The Nuances and Complexities of Teaching Mathematics for Cultural Relevance and Social Justice

From Section:
Theories & Approaches
Jun. 21, 2010

Source: Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), p. 261–270.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the authors claim that access and opportunity in mathematics for students of color in the United States continue to be limited. While a great deal of attention has been given to increasing the number of underrepresented minority students in the mathematics pipeline, there is little consideration of who they are as learners or the context in which their mathematics learning takes place.
The authors argue that culturally relevant instruction coupled with teaching for social justice can motivate marginalized students to learn mathematics.

The goals of this conceptual article are threefold:
(a) to explore the theoretical frameworks underlying culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) and social justice pedagogy (SJP),
(b) to present illustrative cases of mathematics teaching that reveal the possibilities and challenges associated with these pedagogical approaches, and
(c) to offer to the field of teacher education recommendations related to the successful use of CRP and SJP within today’s classrooms.

The authors presented examples from the literature of CRP coupled with SJP in everyday mathematics classrooms. These examples focus on four topics: (a) problem solving and the Underground Railroad, (b) algebra and the displacement model; (c) geometry, resource allocation, and South Central Los Angeles, and (d) calculus and the distribution of wealth.

Conclusions and Recommendations for Teacher Educators

The authors realize that teaching mathematics for cultural relevance and social justice can be a challenge for mathematics teachers, since it cannot be separated from the social and political forces that affect education and society (de Freitas, 2008; Frankenstein, 1983).

The authors recommend that preservice teachers be provided with ample opportunities to see CRP and SJP modeled in methods courses as well as opportunities to apply and reflect on their own practice in field experiences. It is important for preservice teachers to understand the complexities of these pedagogical approaches especially if CRP and SJP are paired. To ensure lessons are meaningful to the students they teach, teachers should become students of students to learn what topics may motivate their students to learn (Nieto, 2002). Teacher educators can help preservice teachers become more cognizant of students’ culture by asking preservice teachers to reflect on their own cultural background (Ladson-Billings, 2000).

Furthermore, teachers must understand the cultural, social, political, and economic contexts that affect the lives of students and then mathematize these contexts.

The authors conclude that learning rigorous content and developing a strong mathematics identity are critical to achieving mathematics success. Teaching mathematics using CRP and SJP can motivate students from diverse backgrounds to use mathematics as a tool to accomplish their own ends, such as using mathematics in emancipatory ways that lead to social, political, and/or economic empowerment (Freire, 2006).

de Freitas, E. (2008). Troubling teacher identity: Preparing mathematics teachers to teach for diversity. Teaching Education, 19(1), 43-55.

Frankenstein, M. (1983). Critical mathematics education: An application of Paulo Freire’s epistemology. Journal of Education, 165(4), 315-339.

Freire, P. (2006). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniv. ed.). New York: Continuum.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2000). Fighting for our lives: Preparing teachers to teach African American students. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(3), 206-214.

Nieto, S. (2002). Language, culture, and teaching: Critical perspectives for a new century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Updated: Jan. 17, 2017
Critical theory | Culturally relevant education | Mathematics education | Mathematics instruction | Multicultural education | Social justice