Inclusivity in Math Education
When we think of mathematics, we usually visualize numbers and complicated equations with letters in them or maybe X-es we need to find or areas we need to calculate. This is mostly because of how modern math education works. Mathematics is perceived as a culturally neutral, values-free discipline1 that is based purely on logic and therefore unbiasedly reflects on the students’ general intelligence.
While the numbers might be objective, the education itself should never disregard the context of culture and personal experiences. In the ancient times, one of the main purposes of education was to teach children what it means and takes to be part of the group, which was the key to their survival. In light of this, it is easy to see how the feeling of belonging became a powerful motivation in learning, while the lack of it may result in resistance.2 Therefore, it should be a priority to build upon these concepts in modern education. Throughout history, ways of knowing and expressing mathematical knowledge varied between continents and cultures3. We can track the traces of different concepts of numbers, distinct number systems, and mathematical theories all over the world. Yet, modern mathematics ignores all of this and serves as a measure of academic worthiness. It is not surprising that this association comes with all the bias surrounding race, sex, and intelligence. Stereotypes about who is or isn’t a math person have been keeping minorities from entering the higher education system since the beginning. Stereotypes appear in the way students see themselves and the way their teachers see them and can be extremely harmful. For example, when students worry about whether their teacher respects them as learners or doubts are generated in them about their own capabilities, their focus shifts to protecting themselves and their identities. They will be less likely to seek help from their teachers, who may in turn perceive these students as “unmotivated” and withhold attention and opportunities. Thus, as self-fulfilling prophecies, these beliefs are reinforced over time. However, when students feel valued by their teachers or see their schoolwork as relevant, it gives them motivation to become more engaged in the subject and make great improvement in their academic performance which leads to more positive feedback.2 Since these stereotypes are especially strong in the field of mathematics, this subject plays a unique role as an academic and economic gatekeeper along cultural and ethnic lines.3
So how can we change these trends? We inevitably need to change the way mathematics is taught. Researchers suggest that learning is only possible when students’ identity is in sync with the learning circumstances. Therefore, education of any subject should take students' identities, social-emotional wellbeing, and developmental trajectories into consideration. The learning environment needs to be inclusive (not perpetuating stereotypes about math ability), designed with young people in mind (it should resonate with their experiences, cultural values, and background), and invite each individual student into the process.4 To foster the feeling of belonging, it is important to teach kids not only about the curriculum but also about people who were like them and achieved great success in the field. Leaving behind the decontextualized and standardized test-based evaluation system would also be a huge step in the right direction. We should prioritize providing feedback on student work instead of a grade or a score. Experimental studies show that students who receive only comments on their assignments improve their performance significantly compared to students who receive a grade, since focusing on test scores can lower students’ motivation.567 We should also put the emphasis on deep conceptual and critical thinking and engagement with mathematical concepts over speed and the “right” way to solve problems8910. Educators need to use engaging pedagogical methods and practices that are relevant to the students showing the connections between the schoolwork and the real world. They should create classroom communities that model growth mindsets and normalize productive struggle demonstrating that intelligence is not innate but the result of working through challenges. Mathematics curriculum and instructions should feature meaningful opportunities to engage in collaborative work and motivate students to discuss ideas and seek feedback from their peers and teachers.10 Utilizing group work can be extremely helpful for young people whose communities and cultures function from a collectivist rather than an individualist perspective. Some believe that innovations are needed in curricula such as the use of textbook alternatives.2
All of these will necessitate a shift in teacher-training methods and approaches as well. We at Mastory are constantly working on developing a storyline based mathematical program that invites every student from all backgrounds to think, investigate, and solve the mysteries of Mastory’s world by using mathematics. We encourage critical thinking and unique ways to arrive at solutions. We incorporate both group and individual work and let the students discuss their experiences while cooperating in a supporting and motivating environment. This environment helps kids learn about themselves, their true potential, and social skills besides mathematics. We build upon their ways of thinking and strengths and celebrate their contributions to the class. Our storylines give us the opportunity to incorporate all types of topics into our classes. This helps students feel like they belong to the math community and helps them find their true genius fostering intellectual, social, emotional, and cultural growth. The stories provide connections to the real world that keeps students engaged. Instead of grading tests, with the use of digital technologies, we carefully monitor our students’ development, effort, and contributions. We provide growth focused feedback and adjust the next levels and tasks to achieve a steady improvement. We truly believe that teaching requires an open mind, and students have many things to teach us as well. We just need to pay attention.
- Gholson, Maisie L. (2020). Big Mathematics: Centering the Humanities in Mathematics Learning and Identity Development. Working Paper↩
- Mindset Scholars Network. Creating More Inclusive Learning Environments in Mathematics 2020↩
- González, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Erlbau↩
- Priniski, Stacy J. and Thoman, Dustin B. (2020). Fostering an Inclusively Relevant Mathematics Environment: The Case for Combining Social-Justice and Utility-Value Approaches. Working Paper.↩
- Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students' potential through creative math, inspiring messages and innovative teaching. John Wiley & Sons.↩
- Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(4), 474.↩
- Pulfrey, C., Buchs, C., & Butera, F. (2011). Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals: The mediating role of autonomous motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(3), 683.↩
- Chen, G. A. and Horn, I. S. (2020). Reviewing the Research on Marginalization in Mathematics Education. Working Paper.↩
- Ortiz, N. A. (2020). (Ontologically) Black and Proud. Working Paper.↩
- Williams Beechum, N. (2020). Expanding Visions of Success in Mathematics for Marginalized Students: Building More Equitable and Inclusive Mathematics Environments. Working Paper.↩