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Math Education Can Never Be Apolitical

This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action

Written by 辰曦 (Chen Xi)

As a math instructor and a Chinese American, I often come across concern from my friends and relatives when initiatives for incorporating social justice in mathematical education are suggested. For example, many of them pushed back against the proposals for antiracist and anticolonial math education in Oregon and California. After Googling “American mathematical education” on Chinese platforms like Twitter and the forum, I found many of the views common in my own friend circle, such as:

“American education departments have strong left wing bias, with a strong focus on socialist ideas, ‘teaching for social justices,’ and lack of interest in domain specific knowledge.”

“Because of the rigorous and systematic nature of mathematical knowledge, allowing more freedom for students to learn theories for themselves will be a failure when applied in the classroom...”

“Many parents think that antiracist frameworks in the classroom will only weaken the competitiveness of the California public school system nationally.

“Is Oregon going to be dominated by anti-intellecturalism? Finding the right answer in math is hardly white supremacist.”

Some comments seen on Chinese websites in regards to "ethnomathematics"

Many of the complaints are due to potentially harmful beliefs about education and math education in particular. They believe that the "traditional" rote-memorization approach provides students a solid academic background, that education should value hard work and meritocracy, and that mathematical education should be value neutral and apolitical. I have been a student of mathematics in both China and the US, and an instructor in Ivy league and state universities. My experiences have shown time and time again that contrary to the aforementioned "conventional wisdoms," there is a real need and real possibility of reimagining mathematical education in a way that centers equity and social justice. Math education can inspire students to imagine and learn to build better communities. In what follows I will discuss some of the beliefs and practices in our current math education system that damage the possibility of community building and are also ineffective for conveying mathematical knowledge. Reform initiatives that center equity and justice are necessary to help students develop a deeper, more rigorous understanding of mathematics.

We know that schools and students are influenced by the communities they are in. Because of the unequal distribution of education resources among communities, stereotype threat, outside factors causing financial instability, and the bias within the education system itself, there is a real need to confront racial and gender inequalities in mathematical education. For example, in a study in 2004, among college students, it is estimated that 46% of Black and 51% of Hispanic students require remedial math, while the number for white and Asian students are 31% and 29% respectively. This disparity is influenced by all of the above factors and it is necessary to take these into account when creating classes for students to grow to their fullest potential.

My own experiences as a student and teacher confirmed this as well; I have seen classmates get into financial trouble because they were too sick to continue grad school and then resorted to GoFundMes after losing their health insurance. I have had students who needed to work two jobs in addition to taking care of their family members who were sick. There have been multiple students who told me that they were discouraged from learning mathematics due to their ethnicity and gender. As we strive to make mathematical education more effective, it is essential to not leave the question of inequality at the door of the classroom and instead always be aware of it. Simple acts such as being aware of how classroom participation opportunities are distributed or talking about contributions of women and BIPOC mathematicians during the lectures can have a profound impact on classroom morale and student engagement.

Understanding how the US’s school system was not designed for marginalized communities allows us to see how some of the systems in place can not account for everyone’s needs. The "traditional" educational methods which prioritize memorization and rote learning are often counterproductive and don’t meet the needs of students who don’t have access to outside resources, such as tutoring or parental help with homework. In order to increase equity, we need to rethink and address certain conventional beliefs and practices in mathematical education.

One common misconception I saw among critics of mathematical education reform in both Chinese and English language media, is that mathematical learning is equated to learning how to do calculations and memorizing the rules, algorithms and problem solving "template.” As a result, many people said things such as, "My child still hasn't learned how to do long division yet" or "People think 2+3×5 is 25 and not 17." As a student, I was fortunate to encounter many amazing science books which dispelled this notion by giving readers an idea of what real-life mathematics is about. Ultimately, mathematics is about the training of imagination, about being able to come up with increasingly strange objects and manipulate them to understand them via their relationship with one another.

My experience with American college students generally confirmed this limitation of rote learning. They are competent when they are shown a computational rule or problem solving template to follow, but some struggle with abstract concepts and don't have enough self-confidence with manipulating those concepts or creating new ones. Students in k-12 math education have an obsession with "getting the right answer" and memorizing computational rules. This causes students to form an incorrect concept of what mathematics is and makes them less willing to explore and investigate by themselves. The Oregon Equitable Math toolkit provides examples of how mathematics works in real life, and if correctly applied in the classroom would result in major improvement in mathematical education. The toolkit goes things such as instead of asking students to come up with the right question and asking them about possible answers and strategies instead of using classroom interaction as a way to establish classroom control. Giving the power and agency back to students by encouraging them to explain the topic to peers and ask deeper questions is in fact preparing them to tackle more complex, real world problems. Compared with the traditional approach of teaching math in a linear, “step by step” fashion, with a focus of getting a high grade via practice, these recommendations in the toolkit capture more accurately the improvisatory, collaborative, and imaginative nature of mathematical research and practice.

Also, allowing students to bring their imagination into the classroom provides them the opportunity to imagine a world that is different, that is more equitable and can grow beyond the constraints of barriers such as racism and sexism. They realize that their own life is not locked in a constant competition with others, but instead a life of many different possibilities, among them the possibility of changing the world for the better via collective action.

There have been many philosophers and political theorists who have attempted to apply ideas from mathematics to the task of imagining a better society, such as Deleuze & Guattari and Alain Badiou. Recently, Eugenia Cheng has written books that both serve as introductions to important ideas in mathematics and as calls for political action towards equity. There is so much room for growth in this direction and it makes me hopeful seeing people in and outside of the classroom collaborate to make this happen.

In the end, education, including mathematical education, can never be politically neutral.

The non-neutrality of seemingly politically neutral education is more apparent in subjects in the social sciences and humanities, but there are aspects of it in mathematics as well. An example can be seen in the comment made by Ms. Zhou after California implemented more anti-bias education reforms. She argued that "students need to learn in school how they can become successful by putting effort into their studies. Knowledge can change one’s destiny. If all students all get an A, what will happen when they graduate high school and go to college and join society?" This shows that mathematical education, in particular the exams and grades, is being used to discipline students to conform to our hustle culture, and to impose the idea that social hierarchies are natural and just. Instead of teaching students that they need to work hard to gain knowledge in order to become superior to others, we need to teach them to use their knowledge to change society into one where no one is superior to another anymore.

There are plenty of ways to tell if you understand a subject that does not rely on grades, and for many people, myself included, getting a low grade as a child would actually discourage them from continuing to put in effort.

Furthermore, when grades are directly linked to the job security of teachers, there may be a perverse incentive on the teachers to teach to the test and also show favoritism to students based on their grades. These realities are detrimental to learning as well. In the end, the system of grading students and sorting them according to grades has questionable utility for student learning, and is more about pushing hyper-individualism, constant competition, the myth of meritocracy, and the myth that hard work equals success. All these are beliefs that benefit those who know how the system works, and we are increasingly seeing how they are detrimental to our society, to the survival of human civilization, and the emotional and material well-being of individuals as well. After all, if you become rich and famous but our society collapses due to climate change, you still get nothing.

One of the key goals of justice-oriented educational initiatives is to serve as a counterbalance of those ideologies, to show students that there are alternatives; the status quo is not the only possible mode of human existence, and through solidarity and collaboration it's possible to build alternative learning communities that are more beneficial to the mental health of students and more conducive to knowledge creation. Mathematics is a subject that is founded on the premise of the universality of reason and relies heavily on the faculty of imagination. Because of this, the way we teach mathematics is an excellent example of starting to create a more equitable future.

Many educators are creating classrooms that foster community and practice more equitable teaching strategies. The elimination of homework and high stake exams, applying mathematics in the study of actual social issues such as economic inequality, voter suppression and gerrymandering, and fostering discussions and collaboration are all part of this movement. There is no one way to go about it; rather, we see a wide range of ideas among educators. Ultimately, incorporating the ideals of social justice in education will be a long process with many trials and errors. Some individual policies may prove ineffective and be in need of change, but reforms are essential if we want to help shape a generation of citizens that are capable of confronting the challenges we have today.

Further readings around math education and educational equity:

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