Is good pedagogy a way to make our schools more equitable? Is it the best way?
I couldn’t stop thinking about these questions in our Twitter Math Camp morning session on equity and activism: Do we need to use math to explore ideas of inequality in our world, or can we dismantle the inequalities present in our classroom simply by helping elevate the voices of our students who have been marginalized by their previous math experiences? In other words, is good pedagogy a way to make the math world a more just and equitable place? Is it sufficient?
Let’s take an example. Let’s say you teach 8th grade math in a racially and economically diverse school just outside Birmingham, Alabama. In your room are a lot of students who have negative identities as math learners: kids who don’t feel like they can do math, or perhaps they can do math, but they hate it. And you notice that those kids are disproportionately girls, students of color, and kids from low-income households.
So one thing you could do is tie the math ideas you are teaching to real-world scenarios that inform your students about the inequities of the world around them. You look at the number of female senators in 1977 and 2017 and find out that the number went from 3 to 23, which is a 667% increase. Wow, that’s huge number! So what was the percent decrease in male senators? Well, there used to be 97 male senators, and now there are 77, which is a 21% decrease.
Wait, what? How can those percents be so different? After all, we are talking about the same 20 seats that flipped from male to female. So how can a 667% increase also be a 21% decrease?
This helps with the important mathematical idea that percent change is dependent on the original amount. Since there were only 3 female senators, any additional female senator is a huge increase, from a percentage perspective. So a shift from 3 to 23 is transformational.
From the other perspective, if you are one of 97 male senators, losing 20 senators is noticeable but not world-shaking. It’s a 21% decrease.
So there you go. A beautiful demonstration of an important mathematical idea that is also tied to an important moral lesson: When we make a space more equitable, the positive effect on the marginalized group is waaaay bigger than the negative effect on the dominant group. Which I believe morally as well as mathematically.
Ok, so that’s one option. But not every mathematical standard can be easily tied to an investigation of this sort. Or maybe they can, but I sure as hell don’t know how to do that. And I have to be honest here: I want all my lessons to be mostly about math. I don’t assign poster projects because I feel like kids spend 15 minutes learning math and 3 hours learning how to make posters. And even though I care deeply about equity, I don’t want my math class to be 20% math and 80% discussion of equity. I feel like I must empower my students, and that means helping them find a positive math identity and a set of mathematical ideas and skills so that they are armed with those tools when they enter high school.
So what else could I do? Well, I could just use good pedagogy! I could avoid calling on the kid who raises his hand first (and it usually is his hand). I could give students more spaces to discuss the math informally with each other, so they build confidence with their peers before being asked to share with the whole class or sharpen their explanation with formal terminology. I could ask a shy kid’s permission to share their work so that they feel like their identity as a mathematician is affirmed, even if they choose not to share. I could build a learning community where each kid, especially those who feel marginalized by school, have a voice in my room. In short, I could just be a good teacher.
But wait - is this a cop out? Is this that thing where (white) people start saying “Diversity is so important and we are all diverse in so many ways, look her hair is blonde and mine is dark blonde, ok can we pleeeese stop talking about race now?”
(At this point I want to pause and thank Grace Chen, Max Ray-Riek, and Tina Cardone for helping me think through this idea. I wouldn’t have an answer to this question without you. Thank you.)
So here's my answer: we do need to use good pedagogy, but our teacher moves need to be informed by our commitment to equity.
As Max and Tina said to me, if you go around the room looking for interesting mathematical ideas in student work that you’d like to share, you’re being a good teacher. But if the math is your *only* consideration, then you will probably end up replicating and perpetuating the math identities in your classroom, both positive and negative. The kids who feel mathematical will feel encouraged to explore new ideas, you’ll continue to affirm those ideas and those students, and the kids who feel less comfortable will continue to feel excluded from math.
But if you walk around the room noticing the work and noticing the students who are coming up with that work, you might choose a different student's work to highlight.
By the way, I do not think you should make this decision-making explicit. I have sometimes said in class “I haven’t heard from any girls yet” which I think was actually counterproductive and perpetuated the problem, for reasons I’ll explain below.
I believe that every student wants to be seen as mathematical, and that mathematical identity is the specific identity that we want to bring to the foreground. I know that in my experience, I want to be seen in that moment simply as a person with an interesting mathematical thought. Other parts of me melt away in that moment. (I have no idea how that feels for other people who aren’t white cis guys, and I truly would love to hear whether that is true for other people in the comments)
But I don’t mean that mathematical identity is the only identity we should consider in class. That sounds too much like “colorblindness,” where we pretend like we don’t notice that everyone we teach is a distinct collection of many, many identities.
I think we should try to honor every child’s mathematical identity as well as their cultural identity, but we should decouple those identities. I don’t want my students to think that their cultural identities are tied to their mathematical ability, or vice versa.
So when I said “I haven’t heard from any girls yet” in my class, I think I was bringing their identity as female to the foreground and tying it to their mathematical ideas. Which, as Grace said to me, can cause stereotype threat, this phenomenon where women and people of color perform worse on math tasks if they feel that their performance will be a reflection of their gender or race.
So I want to hear from more girls in my number talks, but I don’t want them to think that I want to hear from them because they are girls. Because then they’ll start wondering why, and what being a girl has to do with math anyway, and then I’ve tied their gender to their math identity. Or more accurately, those identities have already been tied together by society and I’ve just tugged the knot even tighter.
So instead I’m going to start going up to my female students and English language learners and students of color and tell them that I want to hear from them, as individuals, in math class because I think our class would be better with their voice in it.
That’s my answer to this question, at least for now. What’s yours?