Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice

Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice

Article excerpt

Benjamin S Gower looks to rejuvenate student interest

Every subject teacher encounters disaffected students whose experience of mathematics has led to a belief that it has little relevance to their lives. As a mathematics teacher with an interest in Social Justice, I wondered whether incorporating issues of Social Justice into mathematics lessons could address this disaffection.

In September 2013 I joined a team of teacherresearchers exploring a similar theme: the impact of a commitment to Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice (TMSJ) on classroom practice. We were investigating two things. First, whether the incorporation of Social Justice issues and concepts into our teaching would have a positive impact on our students. Second, to investigate how this impacted on teachers given both limited time and institutional constraints. Investigating the first of these, the impact on students, is the main concern of this article.

It begins with a discussion of what a commitment to TMSJ looks like in the classroom in terms of aims, lesson content, and teaching methods. Then, to outline how the impact of TMSJ was evaluated, before concluding with the main findings.

In summary we discovered: TMSJ has the potential to dramatically enhance the experience of mathematics for students, especially those most disaffected. Students enjoyed the incorporation of Social Justice into mathematics lessons. They discovered the power of mathematics to analyse issues and solutions, to persuade others, and ultimately to change the world. In doing so TMSJ undermined any belief students had in the irrelevance of mathematics.

Introduction to TMSJ

The Department for Education's 2014 Mathematics Programmes of Study concludes that: ... "a highquality Mathematics education therefore provides a foundation for understanding the world." In fact it does more than this: ... "Mathematics equips students with uniquely powerful ways to describe, analyse and change the world'' (National Curriculum, 2007). A commitment to TMSJ prioritises equipping students to do just this. It involves lessons that develop students' ability to evaluate issues, to persuasively articulate these evaluations, and in so doing be part of changing the world.

Developing these skills involved incorporating content that addressed issues of Social Justice, as well as giving students a chance to practise these skills. Our methods can be broken down into the three content categories outlined below. I illustrate each with examples from my classes.

1) Relevant examples within tasks:

* Using population figures to calculate the probability of being born in different countries.

? Using percentages to show the impact of Mathematics qualifications on a person's future income.

* Using a real time-series graph of reduced global poverty rates to illustrate line graphs.

This example is expanded on below.

Figure 1 was used to illustrate line graphs. Students were asked to consider what the graph showed and share any reactions they had to this. They were invited to discuss whether it would be better just to show the information using a table and why. Finally, they were asked to use it to identify the key features of a line graph.

2) Tasks concerning Social Justice issues within lessons:

* Calculating and comparing the proportion of revenue received by farmers of Fairtrade and Non-Fairtrade chocolate bars.

* Using income data from different years to plot cumulative frequency graphs and to compare variations in inequality over recent years.

* Comparing and evaluating the strength of different arguments that contain varying degrees of statistical evidence.

Students were asked to use the information in Table 1 to evaluate the proportion of revenue from Fairtrade and Non-Fairtrade chocolate bars going to different groups. They were asked: whether it was fair? They were then invited to use the prices of different chocolate bars to calculate how much each group received. …

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