Whether we talk about it or not, our students regularly experience the impacts of social privilege, oppression, opportunity, power, and activism every day. Children in schools and communities are faced each day with disparities in opportunity and are often forced into systems of inequity that maintain social status quo. It is not only our teaching that impacts students’ social and mathematical identities, but the contexts we select to draw upon sends a message of what is deemed as valuable. Students have concerns about their world, their community, and their family; yet, teachers often decontextualize subjects like mathematics, devaluing these aspects of student identity. By not using relatable contexts, students experience mathematics learning in an environment that may suggest their or their families’ experiences are unimportant.
Drawing upon student experiences, interest, and concerns to develop mathematical understanding, and in turn to use that mathematics to take action on these concerns can engage children’s full identifies in the math classroom. The authors of High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand and Respond to Social Injustice argue that teaching mathematics for social justice is critical for four reasons:
1. To build an informed society.
To create a just society, students must become better informed about not only their own lives, but also the lives of others that may be different from their own. It is paramount that students connect to the injustices expressed by members of their school, community, city, and country—especially to injustices they may be unaware of as experienced by people with different social and cultural experiences from them. Mathematics serves a special role in informing and educating citizens of these issues. By exploring the context of important issues and relating them to mathematics, students become aware of how mathematics may be used to help them better understand the issue, possibly sorting through misconceptions and rhetoric. A student with a meaningful mathematics education is prepared to make informed decisions in a modern, ever-changing society.
2. To connect mathematics with students’ cultural and community histories.
Students bring with them to the mathematics classroom a wealth of informal mathematical knowledge from their everyday cultural and social experiences, and that knowledge and those experiences are valuable resources for mathematics teaching and learning. We know that when classroom experiences and reasoning are meaningfully connected to students’ ways of knowing, the learning that occurs—both cognitively and culturally—is powerful and lasting. By grounding learning in students’ own cultural and community histories, a teacher has the opportunity to create both deeper knowledge and greater valuation of students’ own culture.
3. Empower students to confront and solve real-world challenges they face.
Teachers should encourage students to build a critical consciousness by identifying issues that are unjust and use mathematics as a tool to analyze, critique, and confront those unjust contexts. Empowering students to become well informed and active is critical in a thriving democracy. The teacher’s role is to learn about his or her students to identify generative themes, and thus help them to uncover and explore the issues of injustice their families and communities face.
4. Help students learn to use mathematics as a tool for social change.
The potential of education is to support students to create better lives for themselves and a better society for each and every individual. Teachers contextualizing mathematics to social injustices make mathematics a powerful tool for democracy and creating a more just society. When students use mathematics to explore, understand, and respond to social injustices they experience or care about, students learn not only the power of mathematics for social change, but also that they are actors on the world with the power to transform inequities and create social change. Teachers should want students to recognize that their mathematical power can improve the conditions of both their own lives and the lives of others.
Mathematics teachers beginning to explore and draw upon students’ interests in social injustices should first and foremost be comfortable learning as you teach, from students, from fellow teachers, and from the community. Examine each of these communities concerns, interests, and expertise about issues of equity and social justice in their community, such as: equitable access to and the fair distribution of human and material resources in society; equitable opportunities for people to access information to be fully participatory in decisions that affect their and others’ lives; development of people’s sense of agency in taking advantage of opportunities society affords as well as working toward eliminating all forms of oppression; and advocacy for a social justice perspective across school, community, and political contexts.
Using these premises, a diverse range of contributors to High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand and Respond to Social Injustice provide valuable insights to how to prepare for instruction that draws upon students’ interests in social injustices. They emphasize the impact role content, context, timing, and implementation affect a well-orchestrated lesson that focuses on mathematics and social injustice. Refinements for setting mathematical goals, designing assessment, and supporting discourse are provided to guide teachers to ensure a focus on mathematics as well as social injustice. Sample lessons may help teachers attend to the mathematical rigor required in high school mathematics while making social injustices important; however, teaching for social justice should emphasize the need for teachers to connect to their own students and local contexts. Teachers beginning to create their own lessons that explore, understand, and respond to social injustice should consider and include the following 7 steps:
- Learn About Relevant Social Injustices
- Identify Mathematics Relevant to Course Progression
- Establish Mathematical and Social Justice Goals
- Determine How you will Assess these Goals
- Create A Social Justice Question for the Lesson
- Design the Student Resources for Investigation
- Plan for Student Reflection and Action
The resources in the book High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand and Respond to Social Injustice can help all high school mathematics teachers further enhance their goals to bring student experiences, interest, and concerns to the classroom to drive the development of important mathematical understanding, and in turn, to use that mathematics to take action on social injustices in their community.