A key theme of this year’s conference was “Social Justice in the Math Classroom”.
With Stephen Lewis as the keynote to kick off the conference on the first morning, it was not an easy theme to ignore!
One of the sessions I attended dealt specifically with Social Justice in the Math Classroom. The session was presented by a team of teachers and resource staff from the Toronto District School Board “Model Schools for Inner Cities” program. As teachers who want to foster critical literacy in students, they challenged us to consider how each of the “isms” might be addressed in a math classroom to challenge social norms.
- Social Justice as Charity
- Teaching and Learning About Social Justice
- Teaching and Learning For Social Justice
- Teaching and Learning AS Social Justice
As teachers considering how to integrate social justice into our math programs, a question we can ask ourselves is this: “How can numbers be used to change the world and make it a better place?”
Some examples were given, including the use of picture books (such as the Can Man, by Laura Williams), of how traditional “pizza party” style questions could be turned into culturally and socially relevant problems that still address the mathematical concepts, but have “value added” in the sense that they address real issues in our world. Instead of favourite pets, classes could examine immigration statistics and data about LGBTQ bullying.
You see, I have always been a bit proponent of the “hidden curriculum”, that is, teaching subtly about one thing while seeming to address something else. (One example is when I was teaching media a few years ago… we were working on examining and creating posters with a specific message. I wanted students to examine the different features--heading, visuals, captions--within various posters, and then make their own. But I purposely selected posters about people like Rosa Parks because I wanted the students of colour in my classroom to see themselves represented in the material of the curriculum, and I wanted all students to see examples of strong, powerful women.) But we are also increasingly aware that what the students pay attention to and therefore think about is what they are learning. The research confirms this!! (See Willingham's cognitive principles, for example.)
So, do I want students to be thinking about equity issues? Absolutely. But I also want and need them to learn how to multiply, measure and construct two- and three-dimensional figures! These very specific math goals are even more important at the primary level, where students may not have already developed some foundational skills they can draw on during a "bigger" lesson problem.
The question is, when students are engaged with rich, big topics like racism, sexism, poverty and homophobia, are they distracted from the more overt curriculum goals? Moreover, if we focus on familiar tools or topics to teach difficult mathematical concepts, are the students any more likely to learn said concepts, and if so, then when DO we teach through Equity and Social Justice?!
The OAME workshop didn’t answer these questions, and although I was excited to walk away with some concrete new classroom ideas, I continue to wrestle with these philosophical quandaries.