Look beyond the numbers. Look around and through them. Answer questions we don’t even know how to ask. The math that doesn’t exist.
I’m fascinated by the English teacher community around #DisruptTexts. The community hosts Twitter chats during the school year as well as an ongoing conversation around disrupting the white male literary canon. One goal is to replace texts, making space for new works that help more students see themselves in the literature they read and reflect perspectives that have been excluded from the canon. A second goal is to apply a critical lens to texts that remain, looking at literary classics from new perspectives and challenging narratives by questioning the ways that groups are centered or marginalized. See this great post by Tricia Ebarvia for a deeper dive into what disrupting texts looks like.
The #DisruptTexts community came up during the Twitter Math Camp morning session “Taking a Knee in the Mathematics Classroom: Moving From Analysis to Action” led by Marian Dingle and Wendy Menard. Each of my last three years at Twitter Math Camp, there has been a lot of interest in conversations about equity. And each of those years, despite initial interest, those conversations have seemed to fizzle. I’m curious what a rich, sustained community around equity would look like in the online math education world. One thing I’ve noticed in past conversations around equity is a focus on sharing resources. Many teachers want to create or draw from a bank of social justice lessons, or share ways to help students see themselves as potential mathematicians, even if they don’t fit our culture’s stereotypes of what a mathematician looks like. And these are awesome conversations! I’ve really enjoyed them. But what I’m looking for, and what I conjecture the community as a whole would benefit from, is a space that centers learning. That’s something I love about #DisruptTexts. While it’s a space to share concrete ideas around disrupting the literary canon, it’s also a space for continuing conversations around why, exactly, it’s important to disrupt the canon, what a more inclusive English curriculum might look like, how to start tough conversations in schools, and broadly just asking questions and learning from others.
One group doing this work has been the #MTBoS book club that Annie Perkins has organized. I’ve enjoyed following along with those conversations, and I think they’ve done a lot of this work. But I’m skeptical that a book club is the best way to draw new people in — there’s a significant barrier to entry, and it by necessity moves slowly.
I’ve heard from lots of folks in the math education world that they care about equity, and they want to increase their capacity in doing equity work, but they’re not sure how, and they’re hesitant to engage because of a fear of saying the wrong thing. What would it look like to create a space that draws people in to conversations about equity and focuses on learning, while also supporting concrete change in classrooms? There are lots of great folks already doing this work. What’s missing is the core message and connecting thread to tie it all together. I’m not sure what that looks like. There are lots of pieces of math education we can critically examine. Here are a few I’d love to have conversations and learn more about.
- Who practices mathematics? Sunil Singh recently wrote a great piece advocating for math history to be taught in schools to help students understand those who have contributed to mathematical knowledge but are not highlighted as mathematicians in classrooms. I just got my tote bag, thanks to Chris Nho! And Annie Perkins has done awesome work collecting information on mathematicians who aren’t just white dudes to help students see themselves as potential mathematicians.
- How is mathematical knowledge created? I love Ben Blum-Smith’s piece on the history of calculus. It’s very funny, and it also gets at the uncertainty in what calculus even was, uncertainty that lasted for centuries. The math we teach in schools didn’t pop fully formed out of brilliant and reclusive mathematicians. It was constructed over long periods of time, through debate and disagreement, and many ideas that are staples of our curriculum weren’t well understood until recently. (See also, the concept of a function.)
- What does it mean to practice mathematics? Is mathematics only a study of abstraction? Can it also be used for social good? Can it be used to understand inequality? Can it be used to make better informed political decisions? Is mathematics only about fast and accurate computation, or can it also be about intuition, about negotiating ambiguity, and about joy? How can we better value the ideas and perspectives that our students bring to our classrooms and build from what students already know?
I have two convictions about this work. First, there are a ton of brilliant people already sharing important ideas, but there is potential to share them more widely and create a more vibrant and ongoing conversation that centers equity in math classrooms. Second, I know I have a ton to learn, as does the larger math community, and a space that draws more people in to conversations to reconceptualize how we think of mathematics and mathematics education could have enormous value for our students.
I don’t know what it might look like. I know thoughtful people have worked on this, and I don’t mean to diminish the work of others who have tried to build an equity-oriented math community. But I want to continue conversations to question how we can do a little better, learn a little more, and reach a little farther.