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.