Millions of K-12 students across the country believe that mathematics is a sadistic discipline—(I should know, I was one of them)—but a new "social justice" training module aims to persuade teachers that maybe the kids are on to something.
The course was designed by Teach for America and is offered through EdX, according to Campus Reform. It presupposes that math could be made more interesting for students if it was infused with socially relevant themes. That's not a terrible assumption—maybe young people would like math better if it was being taught in a language they understood. (If Olivia eats 10 pieces of avocado toast every day, how long will it be until she can afford to move out of her parent's house? That sort of thing.)
But Teach for America thinks that language is "social justice," and has designed a course that makes some startling claims about math.
"In western mathematics, our ways of knowing include formalized reasoning or proof, decontextualization, and algorithmic thinking, leaving little room for those having non-western mathematical skills and thinking processes," the training course claims.
"Mathematical ethics recognizes that, for centuries, mathematics has been used as a dehumanizing tool… mathematics formulae also differentiate between the classifications of a war or a genocide and have been used to trick indigenous peoples out of land and property."
Math is such a basic building block that one can cherry-pick hundreds of examples of it being misapplied for nefarious ends—but that's not really math's fault. Math lacks—to borrow a social justice term—agency.
I'm open to the idea that math—particularly advanced math—is over-valued as a K-12 subject. There's a good argument to be made that high schoolers should be taking less Algebra II and reading more Shakespeare. But if we're going to teach math, I'm not sure we should be teaching that it's mostly just this bad thing Western countries used to subjugate indigenous peoples, as if that's the main thing you need to know about math.
Photo Credit: Lucélia Ribeiro