Talking about Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice: A Conversation with David Stocker and David Wagner

Article excerpt

We are disturbed by the inequities in our world and believe that mathematics educators (consciously or not) contribute to the shaping of this world. Our conversation about teaching mathematics for social justice began in a working group called Mathematics education, society and peace (Powell and Dawson, 2005) at a Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group (CMESG) conference. In this article, we revisit some of our conversation from that context and extend it.

Wagner: To understand our answers to big questions, like "What must we do as mathematics educators interested in social justice?", it is helpful to understand where we come from. To me it seems unnecessary to explain my interest in correcting disparity. Rather, I would want people who see nothing wrong with the world as it is to explain themselves. However, I think it is appropriate to consider how our backgrounds influence our intentions in education and our beliefs about how to prompt positive change. So, tell us how you see the development of your present interest in social justice.

Stocker: I suspect the foundation for my interest in social justice came from being raised in an Adlerian family. The basic idea of Adlerian psychology and the associated parenting principles is that people who are encouraged feel capable and appreciated and as a result will tend to act in a connected, cooperative way. The family dynamic is organized democratically and behaviourist practices (such as reward and punishment) are replaced with authentic listening, choice, and real opportunities to shape the environment. Really, from there it's a small step to an interest in social justice: a couple of passionate university professors who were able to articulate the inequity in the world and the reasons why we should all work toward peace and social justice. My partner Kathy is a justice advocate, and Fve been teaching for eight years now at a grade seven and eight (12- and 13-yearold students) alternative school, City View Alternative, in Toronto, fbcussed on these issues. We teach the government-prescribed curriculum but through the lens of justice issues, like race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and so on. Noddings's work on the ethic of caring (1984) and Kohn's writing on education (1993,1986,1999) have been instrumental to our school's ethos. The birth of my son, Jazz, strengthens my commitment to social justice because he will have to live in the community and the world that we are creating right now.

Wagner: Like you, I trace my interest in peace and justice to my family upbringing, which was Mennonite (a Christian denomination). From the beginning, Mennonites have renounced all forms of violence and war, though this view seems to be eroding (Bush, 1998). I grew up hearing stories of early Mennonites, in the 150Os, refusing to defend themselves when they were tortured and executed as heretics (van Braght, 1951). However, these were just stories for me, a wealthy (by world standards) Canadian white male who had a world of opportunity and who thought that his family's opportunities and wealth were a result of hard work and superiority. My views changed drastically when I backpacked around the world and saw some of the disparity in the world. After teaching mathematics for five years in Canada, my wife Carolyn and I spent two and a half years working in Swaziland with the Mennonite development agency (Mennonite Central Committee), which is known for its work addressing social inequities and advocating for non-violent approaches to peace. During our time in Swaziland, I saw disparity, inefficacy and suffering much closer. I saw that diligence, creativity and intelligence are not enough to deliver most people from their unprivileged existences. There are structural barriers.

Currently, I work with mathematics teachers and with mathematics teachers in training. In these relationships and in my writing, I try to draw attention to people's choices in their mathematics to draw attention to diverse possibilities in these choices and to underscore the cultural nature of mathematics as a way of addressing human problems. …