MAGAZINE FEATURE

Toolkit for “Mathematics in Context: The Pedagogy of Liberation”

This toolkit will help educators consider how to “humanize math” using Learning for Justice’s Social Justice Standards. It provides opportunities for reflection and examples of real-world applications.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETER NGUYEN AND STEPHANIE ELEY

Editor’s note: The following toolkit is adapted from Dr. Cathery Yeh’s manuscript “Towards Justice-Oriented Mathematics.” It is used here with her permission.

Objective: 

This toolkit will help educators consider how to “humanize math,” as Dr. Cathery Yeh and Marian Dingle put it, using Learning for Justice’s Social Justice Standards. It provides real-world applications of the practices described in Yeh’s and Dingle’s work. 

Essential Questions:

  • What are my personal and cultural relationships to mathematics? How might they be similar to or different from the relationships my students have with math?
  • How can I honor cultural traditions, knowledge and mathematical contributions that have been marginalized in history and the curriculum? 
  • How can I teach math in a culturally sustaining way, honoring my students’ identities and relationship to math outside of school?
  • How can I integrate critical issues of identity, diversity, justice and action into my teaching and understanding of mathematics? 
  • How can I prepare students to see math as a tool for naming inequities? As a tool for taking action against injustice? 

In the Teaching Tolerance magazine feature “Mathematics in Context: The Pedagogy of Liberation,” Dingle and Yeh make a case for “the humanizing power of mathematics.” Rather than treating math as a neutral subject with objective rules, they illustrate the ways math is political, the ways it’s defined by its context—and the ways math can be used either as a tool for upholding white supremacist systems or as a “tool for liberation.” 

For Dingle and Yeh, justice-oriented mathematics means understanding and uplifting how marginalized cultures have contributed to the intellectual scholarship of the field, both historically and today. It means, as Yeh writes in “Towards Justice-Oriented Mathematics,” “a collective process of seeing, recognizing and valuing the mathematics already a part of students’ lives, and how mathematics can serve as a vehicle to understanding and critiquing the world.”

Procedure 

1. Begin within. In a group, in a journal or to yourself, reflect on the following questions:

  • What was my relationship to math outside of school?
  • How do my identities affect my relationship with math? How do they affect what others expect of my math abilities?
  • How might math be used to harm others? 
  • How might math be used to name injustice or to help in the fight for justice?

2. Read Yeh and Dingle’s article, “Mathematics in Context: The Pedagogy of Liberation.” Take notes on their personal and systemic examples of the ways math intersects with identity and how math intersects with issues of social justice. In a group or on your own, consider their answers to the questions you’ve reflected on:

  • How do Dingle and Yeh describe their relationships to math outside of school?
  • How do they say their identities and the identities of their students affect their relationships with math?
  • What examples do they provide of math perpetuating bias or causing harm? 
  • What examples do they provide of how math can help students understand injustice or fight for justice? 

3. Briefly scan the Social Justice Standards, including key outcomes for students’ understandings of the four domains of identity, diversity, justice and action.

4. Read and annotate the following adaptations of the four domains of the Social Justice Standards, from Yeh’s “Towards Justice-Oriented Mathematics.” 


Identity

Teachers:

  • Re-center identities, perspectives and knowledge traditions that have often been silenced.
  • Attend to and honor students’ multiple social identities in curricular design and its implementation.
  • View students as competent mathematical beings whose lived experiences and community and cultural ways of knowing are leveraged during mathematics instruction.
  • Deconstruct negative stereotypes about students’ mathematical identities and about who can and cannot do mathematics.

Students:

  • Recognize that people’s multiple identities interact and create unique and complex individuals who contribute to their learning of mathematics.
  • Develop language and historical and cultural knowledge to affirm and describe their membership in multiple identity groups and their contribution to mathematics.
  • Express self-love, pride, confidence and healthy self-esteem about themselves and their community as mathematical thinkers and learners.
  • Recognize the traits of the dominant culture, their own culture and other cultures, and understand how to negotiate their own identity in multiple spaces.

Diversity

Teachers:

  • Design curriculum and implementation that honor diversity in mathematical reasoning, sense-making and engagement as strengths for individual and collective learning.
  • Create a multidimensional classroom, raising classmates’ expectations for contributions from each and every student.
  • Deconstruct stereotypes about students’ mathematical identities and who can and cannot do mathematics.

Students:

  • Express comfort in working with and learning from people who are both similar to and different from them, and engage respectfully in collaborative work and discussion.
  • Express curiosity about the mathematical contributions and experiences of others, and exchange ideas and perspectives in an open-minded way.
  • Respond to diversity by building respect, understanding, connections and empathy for different ways of knowing and being in mathematics classrooms.

Justice

Teachers:

  • Locate causes of inequalities in social conditions (e.g., tracking, ability grouping, Eurocentric curriculum) rather than believe conditions are inherent within individuals.  
  • Recognize inequities of the larger society are replicated in common structures and practices that perpetuate disparities in mathematics learning opportunities that are based on race, class, language, gender and ability status. 
  • Explicitly shift the power dynamic between student-and-teacher and student-and-student by centering identities, perspectives and knowledge traditions that have often been silenced. 

Students:

  • Recognize stereotypes and pervasive myths in mathematics around what mathematics is and what it means to know and be good at math.
  • Recognize that power and privilege influence relationships on interpersonal, intergroup and institutional levels, and consider how they have been affected by those dynamics in their mathematics learning experiences and in the world.
  • Use mathematics as a tool to identify unfairness on the individual, interpersonal, and institutional or systemic level.

Action

Teachers:

  • Engage in community- and place-based pedagogies and experiences that bridge mathematics classrooms with community and social movements.
  • Understand that learning can emerge from a problem-posing pedagogy designed around the ideas, hopes, doubt, fears and questions that occur when students use mathematics to develop “generative themes” about their world.
  • Provide students consistent opportunity to recognize their own responsibility to stand up to exclusion, prejudice and injustice. 

Students: 

  • Understand the nature and creation of social oppression and feel empowered to intervene and seek equity. 
  • Make principled decisions about when and how to take a stand against bias and status differences within the mathematics classroom and in their communities.
  • Plan and carry out collective action using mathematics as a tool to address injustice in the world.

5. After reading Yeh’s adapted standards, consider the following examples (drawn from “Towards Justice-Oriented Mathematics”) of what these standards could look like in practice. In a group or on your own, answer the reflection questions that follow. 


Identity

Example 1:

Mrs. Mayra Orozco and her fifth grade team begin each school year by asking children to video record a short interview in which they ask a family member, “Tell me about yourself. How do you use mathematics every day?” These brief clips are used to create mathematics lessons that honor student identities and their lived experiences.

  • Which of the above standards are present in this example? 
  • What might this look like in the context of my classroom and my students’ lived experiences? 

Example 2: 

At the start of every year, Yeh has students explore the traditional Quipus system of mathematics in comparison to the Arabic number system. The unit allows students to explore the mathematics rooted in ancient histories of people and empires of color while deepening their understanding of our base-10 number system structure. When students are supported to learn more about their own history—and others’—they are better able to identify, deconstruct and challenge harmful stereotypes about themselves and others.

  • Which aspects of the above standards are present in this example? 
  • What might a similar lesson look like in the context of my classroom, my curriculum and my students’ lived experiences? 

Diversity

Example 1:

As a first-year teacher, Yeh tried this approach with a diverse class of fourth grade students. At the beginning of a fraction unit, an alphabet book was sent home with each student. Families assisted in writing a word for each letter—in either English or their home language—that represented how their family engaged with fractions in their daily lives. Lessons on unit fractions, equivalent fractions and fraction operations were developed from the experiences families referenced. Families came in to co-teach these lessons. By developing cross-cultural awareness based on the knowledge and strengths of diverse communities, students set a foundation of recognizing shared strengths and struggles rather than being derailed by cross-cultural differences and conflict. 

  • Which aspects of the adapted Social Justice Standards above are present in this example? 
  • What might a similar lesson look like in the context of my classroom and my students’ lived experiences? 

Example 2: 

Mr. Muñoz has traditionally taught mathematics in a way that prioritized students working individually and working on one method of solving problems at a time. This school year, he designs an inquiry-based approach, allows students to work collaboratively and gives students choices in how they communicate their mathematical thinking, including through talking, writing or drawing. Muñoz makes visuals, manipulatives and culturally relevant contexts available to students as options for attaching tangible meaning to the concepts. He notices students growing more comfortable in working with each other, expressing their relationships to math problems and learning from others’ approaches to the work. 

  • Which aspects of the adapted Social Justice Standards outcomes above are present in this example? 
  • What might this look like in the context of my classroom and my students’ lived experiences? 

Justice 

In her class in Stockton, California, Gloria Gallardo used the local example of the Great Delano Grape Strike to study the mathematics in movement building. She introduced students to labor organizer Larry Itliong, understanding the importance of her students, mostly Filipinx, knowing the history and contributions of the Filipino community to U.S. labor movements. Gallardo printed photographs and statistical data from the strikes and protests, and students completed a gallery walk around the classroom, filling out a sheet to record what they noticed, wondered and felt as they analyzed the graphs and photos. After the activity, Gallardo read aloud from the biography Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, allowing students to learn more about how this important leader served in many movements throughout his lifetime and as part of a broader movement to change unjust conditions. 

  • Which aspects of the adapted Social Justice Standards outcomes above are present in this example? 
  • What might a similar lesson look like in the context of my classroom, my students’ lived experiences and their ancestral histories? 

Action 

Note: This example also incorporates the domain of justice. 

The fourth grade elementary teachers at Garfield Elementary engaged their students in a unit about homelessness and gentrification in their community. They launched their inquiry by inviting students to consider this statistic from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: “On a single night in 2018, roughly 553,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States.” To gain a sense of the statistic’s magnitude, they read How Much Is a Million? by David M. Schwartz. To envision the number, they related it to quantities mentioned in the book and then related “a million” to their community, considering the number of children in the school, the number of children in the district and the number of people in the city. 

Examining the data on homelessness sparked a multifaceted and historical investigation to examine the structural factors (e.g., income, cost of living, affordable housing) resulting in homelessness, particularly for the local community. The students watched a documentary about the gentrification of their community and mapped out the city’s history of disinvestment and uneven development on a timeline. Teachers brought in local community activists from a grassroots organization to show how data and statistics are used to highlight gross inequities caused by the city’s redevelopment plans. Students and families wrote letters and postcards to local city councils and spoke with organizers at board meetings to increase affordable housing units, broaden affordable housing median income guidelines and recognize local residents as meaningful stakeholders in making decisions concerning the development of the land. These actions led to the passage of a city ordinance designed to increase public participation and transparency in planning and local government.    

  • Which aspects of the adapted Social Justice Standards outcomes above are present in this example? 
  • What might a similar lesson look like in the context of my classroom, my students’ lived experiences and their communities? 

6. Now, brainstorm with your team or on your own about immediate action steps you could take toward integrating the Social Justice Standards into your teaching. Consider the following questions as you do so:

  • What self-reflection is necessary before beginning this work?
  • What do I need to know about culturally sustaining practices, my students’ cultures, my students’ identities and my students’ communities to do this work well? 
  • How is math being used in my local context in a way that enacts harm? 
  • How is math being used in my local context to fight for justice? 
  • Which social justice topics—such as income inequality, wages, public health disparities, school funding and more—can I integrate into math topics I already teach? 

Related Resources

In considering these questions and other ways to integrate social justice into mathematics education, these resources may help. 

Math and Social Justice: A Collaborative MTBoS Site

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Social Justice and Equity Resources

Social Justice Math in Action: From Educational Model to Educational Movement (webinar)

Solving Problems Beyond Math Class 

Teaching About White Supremacy on American Currency 

Social Justice in Science Class

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