Friday, February 28, 2014

Math and Inequality

Got this email, and I'm wondering how a math educator should respond:
Dear Colleague,

A teach-in is being planned for the purpose of mutual education among students, faculty and staff of the GVSU community.  The teach-in is designed to address topics related to inequality and systems of oppression, as well as social justice and liberation.  Recognizing the multi-faceted dimensions of these topics, we are planning this teach-in as a day-long event.

The details are as follows:
Date:                     Wednesday, March 26th
Time:                     8am – 10pm
Location:              Exhibition Hall, Mary Idema Pew Library  (Room 040)

The learning objectives of the teach-in are to raise awareness, share knowledge, and create dialogue.  Therefore, in an effort to involve as many students, faculty and staff as possible, we will be adhering to the MWF class schedule, with the possibility of fourteen 50-minute sessions, each starting on the hour. 

We hope that you will attend as many sessions as your schedule allows and encourage your students to attend.

If you’re interested in taking a more active role, you’re encouraged to work with other colleagues around campus to propose a 50 minute session. Please keep in mind that a teach-in is practical, participatory and action oriented. We especially encourage contributions with an intersectional framework (race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, etc.).  Sessions may include student leaders as co-presenters or panelists.
I love that the university is doing this. Will you help me brainstorm how to participate?
I have an intro to math class, and a grad class on secondary math education issues that meet during this time.

Thanks for any ideas!

Lucky Duck is a recurring character
in Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling


  1. What a great thing to be asked to do! The book that has most shaped my thinking about the particular role of math in education and inequality is The Algebra Project by Bob Moses. That and Lisa Delpit's book Other People's Children helped me realize that school mathematics is a gatekeeper for accessing a high-school degree, a college degree, and plenty of jobs, and that students come to us not so much with different abilities nor different potentials but with different expectations, accents, sets of background knowledge, and cultural norms, and that math teachers in particular have a tough job to do sorting through students' negative mindsets, stereotype threat, and just different ways of relating to text, adult vs. peer authority, the role of community in learning and knowing, etc.

    I wrote a longer blog post about it here:

    I wonder if there's something you could do where you did different fishbowl type activities and had students of different genders, races, socio-economic backgrounds, etc. talk about the role that math class played in their lives, how they felt about math, how they feel about themselves as mathematicians, and ways teachers helped and hurt that. I also wonder if videos from Jo Boaler's MOOC might be good jumping-off places?

    I know this is different than the mathematics of inequality. That stuff is fun too, and I think might have some interesting datasets and tools for looking at macro-level inequality, but I'm more interested in the role of math class and math teachers and gatekeepers that keep some groups from accessing careers and education.

    Phew, that turned out to be quite a rant considering that I was starting with the idea that we'd be talking about y < 3x + 2!

  2. Two angles: Math class as filter, and how that perpetuates inequality; Math as intimidation factor, and how that harms us all (like economists who use super complicated mathematical models to support their theories, which aren't really accurate).

    But I don't know what exactly would make a good activity. I'd be happy to brainstorm with you.

  3. I remember a study done in the 1970's where a university Calculus professor was concerned that a disproportionate number of his students who were black were failing the course. He assumed that the students disproportionally came from homes where none of the parents were college graduates, but no, the number of black students with college educated parents was similar.

    The Calculus professor also noticed that a disproportionate number of his students who were Asian were acing the class. Upon further investigation, the Calculus professor found that the difference how each group prepared for the class was strikingly different. The students who were Asian tended to study together, encouraging and helping each other until everyone got it. The students who were black, by contrast, tended to study in isolation. I believe, in some cases, this was due to being among a small minority of students in their high school who were college bound and, as a result, they did not have the opportunity in high school to study in groups or to learn the advantage of using them.

    The Calculus professor's solution was to teach the failing students how to study effectively in groups. It very successful and the practice was adopted by several major universities during the time.

    Based on the above, my suggestion would be to focus on the inequities that still exist today for math success, why they exist, and what can be done to change things for the better.

    Glenn Laniewski
    Latest post:
    In case of Pi Day, break glass!

  4. That professor was Uri Treisman. Here's his talk about it: