced to the idea of Ethnomathematics was the highlight of the conference for me.  To explore further, I recommend watching this video, which I watched as part of a discussion by Professor Anita Bright of Portland State University.

The Dot and the Line won an Academy Award in 1965.  As you watch, think about how this short cartoon uses mathematical terms to express social and cultural values.

Overall, it was an incredibly inspiring and eye-opening conference.  In light of horrifying international social injustice in the STEM field, it is up to us to move discussions about math and social justice from theory into practice.  Check out the complete list of 2012 conference presenters to find out who the leaders in this area are, and get your literature review and background from Joan Kwako's article in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education.

Please comment what your organization is doing to address issues of social justice with math and science, or how you ensure the youth you work with are receiving an equitable STEM education!

1 comment:

Bruce Price said...

Instead of bringing in terms like social justice, the better plan is to make sure we are using the very best teaching methods and curricula. We are not doing that.

My impression is that New Math and then Reform Math are almost diabolically designed to make sure many students never become good at math.

Almost all homeschoolers seem to swear by Singapore Math, Saxon Math, and similar. Teach the basics. Teach mastery. Everything else will follow.