Teachers learn to use math as Trojan horse for social justice

This summer, middle school math teachers can learn how to incorporate social justice issues like racism and privilege into their classrooms.

Teaching Social Justice through Secondary Mathematics” is a six-week online course designed by Teach for America and offered through EdX, which provides free online classes from top universities such as Harvard University, MIT, and Columbia University.

Unveiled earlier this month, the course aims to teach math instructors how to craft lesson-plans that incorporate social justice in order to raise their students’ awareness.

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“Do you ask students to think deeply about global and local social justice issues within your mathematics classroom?” a course overview asks. “This education and teacher training course will help you blend secondary math instruction with topics such as inequity, poverty, and privilege to transform students into global thinkers and mathematicians.”

According to the website, the course can even help students to learn math, because while many aspects of middle- and high-school math “can seem abstract to students,” the developers claim that “setting the mathematics within a specially-developed social justice framework can help students realize the power and meaning of both the data and social justice concerns.”

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Participants in the online course are given sample ideas for lessons they could create, such as using math to teach students about “Unpaid Work Hours in the Home by Gender” and “Race and Imprisonment Rates in the United States.”

The module also identifies five main themes of “intersectional mathematics,” including “mathematical ethics,” which refers to the notion that math is often used as a tool of oppression, according to the instructors.

“For centuries, mathematics has been used as a dehumanizing tool,” they write, citing the example of how IQ can be used against people who score in the lower half of the distribution.

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To remedy math’s contribution to oppression, teachers are thus encouraged to think of ways that math can be used to advocate for marginalized populations, to which end they are encouraged to read an article by an English teacher from Hawaii, Christina Torres, who argues that failing to teach students about social justice is a “wasted opportunity” to provide them with the “tools to subvert power, question normalcy, and change society as we understand it.”

Despite its emphasis on liberal priorities, the instructors insist that social justice can be taught “without bias” as long as instructors select topics that they feel they can discuss with neutrality.

"This is not an opportunity for a teacher to impose his or her beliefs on the students. It is important to choose topics about which you feel you can be pedagogically neutral,” they state, clarifying that “Quality social justice and mathematics exploration in the K-12 classroom should be apolitical and non-agenda-driven.”

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Danielle Montoya, vice president of communications at Teach for America, told Campus Reform that social justice is a part of “culturally responsive teaching” while praising the course as a model for promoting “positive change” and civic engagement.

“We share the understanding that social justice is recognizing and acting upon our individual and collective ability to create positive change,” Montoya said. “This is one way to give students the tools to be engaged citizens, prepared to contribute to their communities.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen