The Limits of Language

And so I’ve been asking myself lately, is equity even a useful term for me anymore? And I’ve kindof come up with the decision that it’s not. Not because it no longer works for me personally; when I think of that word equity I know what I’m talking about. But equity is this word that has been used so often now, it’s like that word diversity, that it kindof doesn’t mean anything anymore, or at least it’s not clear what it means. I liken it to the organic and natural movement of the 1970s. Back in the 60s and 70s when somebody said that they had something that was natural or that was organic, there was a certain standard we held ourselves to, right? Now, Campbell’s soup is organic, you’ve got strawberries that are grown in fields that the organic ones are grown right next to the non-organic ones, it’s the same distributor, so you have to ask yourself, what is this thing we even say when we say equity? Because historically what has happened with that word, and how it has gotten taken up, I think that it fails to promote dialogue and visioning, because when we’re in a meeting, and somebody says “we really need to address equity in our math department” or “in this committee when we’re selecting a new person to come into our field we need to be thinking about equity issues.” Well we don’t tend to stop ourselves and ask, “what do you mean by equity?” We tend to all in our heads go, “yea, I agree, I want to address equity too,” but there’s many different versions out there.

-Rochelle Gutierrez

The answers to why we should be racially diverse often hover most around “because I know it’s the right thing to do”, which just doesn’t cut it. I wanted to ask:

Why is it the right thing to do?
Why do you want me here?
What do you miss by my absence?

All met with silence.

-Marian Dingle

First, go watch Rochelle Gutierrez’s talk and read Marian Dingle’s blog post. They’re fantastic, and I learned a ton from both of them. I want to pick up on one idea I took from both pieces.

Language is tricky. When I use a word, I might mean a certain thing, but I don’t know if those I’m engaging with understand exactly what I mean.

The trickiness is compounded in equity work. First, because equity work is messy, especially in social media-oriented spaces that incentivize catchy sound bites and quick fixes. And second, because disrupting the status quo is uncomfortable, and humans don’t like being uncomfortable.

The word “equity” is a great example. When I first understood the distinction between equity and equality, that idea was really useful. Equality has a connotation of giving everyone the same thing, while equity means giving every individual what they need to thrive. Equity helped me to think more critically about what I want for my students. But there’s a lot more complexity under the surface. Similarly, diversity is something most folks in education seem to believe is a good thing. But does our collective belief in diversity mask hard questions that might force us to confront the places we’re coming up short, and think critically about why we want diversity? These are the questions Rochelle and Marian are asking, and they each pushed me to reconsider the ways I use language, and the ways that I might be able to use language to better say what I mean.

So certain words have useful meanings, but as they become more and more common that meaning becomes normalized, becomes comfortable, and stops dialogue and reflection rather than encouraging it.

I think this happens in the language we use around teaching math as well. I want to teach so that students develop “conceptual understanding” of math content. It’s the difference between teaching how to solve a single problem and teaching how that problem represents a larger concept, is connected to other problems, and how that knowledge might be applied in new contexts in the future. A nuanced perspective on conceptual understanding helps me to better make sense of times when students struggle to transfer their knowledge to new problems and inform what I emphasize when introducing a concept.

But when I talk to other teachers, conceptual understanding often ends conversation rather than starting it. Everyone agrees conceptual understanding is important. But when you say conceptual understanding, do you mean the same things I do? How, exactly, does one teach students in ways that promote conceptual understanding? In what ways has that idea changed your teaching practice? The language alone often serves to create agreement and consensus, rather than conversation and further thinking.

I see something similar with “misconceptions.” Students aren’t blank slates; they bring their ideas and prior knowledge to class, and sometimes the ideas they bring are counterproductive for what I want them to learn. Anticipating those misconceptions and addressing them is much more productive than pretending that each student is an empty vessel that I’m pouring knowledge into.

But some folks argue that labeling student thinking as a “misconception” is counterproductive. They argue that students are trying to make sense of new ideas based on what they know, and their ideas are really just conceptions — “misconception” is a judgment based on our perspective as teachers. I find this really useful too! Not that I think misconceptions are evil or don’t exist, but thinking of student conceptions instead of misconceptions helps me to seek out the valuable thinking that students bring and build off of it, rather than see their ideas as broken or unusable.

The language I use shapes the way I act. If I am in the habit of labeling student ideas as misconceptions, I am likely to emphasize correcting them over valuing their thinking, and to miss opportunities to see potential bridges between where students are and where I want them to get. If I push myself to think more about conceptions, I get in the habit of assuming students bring valuable ideas to class, and creating space for students to recognize their value as mathematical thinkers. This isn’t just semantics; language influences how I see the world, and changing my language helps me to see and act in new ways.

Some people would argue that the policing of political correctness has run amok, that liberals only want to tell people what they can and cannot say, and blame and shame those who don’t conform. That argument misses the point; the point is not to change language, but to use language as a lever for action. Being more thoughtful and specific and concrete in the language I use is a generative experience; it leads me to new ways of thinking, being, and doing. Rochelle articulates the ways that “equity” has become inadequate and offers “rehumanizing mathematics” as a framework for thinking more deeply about equity in math education. Her talk helped me to find new places to work on my practice, and a new lens through which to look at my classroom. Marian asks hard questions about the ways that “diversity” promotes agreement without pushing people to clarify why they want to be in diverse spaces. Her post helped me to interrogate my motives, to better understand why I believe what I believe, and to locate the places I need to do more internal work. I’m grateful for both perspectives. Both took ideas that might seem common-sense and comfortable, and unpacked the messiness and the places where folks are falling short. Both seek to hold folks accountable for following through in practice. And both will help me to find new places where my language is inadequate to a task, and push myself to find new language that holds me accountable for more productive action.

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