Tuesday / June 25

Bringing Social Justice to the Upper Elementary Mathematics Classroom: From Student Inquiry to Taking Action


Consider how your students would answer the following questions:

  • During math lessons, how are your ideas about math valued?
  • How does learning math relate to the rest of your life, in and out of school?

Students’ responses to these questions can help gauge the sort of learning environment created in your classroom. They reveal whether students feel valued and included in learning math and the degree to which they recognize math as part of their everyday life.

What we do at school matters greatly! School can be a place in which students’ ideas and identities are honored and leveraged, and math education can help bring equality and justice to an unjust world. The life experiences of students include experiencing the effects of social privilege, oppression, and activism. Students bring to math classrooms their curiosity and concerns about their world, community, and family related to equity and justice issues.

When we incorporate real-world issues that are important to children,  it sends a message about what math is, and students can see themselves as doers of math. When teachers draw from the lives and interests of students, families, and communities, meaningful instruction and math learning happen.

The authors of Upper Elementary Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand and Respond to Social Injustice share here three reasons teaching math for social justice is critical:

1.     It connects math with students’ cultural and community identities and histories.

School math often asks students to perform math using algorithms that are not their own, in a language different from their native tongue, and solve math problems irrelevant to their interests and experiences. This leaves many students with the sense that math is inaccessible and not connected to them or who and what they value.

Students bring to the classroom a wealth of formal and informal math knowledge from their everyday experiences, Their families, caregivers, and the community also serve as rich resources for math exploration. When classroom experiences are meaningfully connected to students’ ways of knowing, the learning is powerful and lasting. Teachers can engage students in the process of honoring students’ identities and histories in math by drawing on genuine problems from students’ everyday lives, creating a deeper and more meaningful understanding of math.

2.     It connects math to other school subjects and promote deeper, interdisciplinary learning.

As educators, we’re charged with preparing our students to be productive members of a just society. Math serves an important role in this process of supporting students in exploring the context of relevant and pressing issues and relating authentic and rich connections to math. For this process to happen, math should be integrated into, rather than isolated from, other school subjects.

Students can link math and history, math and science, math and language, math and politics, and more. These connections offer opportunities for students to see the ways in which math isn’t something to memorize but a process for them to make sense of stories, histories, and phenomenon in the world.

3.     It empowers students to confront and solve real-world challenges they face.

When children learn that math can be used as a tool to help them understand, explore, and investigate social situations, they are empowered to see themselves as both mathematical thinkers and active change agents. Teaching math for social justice allow students to learn how to critically question and think about the world around them, better understand their identities, and stand up for what they see as unjust and fair. It supports them in making principled decisions about when and how to take a stand as well as  how to plan and carry out collective action by using math as a tool to understand and address injustice in the world.

On the other hand, the teacher’s role is to learn about their students and the community to identify themes or issues of interest and thus  allowing students to lead in uncovering, exploring, and confronting the issues of injustice their families and communities face.


Teaching Math for Social Justice (TMSJ) is much more than the lessons teachers might implement in their classrooms. It is about the relationships they build with and among students; the teaching practices that help them do that; and the goals to develop positive social, cultural, and mathematics identities—as authors, actors, and doers. The many contributors to Upper Elementary Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice provide insight on the role context, content, timing, and implementation play as you plan to teach math for social justice. Teachers beginning to create their own lessons should consider and include the following steps:

  • Learn About Your Students and Their World
  • 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

Upper elementary math teachers can bring student experiences, interests, and concerns to the classroom to drive their deep learning of math and, in turn, to use that math to act on social injustices in their communities.

Written by

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 elementarymathematics education.

Cathery Yeh started teaching 24 years ago, beginning her  tenure in dual-language classrooms in Los Angeles and abroad in China, Chile, Peru, and Costa Rica. As a classroom teacher, she made home visits to every student home (over 300) and co-taught mathematics lessons with parents/caregivers and community organizers to integrate students’ lived experiences, knowledge, and identities into the curriculum. As a learner of mathematics, her own schooling mirrors my research commitments to bilingualism, culturally sustaining pedagogies, and ethnic studies

Mathew D. Felton-Koestler is currently an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where he primarily teaches mathematics methods courses for future elementary and middle school teachers. Throughout his career, Mathew has benefited from opportunities to collaborate with practicing teachers in the classroom and in professional development settings. He particularly enjoys the challenge of blending rich mathematics with explorations of our social and political world in tasks that are accessible to a broad audience.

Robert Q. Berry III is the Dean of the College of Education at the University of Arizona and the Paul L. Lindsey & Kathy J. Alexander Chair. He served as President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) from 2018–2020. He taught in public schools and served as a mathematics specialist. Equity issues in mathematics education are central to my research efforts with four related areas: (a) understanding Black children’s mathematics experiences, (b) measuring standards-based mathematics teaching practices, (c) unpacking equitable mathematics teaching and learning, and (d) exploring interactions between technology and mathematics education. Robert is also a two-time recipient of NCTM’s Linking Research and Practice Publication Award.

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