Why Teachers Want Math with More Human Ties

 (photographer/iStock)

Mathematics is created by humans, math teachers are humans and math students are humans. Yet many contemporary math classrooms erase humans from the equation.

“Often mathematics is talked about as if it were apolitical, objective, and cold. A sterile textbook, a teacher writing on a chalkboard and rarely turning around,” said Sam Shah, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn, New York.

For many students, that model of math class is unengaging or anxiety-provoking. With math scores declining or stagnant among U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders in the last decade, and the country ranking near the bottom of industrialized nations for high school math performance, some educators are looking to reimagine math classrooms as more interactional, humanizing spaces. In August, Shah and Hema Khodai — an instructional resource teacher in Mississauga, Ontario — organized the Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics to help shift the paradigm. In a month-long series of blog posts and social media threads, math educators swapped ideas, reflections and questions about how to bring math to life and put humans — particularly students — at the center.

Making Room for Mistakes

According to Vanderbilt education researcher Ilana Horn, a humanizing math classroom is “one where kids can bring their ideas and interact with their ideas about math to be able to make sense of it.” Dominant narratives about math often inhibit those possibilities, and dehumanize math, Horn said in an interview with MindShift. Among those narratives is the belief that speed and accuracy are the hallmarks of math intelligence. To counter that idea, Horn said teachers can point to the history of mathematical advances that resulted from thinking systematically, asking astute questions, looking for patterns and other types of intelligence.

Horn also suggested that teachers affirm to students that everyone makes mistakes. When teachers encourage “rough draft thinking” in math class, students can see math as a process, not a race to the correct answer. In a blog post for the Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics, teacher Allison Krasnow discussed her 5-year-old son’s idea that chocolate milk comes from brown cows as a playful example of rough draft thinking. Though her elder son quickly dismissed his brother’s conjecture, Krasnow reflected on how the exchange showed her younger child’s developing reasoning skills. Wondering how many such moments she misses with students, Krasnow encouraged teachers to “delight in (rough draft thinking) and know that it’s necessary for deeper understanding of the mathematics we’re learning together.”

Knowing Students as People

For Khodai, creating humanizing classrooms starts with understanding students as people. “Mathematical identities are developed over time through exposure and experience and it is important for me to know the identity of my learners to best serve them,” she said.

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Shah said that one way he gets to know his students is name tents, a practice popularized by Minnesota teacher and blogger Sara VanDerWerf. During the first week of school, students write comments and questions on the inside of a paper name tent, and the teacher responds daily. Student feedback can range from math-related — “I’m a little overwhelmed because I didn’t retain much from middle school” — to personal information — “I have three cats (three too many).” Some teachers have found the feedback from name tents so helpful they keep the conversations going beyond the first week. Other ways to help students feel seen and cared for throughout the year include cracking jokes, giving authentic compliments, celebrating birthdays and asking non-math questions, wrote virtual conference participant, Illinois teacher Elissa Miller.

Understanding the Bigger Picture

Knowing students also means understanding how race, class and other categories of identity can shape math identities. Several virtual conference participants shared their own backgrounds as examples. In a video post, Florida principal Makeda Brome described how her parents and pop culture figures like Dwayne Wayne enabled her to see herself as a "doer of mathematics" early in life. As she advanced in her education, though, she saw fewer and fewer black girls in math, which motivated her to be an example.

For graduate student Usha Shanmugathasan, her family’s status as refugees and her father’s death when she was a child made math a necessity. “Now, at the age of 12, I was budgeting, comparing prices and looking for sales, and balancing the cheque book,” Shanmugathasan wrote. “I was learning about integers at school and at home I was helping to figure out how to deal with debt, and how to pay rent and eat on a meager income. This was the dichotomous math of my life.”

The mathematical skills and thinking of students from marginalized groups have often been erased by Western schooling, according to University of Illinois professor Rochelle Gutiérrez. In her blog post for the virtual conference, Gutiérrez added the prefix “re-” to the term “humanizing mathematics,” noting that humans have been doing mathematics in “humane (beautiful) ways for centuries/millennia.”

She also outlined eight dimensions for rehumanizing mathematics and four questions that educators can use to reimagine their practices:

  1. In mathematics, what feels dehumanizing to my students?
  2. In mathematics, what feels dehumanizing to me, other teachers, or families/communities?
  3. What might feel more rehumanizing?
  4. Who can help me rehumanize this space?

In planning the virtual conference, Shah, the co-organizer, said he had hoped to mine techniques to import into his own classroom. What affected him more, though, were the human stories participants shared and the ways those reminded him of his power and responsibility as a teacher. Math classrooms do not succeed or fail just on curriculum, Shah said, but “on understanding that the room is filled with complex, wonderful individuals who are bringing their whole histories and selves to class each day.”

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