Crossing the Great Divide: Teacher Candidates, Mathematics, and Social Justice

From Section:
Instruction in Teacher Training
Jul. 01, 2013

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 34 (2013) p. 198-213.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this study, the authors examined primary school (Grade 1-6) teacher candidates’ ability to use their existing pedagogical and mathematical knowledge to incorporate social justice into the content of mathematics lessons.

The participants were eighteen first semester seniors preparing to be primary school teachers enrolled in an Interdisciplinary Childhood Methods course were enrolled in the study.
All were also simultaneously enrolled in an associated field experience in a primary school classroom and in Culturally Relevant Teaching, with its explicit focus on pedagogies and practices of Teaching for Social Justice.
The participants included 16 women and two men.
They were asked to present mathematics lessons that incorporated social justice.


The authors found that primary school teachers rely on a limited mathematical knowledge and vocabulary that hinders their ability to identify and make sense of societal realities.
The participants rarely recognize that mathematics is part of economic, political, and scientific decision making processes.
They also can't recognize that it is the formal, specific, and structured language of mathematics that allows mathematical ideas to be shared and interpreted across non-mathematical disciplines. Thus, concatenating mathematics and social justice may be especially challenging, especially at the primary school level, because teachers are struggling with the mathematics to be taught, the ways in which mathematics and mathematical thought are embedded in societal tasks, and notions of social justice that go beyond straightforward content.
Furthermore, the participants were unable to provide complete and articulate examples of social justice related to mathematics topics.
The participants had limited understanding of appropriate vocabulary in both mathematics and social justice, which thereby interfered with their ability to articulate the nexus between mathematics and social justice.
Specifically, 12 of the participants used synonymously the words equal, equity, and equality. Sixteen of them also indicated confusion between notions of mathematical and social fairness (or unfairness).
Seven candidates used the concepts of chance and probability incorrectly mistaking them with ratios, distributions, and proportions.

In conclusion, this study indicates that new teachers are overwhelmed in terms of both academic content and social justice practice, pedagogy, and content.
The mathematics is understood to be a tool to find a correct answer to a problem, rather than a way to characterize community decision making or understanding.
Hence, the participants were unable to provide explicit and relevant examples of social justice teaching in the context of mathematics classroom, nor were they able to incorporate social justice into the mathematics lesson.

Updated: Oct. 31, 2019
Elementary school teachers | Mathematical concepts | Mathematics instruction | Methods courses | Preservice teachers | Social justice