I’ve been part of Casio’s Equity in Education Webinar Series (in partnership with TODOS Math for All and The Benjamin Banneker Association) and a theme that comes up repeatedly, and one that shouldn’t be surprising, is that we need to be acknowledging and using the cultural backgrounds of students and the world they live in as a foundation for mathematical learning. So, not just using problems from textbooks and curriculums, which often leave many students out of the ‘context’, but asking students about what interests them and what they see as issues from their own experiences, and turning these into mathematical learning opportunities. Making math relevant and applicable, and thus more memorable and usable. In this process, students understand mathematical concepts more deeply.
As noted in last night’s webinar, “Being an Upstander to Inequities in Mathematics Education: Teachers Leading from the Classroom to Implement Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching”, this requires a lot of work and slow and steady change in practice and collaboration with others. You have to be willing to change your practice, look at all students as being capable of learning mathematics and being problem-solvers, and take time to find real-world issues and creating opportunities for students to learn through problems and situations that are relevant to their worlds. It takes shaking up the system – i.e. no more ‘classifying’ students as honors, below level, etc, but instead provide students the same experiences. And, it starts small – be willing to ‘be an upstander’ and change things starting in your own classroom and then bring others in (other teachers, administration) to see the positive change and learning that happens as a result.
One of the more difficult parts of this is being willing to find and/or create problem-solving experiences that matter to students and that also provide mathematical learning relevant. It takes more time. It takes more effort. You are often going against the ‘standardized testing’ curriculum that pervades our math education these days. There are many resources out there, but as one teacher said in last nights webinar, she asks the students what issues or problems do they see. She then uses those problems to create learning and bring the math. In the process, students are doing more than just math – they are connecting to their world, incorporating multi-disciplinary and multiple representations, and become true problem-solvers. And gaining confidence in their mathematical abilities in the process. Isn’t this what learning should be about? Not mastering a ‘skill’ to pass an arbitrary test, but truly learning and understanding mathematics in a way that is useful for life.
None of this is new to me – it’s how I like to think I have approached mathematical teaching and learning for most of my career, and more so in the last 20 years, as I have matured and grown into my own teaching and understandings of what students need. I learn something new every day from my students, from colleagues and lately from each of these webinars. I am gaining more insight and ideas about being responsive to all students, and listening to students (Olga Torres webinar is a great one to view – Rehumanizing the Math Classroom), and reaffirming beliefs and strategies I have used for years. In turn , I can then implement and share these insights and strategies with others. This to me is the beauty of teaching – it is not only about helping others learn, but about my own constant learning to improve learning experiences for the students and teachers I work with.
Where do you start to find these relevant issues to use and how do you use them to address content standards? As teacher in last night’s webinar said, ask the students first. One problem that she worked with students ideas and concerns and incorporated social justice, (so looking at the problems in the world), was where students were focused on waste and the environment. In a unit on volume and area, they focused on the carboard packaging from online shopping and really explored this in a variety of ways (watch the video – around 25 minutes she starts sharing student problem-solving ideas). Really using the mathematics to help address a concern and problem that impacts the students and the world. Asking students what problems they see in the world around them is a first starting point.
You can also just go outside and look around. As an example, I am at the beach, and the shells that I find on the sand are full of intricate mathematical patterns. So students could explore different things in nature and discover patterns and see connections this way. Depending on the level, you could then incorporate functions and graphs to describe those patterns.
I am currently living in a construction zone, and watching the process of a beach house being built has been fascinating. They put together an entire frame for a floor in less than a day, which might make you think they are doing ‘shoddy’ work. But watching them measure and look at the architectural drawings, and use levels to ensure even floor, and support wall frames with strategically placed pieces of woods to form a triangular support makes you realize there is a plethora of mathematics happening. And it’s not just the geometric shapes, which would be an obvious thing to explore if looking at the structure, but also all the properties of the shapes, similarity, scale, algebraic measures, etc. This would be a something that students see, so there could be a whole problem-based exploration of the process (from design to plans to build to cost analysis) that make this an incredible problem to explore that is relevant to students. Maybe it’s road construction near them or building repairs or gentrification, but again, something relevant and persistent in the world that students can explore.
In short – start respecting students ideas and the world and cultures in which they live and use these ideas to help them learn mathematics. Make learning relevant. Let students have a voice and make math open doors instead of being a ‘gatekeeper’ (see video) to hold many students back from becoming successful mathematical thinkers.
Here’s the webinar recording from last night. The teachers start sharing at around 23 minutes in, though the first part is really interesting explaining the project and process.
Be sure to check out future webinars and other past recordings, both on equity issues and on incorporating technology into mathematics instruction.
Casio Education Webinar Calendar: https://www.casioeducation.com/educators/webinars
ClassPad.net Webinar Calendar: https://classpad.us/webinars/
Casio Education Recorded Webinar Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwObzb090vgOhnMYzUx7Dc8bKjxaQC0r8
ClassPad.net Recorded Webinar Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLHXT4Hrx0muHxOoJN8F8vDZdgJ337aaRo