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Can Math Be a Vehicle for Social Justice?

“Why should anyone care about mathematics if it doesn’t connect deeply to some human desire: to play, seek truth, pursue beauty, fight for justice?” wondered Francis Su, former president of the Mathematical Association of America, in his 2017 address entitled “Mathematics for Human Flourishing.” 

What does it mean to connect mathematics to the pursuit of justice? 

For one thing, it means not letting math education interfere with justice. Too often, math serves as a filter, rather than a foundation, for educational opportunity. This has worked to the disadvantage of students of color and low income students, in particular. The project I founded, Just Equations, is devoted to reversing that.

Doing so entails changing the way math is taught to be more inclusive and supportive of learning for all students. Jo Boaler calls this “democratizing mathematics,” Rochelle Gutierrez refers to “re-humanizing mathematics,” and the organization TODOS: Mathematics for All emphasizes the importance of “a social justice priority in mathematics.”

It may also require changing the math we teach. (Boaler uses the plural British “maths” to emphasize the notion that mathematics is broader than a single pathway.) The usual high school diet of Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2, followed perhaps by Pre-Calculus and Calculus, is limiting and lacks relevance for most students. 

Just Equations’ recently released equity principles underscore the importance of making available “multiple options for deepening quantitative literacy” to ensure students access to “rigorous, relevant, and diversified” math content. 

Social justice content is a promising direction. Another way to ensure the relevance of mathematics is to use mathematical methods to study and, ultimately, advance social justice. To “understand and critique the world” is one of the three purposes of mathematics education proposed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics. Regrettably, few students receive that benefit. 

A social justice course has been developed by the Academy for College Excellence, a student success program developed at Cabrillo College in California, and piloted at Los Medanos College. Students in the course learn about social justice themes, explore primary research methodology by developing and conducting a survey in their community, develop the math skills needed to analyze the data, and work within teams to interpret and communicate the results. 

Tue Rust, who taught the program at LMC, observed that integrating social justice content into math and English courses helped improve student outcomes in both subjects because it helped make them meaningful for students. 

Just Equations is looking for more examples of math courses focused on social justice to understand how they support student learning.  (Please email to share an example.) 

Perhaps the reason we haven’t found more examples is that the idea of teaching mathematics with a social justice lens challenges strongly-held cultural beliefs about what math is and how to teach it. Unlike the humanities, mathematics is often assumed to be neutral, objective, disembodied, and value-free. 

But such assumptions are increasingly being rejected by leaders of the math community. “The emphasis on single right answers to questions, being taught a fixed body of specific skills, and reliance on mechanistic algorithms has given students an erroneous view of mathematics,” note the authors of the Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Mathematical Modeling Education. 

The study of English literature doesn’t stop with diagramming sentences. Nor does it prioritize the number of paragraphs a student can write in twenty minutes. Likewise, mathematical learning shouldn’t be limited to memorizing procedures and solving equations under timed conditions. 

“When math is embedded in important issues—from racial disparities in school expulsions to the rate of global warming—every child has a contribution to make and a stake in the answers. This is “real-world” math, not calculations about which train gets to the station first,” argue the editors of Re-Thinking Schools. “All curriculum is about the construction of meaning, and all curriculum is political. To advocate for a broad social justice framing instead of a narrow technocratic one is to affirm that math is indeed for and about all of us.” 

Mathematical reasoning is essential for citizens, civic leaders, and political leaders in making sound policy decisions. But the potential of math classes to prepare students for citizenship isn’t being fully tapped. Even students who excel in mathematics (as measured by SAT scores or by college major) are less inclined to participate politically  than those who excel in the humanities (measured by high SAT verbal scores or college major). 

Might that be because math education has failed to emphasize the role of mathematical and quantitative reasoning in public policy? Harvard philosopher Danielle Allen argues for re-orienting education toward its original purpose of preparing democratically engaged citizens, and sees an important role for math. 

“To make judgments about the course of human events and our government’s role in them, we need history, anthropology, cultural studies, economics, political science, sociology, and psychology, not to mention math—especially the statistical reasoning necessary for probabilistic judgment—and science, ” she notes. 

So, as we think about how to make math education relevant for students, let’s be sure to examine how math courses can support students in civic life. And, as we think about the pursuit of justice, let’s design pathways that support students so that math classes don’t prevent them from achieving their aspirations.

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