Math for Social Good

I participated in the #ClearTheAir chat last night, discussing Episode 11 of Hasan Kwame Jeffries’ podcast Teaching Hard History, on Slavery in the Supreme Court. It was a great discussion, and I’ve learned a lot of important and neglected history from the podcast in the past few weeks. But talking about the role of math teachers in helping students to better understand our country’s racist history and build a better future, I felt a bit lost. Many folks had great ideas last night, questioning who is represented in math classes, how we understand math as a marker of intelligence, and how we create access to math classes for more students and use those classes as opportunities for empowerment. And I’m excited to do more of this work in my classroom! But today I’m teaching about polynomials and sequences & series, and when I get deep into content lots of these questions feel distant from what’s actually happening each day in class.

What is math? Some would say it is a tool for understanding the world, or a set of skills in abstract thinking, or problem solving, or content necessary to gain access to future education. I think that math education can meet those goals in lots of different ways. I’d love to imagine a new curriculum that dispels the myth that math is memorizing procedures and manipulating meaningless symbols, and builds from the ground up something that more students want to learn, that gives students agency in understanding the world and working to make change.

Complex numbers, polynomials, rational functions, most systems of equations, trigonometry, triangle congruence, circle theorems, conic sections? I could live without them. What if instead we taught a course called “Math for Social Good,” giving students skills to use math to understand injustice in the world around them? Here’s a first draft of some questions one might ask and explore:

Can math help us understand the world?

  • How can different statistical measures lead or mislead us?
  • How can different statistical representations lead or mislead us?
  • How can probability help us to understand justice and injustice?
  • What is a “fact,” and how can we make better-informed decisions based on our knowledge?

Can math make valuable predictions of the future?

  • How can linear models help us understand the world?
  • How can exponential models help us understand the world?
  • What is interest, and who does interest benefit?
  • In what ways are mathematical models used to empower or disempower people making everyday decisions?

Can math make society more democratic?

  • What is gerrymandering, and how does it influence elections?
  • Why do we elect politicians the way we do, and what are some consequences of our choices?
  • What are algorithms, and in what ways do they help or harm individuals and communities?
  • How did our country become segregated and what can we do about it?

What does it mean to do math?

  • Who has shaped the ways that we think of math today?
  • What narratives about math have been excluded from the curriculum?
  • What role does math play in a world with ubiquitous technology?
  • What math is most worth learning?

Some will say in response that this will never work, that colleges won’t accept it, that we have to get students on the road to calculus, or that the standards are what they are and no one will allow it. But it seems to me that the system we have doesn’t work very well for many students, particularly for groups that have been marginalized in the past. If we built math education from scratch, what would it look like? What might mathematics be in the future, and how might we create a mathematics that includes and empowers more learners? What is education without recognizing the shortcomings of the current system and imagining something that better prepares students to be engaged learners and informed citizens?

2 thoughts on “Math for Social Good

  1. Meghan Riling

    Thanks for sharing these ideas, Dylan! I’m curious about how some of your questions could be used to shape lessons/units within some more ‘straight’ math classes.

    I’ve been thinking a lot these days about one of the questions from your last set – “Who has shaped the way we think of math today.” That definitely has a problematic, power-laden history. I’ve been getting the sense from reading I’ve been doing lately that a lot of the way we often think about ‘truth’ in math classes comes from some really nasty beliefs about the difference between “pure” humans who can think about “true” mathematics versus “savages” who cannot… yeh. I’m not totally sure how to make that gross history of math more evident/suspect to students, especially in a way that is cooked into the rest of what students are doing — and even more especially when a class like the one you’re suggesting isn’t on the table.

    I also wonder – how could exploring mathematical systems from other cultures fit into something like this?

    Love your closing 2 questions especially 🙂

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks for the ideas! I got a similar sentiment on Twitter around finding ways to connect some of these questions and classes and content folks are already teaching. I think it would be neat to do a crosswalk between grade-level standards and these types of questions to find points of intersection and opportunities to bring in new perspectives. Exploring math from other cultures would fit well from that perspective.

      Another question I’m thinking about, re: your comment about “pure” and “true” perceptions of mathematics — I wonder if those perceptions are connected to common ideas about meritocracy and intelligence, that some people deserve certain things and others don’t. Need to think more about that.


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