Wednesday / May 29

Why Use Math To Help Young Learners Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice?

Children enter our classrooms with curiosity: they are curious about themselves, curious about the content, curious about their classmates, and curious about the world. This curiosity can extend to thinking about how students experience and understand issues of fairness, equity, power, and justice in their schools, their families, and their communities. We have an obligation to address these issues—in appropriate ways. If fostered in the early years, we can leverage this curiosity and help children develop critical mathematical skills that help them learn about their world, develop a sense of agency and advocacy, and become active change agents.

The question is not one of if children are capable of engaging in mathematics for social justice but rather how they might demonstrate these capabilities. The authors of Early Elementary Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Justice argue that teaching mathematics for social justice in the early elementary grades is necessary.

What is Mathematics for Social Justice?

Mathematics for social justice empowers learners to build their critical consciousness by identifying issues that are unjust and then using mathematics as a tool to analyze, critique, and confront those issues and contexts. This process empowers children to become change agents as they actively use their voice and knowledge. Teachers in these spaces serve as facilitators and listeners: learning about the children, families, and communities with whom they partner and supporting mathematical connections. When teachers contextualize mathematics to social injustices, they make mathematics a powerful tool for democracy and creating a more just society.

Mathematics for social justice empowers learners to build their critical consciousness by identifying issues that are unjust and then using mathematics as a tool to analyze, critique, and confront those issues and contexts.

Let’s look at three reasons why this matters:

  1. It Builds Connections Between Communities and Schools

While some may think of children as needing to be filled with knowledge, they enter schools with a plethora of knowledge about themselves, their families, their communities, and their world. Mathematics for social justice serves as a catalyst for making connections between children’s, cultural, and community experiences.Educators have a responsibility to tap into this knowledge, building connections and bridging the curricular gap between home and school.

We know that when classroom experiences mirror those of children and families outside of school, learning becomes more engaging and long-lasting. Children can see their cultural ways of knowing as valid in a school context, shaping their mathematics and social identities during a crucial time of development. At the same time, educators can also provide classroom experiences that serve as windows through which to explore, understand, analyze, and respond to what they see in the world in various ways.

  1. It Reconceptualizes Children as Change Agents

A common criticism of teaching mathematics for social justice (or any content area integrated with social justice) with young children is fear that they are too innocent, naïve, or inexperienced in the world to understand issues related to diversity, equity, fairness, inclusion, and justice. As former classroom teachers, parents, and researchers of young children, our team has seen quite the opposite to be true. We assert that young children are perfectly capable of understanding these topics and are able to take up these big ideas and concepts with a unique perspective of the world.

Quite often, young children themselves are recipients of injustice. They are often positioned by adults to be “less than” due to age and status in society. As young children use mathematics to connect to the world around them, they learn that mathematics can be used as a tool for social change. This reconceptualizes how children are viewed—and how they view themselves—shifting from “incapable” to “change agent” as they begin to use mathematics to understand society and advocate for a more just and equitable world.

  1. It Builds an Informed and Empathetic Society

When young children explore mathematics lessons that address social injustice, they become more informed about their lives and the lives of others. They can see their and others’ experiences mathematically and are invited to make comparisons between them.  These two aspects are pivotal because if children see only representations of themselves, they develop a misrepresentation of the world in which we live. In this way, mathematics can serve the special role of informing and beginning a dialogue about important issues in our society.

Early childhood teachers are uniquely positioned to begin embarking on this journey with the children in their classrooms. Let’s look at some ways how

  1. Building From Children’s Curiosity:

Connecting to the natural noticing and wonderings of children is a hallmark of many early childhood classrooms. Everyday experiences like using counting collections or connecting to children’s lived experiences can be used to unpack issues of fairness and justice. Generating mathematics tasks for young children that have high personal relevance and strong mathematical connections is not easy work, but the reward of this hard work comes when young children are able to demonstrate their mathematical understanding and use that knowledge to make sense of the world.

  1. Connecting With the Local Community

Teachers beginning in this work need to be comfortable partnering and learning from students, fellow teachers, and the community. Examine each of these communities’ concerns, interests, and expertise about issues of equity and social justice. These might include:

  • equitable access and fair distribution of human and material resources in society;
  • equitable access to information that allows people to fully participate in decisions that affect their and others’ lives;
  • a way to develop the agency to take advantage of opportunities society affords; and to advocate for social justice in schools, communities, and politics; and
  • .concrete ways to work toward eliminating all forms of oppression.
  1. Finding, Implementing, and Creating Unique Math Lessons for Social Justice

Sample lessons may help teachers attend to the mathematical rigor required in early elementary 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. Using these premises, a diverse range of contributors of Early Elementary Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand and Respond to Social Injustice offer model lessons that provide valuable insights into how to prepare for instruction that draws upon students’ interests in social injustices and focuses on grade-level mathematical big ideas. They emphasize the impact of content, context, timing, and implementation affect a well-orchestrated lesson that focuses on mathematics and social injustice.

Similarly, once comfortable with model lessons, teachers can create their own mathematics lessons for social justice by  following  these 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 goal of all this work is to bring student experiences, interests, and concerns to the classroom while driving the development of important mathematical understanding while positioning our youngest learners to use mathematics to take action against social injustices in their community.

Written by

Courtney Koestler is currently the director of the OHIO Center for Equity in Mathematics and Science (OCEMS) and an associate professor of instruction in the Patton College of Education at Ohio University. In addition to now teaching diversity and mathematics methods courses in an early childhood-elementary education program and graduate action research courses, Courtney spends time in classrooms alongside teacher colleagues teaching children and out in communities working with families.

 Jennifer Ward is currently an assistant professor of elementary and early childhood mathematics education and the elementary undergraduate program coordinator at Kennesaw State University.. Her work centered around her experience as an early childhood teacher designing and teaching mathematics for social justice lessons with children ages 3–8. Jennifer has been a teacher in classrooms from prekindergarten to high school, with the majority of her work in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.

 Maria del Rosario Zavala is an American-born daughter of Peruvian immigrants, a mother, and an associate professor of elementary education at San Francisco State University. In addition to work on the role of racial and other socially constructed identities in learning mathematics, a large part of her research agenda includes defining, expanding, and evolving ideas of culturally responsive mathematics teaching (CRMT)—in particular the impact of CRMT on both teachers and students.

 Tonya Bartell is currently an associate professor of mathematics education in the College of Education at Michigan State University and serves as the associate director of elementary programs. Tonya began teaching 25 years ago as a high school mathematics teacher, including 3 years as a founding teacher in an alternative high school to support students labeled as not succeeding by the system. For the last 15 years, she has volunteered in elementary mathematics classrooms and studies elementary mathematics education.

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