Thursday / April 25

Why and How Might High School Mathematics Teachers Have Students’ Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice?


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 quoIt 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 identityBy not using relatable contextsstudents 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 injusticeRefinements 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: 

  1. Learn About Relevant Social Injustices 
  2. Identify Mathematics Relevant to Course Progression 
  3. Establish Mathematical and Social Justice Goals 
  4. Determine How you will Assess these Goals 
  5. Create A Social Justice Question for the Lesson 
  6. Design the Student Resources for Investigation 
  7. 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.  

Written by

Robert Q, Berry III is currently the Samuel Braley Gray Professor of mathematics education at the University of Virginia, and served as President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2018–2020. He has taught in public schools and served as a mathematics specialist since 1991. Robert has collaborated with teachers, leaders, parents, and community members across the United States and has been a teacher at nearly all levels. These experiences have afforded him a perspective on the issues facing mathematics teaching and learning across diverse contexts. In sum, he brings experiences and abilities that make me an effective advocate for teachers and students.

Basil Conway IV is currently an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education in the College of Education and Health Professions at Columbus State University and serves as the mathematics education graduate program director. He serves on numerous doctoral committees as both a chair and methodologist. Basil previously spent 10 years teaching in public middle and high schools before he became a teacher educator. During this time, he also worked as an instructor at a local junior college. Over the past 15 years of service in teaching mathematics and future teachers of mathematics he has served in various local mathematics education leadership positions and organizations including Transforming East Alabama Mathematics (TEAM-Math), Auburn University’s Teacher Leader Academy, East Alabama Council for Teachers of Mathematics, Woodrow Wilson Fellow, National Mathematics and Science Initiative, and A+ College Ready. He believes teachers, parents, other students, cultural norms, and other cultural communicative devices play a critical role in shaping students’ knowledge of society and mathematics.

Brian R. Lawler is currently an Associate Professor for Mathematics Education in the Bagwell College of Education at Kennesaw State University and serves as coordinator for the secondary mathematics teacher certification programs. Previously, Brian taught high school mathematics for 9 years in a variety of settings, including suburban, urban, and urban/rural settings. Throughout his quarter-century career in mathematics education, he has advised school districts and provided professional development to high school math teachers as they aim to transform their programs in order to meet the needs of all learners—in discourse-rich, heterogeneous classrooms.

John W. Staley is currently the Coordinator of Special Projects in Baltimore County Public Schools, where his primary work involves supporting schools in the continuous improvement process. Previously, John worked as a mathematics teacher and district leader for the past 30 years in private and public-school settings in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. He has served as an Adjunct Professor at George Mason University, Loyola University, UMBC, and Morgan State University. During his career he has presented at state, national, and international conferences; served on many committees and tasks forces; facilitated workshops and professional development sessions on a variety of topics; received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics and Science; and served as President for NCSM (2015–2017), the mathematics education leadership organization. He is currently serving as the chair for the United States National Commission on Mathematics Instruction. John’s current interests include: change high school mathematics, addressing equity issues in schools and especially mathematics education, and leadership in mathematics education.

Their new book, High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice, is now available at Corwin.

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