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The Importance of Math Education for a Just Society

Apr 22, 2023 | 0 comments

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Apr 22, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments

Many understandings exist for teaching for social justice and can be designated as “sliding signifiers” as postulated by Apple (1995). That is, the actual meaning of social justice teaching is struggled over and is subject to various meanings by various groupings with agendas that are sometimes very different educationally and ideologically. Varying audiences, content, and goals affect an individual’s conception of teaching that is socially just, and various conceptions might limit the approaches toward equity and justice (Chubbuck & Zembylas 2008; North 2008). This papers conceptualization of teaching mathematics for social justice draws mainly from Paulo Freire’s work who came up with a critical pedagogy that was aimed at forming a society where the humans transform their society actively to make it better. According to Freire (1993, p. 30), “this pedagogy belonging to the people who are oppressed must be forged with the pedagogy for the individuals who are not oppressed… in the continuous struggle for regaining their humanity.” the education purpose is not to integrate the marginalized people into the existing society but instead to make changes to the society, so all everyone is included. Therefore, education should assist students in analyzing oppression and criticizing inequities, point out how these issues link to their lives and engage them so as to challenge the structures the are inequitable (Bartell 2013).

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The literature of mathematics education outlines equity as a process of offering all students the opportunity of learning the academic, classical or the dominant mathematics, including specific norms, processes, and content (Gregson 2013). This includes the efforts of helping the students who are marginalized such as the students from low-income families, Latinos, and the African American students, in bridging their differences between their daily linguistic and cultural knowledge and the domain specific, dominant mathematics knowledge (Nasir, Hand, & Taylor 2008). Moses & Cobb (2001) pointed out that the algebra project is an example that is frequently noted. The algebra project applies a curriculum driven by the common experiences of the students, pedagogy that was influenced W.V. Quine, who was a philosopher and also advanced mathematic problems.

The algebra project according to Moses et al (1989, pp. 438–439) is modeled on an approach of community organizing to educational innovation. The approach encompasses discussion of the community of the algebra purposes and how all child might gain access to the preparatory mathematics curriculum for the college. From the description, the major focus is on dominant mathematics access through the distribution of the mathematical goods that are existing equitably. Moreover, the recent literature places focus on algebra project on access as well (Gresalfi et al 2008; Greeno & Hall 1997). Such presentations contradict the critical conceptions of equity that regard access but also addresses the social influence questions. That is how the relationship of the learners to mathematics and the relationship of mathematics to students is reflected in political, economic and social relations. From a critical standpoint, equitable mathematics education outcomes must include the capacity of navigating and reducing social inequity both despite and with the mathematics power (Gregson 2011).

Critical standpoints on mathematics education

Darder et al (2003) asserted that the critical educators who typically outside of mathematics educations indicate that education should assist people in recognizing inequity as an outcome of economic and social relations that are created by humans that can be challenged. Based on the constructs of praxis and dialogue, critical education engages classroom social problems and beyond. Such educators regard knowledge as a socially mediated process that is ongoing. That is simultaneously objective and subjective and always affected by power relations. Therefore, the people who take a critical standpoint towards education must grapple with issues of power and identity necessarily. This is also true in other domains including mathematics education (Gutiérrez 2013). For example, critical educators understand the students who have been marginalized by social class or racism will not overcome their marginalization automatically by acquiring mathematics skills that are advanced. They need resistance and more analysis tools.

The critical literature on mathematics education advocates for assisting the students in confronting and applying mathematics in ways allowing them and the other students get access to futures that are just. The insight into how this work might be informed by the Freirean theory is provided by Frankenstein (1987). Frankenstein applied co-investigations in statistics courses and dialogue in helping working class adults to understand statistics as a creation of human, practiced in particular economic and historical contexts and used to confront and maintain inequity. In addition, the researchers writing about approaches to mathematics education that are culturally relevant in the 1990s in the contexts of K-8 brought a clear attention to such world’s political nature (Tate 1995; Ladson-Billings 1995).

Teaching mathematics for social justice

An increasing but a small number of researchers have started investigating teaching mathematics for social justice (Skovsmose, 1994; Gutstein 2003; Frankenstein 1997). For instance, Skovsmose (1994, pp. 208) considered whether “mathemacy,” which means a “competence in which people can understand and interpret social reality features,” can be used for empowering since it can be a mechanism for organizing and reorganizing how to interprete social traditional, organizations and proposals for reforms of politics. Skovsmose (1994), in his work, examined mathematics focused projects, relevant to the lives of the Danish students and associated to the society’s significant processes, in supporting the students to achieve a broader awareness of the degree in which mathematics is incorporated in the everyday life and for preparing the students for democratic citizenship. Economic Relationships in the Childs World, one such project, involved students to analyze their personal use of money, examined and critiqued a social program awarding money to families based on the family’s number of children, and creating a budget for a club for the youth (Bartell 2013). Skovsmose (1994) used each project in highlighting specific critical mathematics education aspects intended at social justice promotion.

Similarly, Gutstein (2003) suggested a theoretical framework for social justice pedagogy that included the student’s goals in writing and reading the universe with mathematics. Gutstein (2003) defined “reading the world” as applying mathematics in understanding relationships of resource inequities, power and unequal opportunities amongst various social clusters and in understanding clear discrimination centered on language, gender, class, race and other dissimilarities. For instance, students used mathematics in addressing whether there exists evidence of racism in data for housing. On the other hand, “writing the world “entailed application of mathematics in changing the world, which is a process of development, or starting to perceive oneself as having the capability of creating transformation, and creating a form of social organization (Gutstein 2006, p.27). For instance, the students attended community meetings and wrote essays as they used mathematics in examining and confronting gentrification their neighborhood. Gutstein (2006, p. 70) in his study found that students grew in their ability in understanding society’s complex aspects, whereby, “mathematics became a powerful and a necessary tool for analysis that use students used in studying their sociopolitical existence.” Furthermore, Gutstein’s (2006, p. 127) data suggested that “mathematics in context” supported students to learn mathematics to understand and develop mathematical power, and that the views of his students grew about mathematics. They saw it as essential for sociopolitical realities investigation that shaped their lives.

Educating Teachers to Teach for Social Justice

Despite the fact that virtually there is no existing research about in-service teachers tat teaches how to learn mathematics, and how to educate for social justice as indicated by Gates & Jorgensen (2009), a large number of studies does exist addressing teachers learning in their preparation programs and disciplines, to teach for social justice, other than mathematics (Cochran-Smith 1995; Barton 2003; Darling-Hammond et al 2002; Adams et al 1997).

Teaching for social justice is a process that needs teachers to adapt to a specific context their students and themselves are part of, and, therefore, is not a matter of method (Cochran-Smith, 1999). According to Bartell (2013) learning to teach social justice does not occur in one graduate course, but is a complex process and a lifelong undertaking that require reflection, perseverance and effort (Darling-Hammond 2002). Gutiérrez (2009) also stated that it needs teachers to see it that way.

In a study conducted by Bartell (2013), the authors used a design of a graduate course in the study that was informed by four main factors that guided the educators in learning teaching for social justice. The four main factors were drawn from a theoretical model of equity pedagogy of Darling-Hammond (2002), and they included schools, students, society, and self.

Teachers who are learning to educate for social justice must also get to understand themselves, both about others and in person (self). According to Darling-Hammond (2002), this includes making a reflection on how their opinions about learning and teaching get predisposed by the economic, historical and cultural perspectives wherein they grew up, and trying to understand experiences and perspectives of others to make a reflection on how their personal biases may affect their teaching (Bell et al 1997). Because schooling, learning and teaching are associated to social, political and economic structures of power in the community (Kozol 2005), classrooms and schools are not sites that are neutral. According to Cochran-Smith (1999), teachers learning how to educate for social justice contend with getting to understand how these structure of power interact with their understanding of learning and teaching (society).

Teachers learning how to educate for social justice must also get to understand and know well their students. Darling-Hammond (2002, p. 209) asserted that they must know and understand their students in ways that are non-stereotypical while comprehending and acknowledging the means in which context and culture impact their learning and lives. Teaching for social justice entails making issues such as classism, racism, equity, and power explicit classroom parts (Cochran-Smith, 1999). According to Griffin (1997), students have a broad range of reactions to the issues, from immobilization to resistance, to anger, and to excitement. Knowing and understanding your students well includes anticipating the myriads students’ responses that they might be having.

Lastly, teachers learning teaching social justice to make consideration of the evolving understanding of students, self and social contexts affecting teaching and learning so as to enact and develop classroom practices supporting their students (school). It is also here that the teachers start developing pedagogies for social justice that maintain connections with the social contexts and students while also building on the existing knowledge of the students in creating new knowledge.

A close examination of the studies on social justice in education are in support with the argument that colored students frequently need an method that is different to be successful in mathematics classes. From the qualitative study conducted by Gutiérrez’s (1999) that focused on the Latino high school students success in calculus found out that Latino students in urban settings and from socioeconomic backgrounds that are low have the same capability of achieving similar success like their counterparts who are white and from suburban settings. According to Gutiérrez’s (1999), the key is the dedication and sensitivity of professional educators who have confidence in in the abilities of their learners. In the study, Gutiérrez’s (1999) pointed out that the mathematics department was aware of the needs of the students and took them into account so as to provide the support necessary for the success of the student. The mathematics department members also embraced diversity and was also valuable in developing positive relationship inside and outside the classroom with the students. The tutors valued relationships with their students that were meaningful which they built and maintained all through the academic year. Moreover, the teachers took their time in learning about their students, coordinated extra time outside their work and collaborated during the days of the schools to discuss the progress of the student, lessons and evaluating the lessons of each other. The teachers offer to tutor at different points in the course of the school time to reduce the student’s probabilities of leaving the school devoid of the help needed in completing the assignments. This support allows the students receive accommodations equitably and enter classrooms at different levels to meet their personal and academic needs. In the study, Gutiérrez’s (1999) used observations and interviews to examine calculus program success thoroughly and relate its achievement to a pedagogy that is culturally relevant that was adopted by the department of mathematics (Ladson-Billings 1994). The tutors also shared the belief that the learners at high school level who had access to calculus also had access to fields of study and colleges that have excluded colored people historically. As concluded by Gutiérrez, this access provided an environment that is just culturally for the Latino students, who may not be offered equitable resources that are essential for their success, in a different environment.

Teaching with social justice is as significant as educating for social justice. In his study, Mitescu et al (2011) measured implementation activities of the syllabus of social justice in primary school classes. The research applied a mixed methodology that was unique to the literature body in that in linked directly the teachers teaching practices to the outcomes of the students on the state mandated end of unit tests. The study findings indicated that the learners who received more teachings from the context of social justice demonstrated reasoning of greater degrees and scored higher eventually on the state tests compared to those with the less context of social justice. Despite the fact that the study by Mitescu et al (2011) used only twenty-two novice teachers of the elementary school and their students, the results are dependable since they validate social justice use in the curriculum. The gotten results are also reflected for entirely other subdivisions and not only the white students. For these learners who are in elementary school, the early exposure to social justice concepts helps in providing a classroom that is just socially and allows the students to start questioning the enacted policies and work towards an inclusive and equitable situations.

In a study conducted by Rousseau and Tate (1995) noted a lack of pedagogy that is relevant culturally inside the classroom and its outcomes for the males who are African-American. The researchers interviewed and observed teachers and documented a classroom environment that is seriously inequitable. In the study, one teacher claimed to be just to her all learners in her class by delegating the duty of assisting other learners in her class to that of the students from her agenda. The aim was to inspire the students to start discussions allowing for help with the tasks of the day. However. The outcome was the white students seeking help while the students who were African-American especially the males were missing out in the process of learning. Furthermore, the learners who suffered most in during the process were further marginalized and at the end failed in the course. However, the teacher understood the trend and allowed it to persist. The reluctance of the African American students to seek for assistance in which the teacher and themselves knew they needed desperately, resulted in an unbalanced state that brought inequality to the doorsteps of the students directly. The teacher believed she was being equitable since the same opportunities offered to the African American male students were also provided to the whole class. The male students who were African American “decided” not to utilize the chances. Therefore, according to the teacher, the failures of the students are not because of unfair treatment, but a result of chronological consequences of their decisions. The transfer of the blame to the learners left the teacher with no motive of considering changing her strategies of teaching to make sure that her class have an opportunity that is equitable in learning mathematics.

Based on a study by Rousseau and Tate’s (2003) a significant reminder can be gotten that equal does not imply fair. As noted by Hodge (2006) and Gutiérrez (1999), in many cases students vary in motivation, family values, and abilities that require the teacher to be cognizant of the student’s differences and accordingly respond. What may be applicable for an individual student may not work for the next student. This is evident in a study by Rousseau and Tate’s (2003). In the research, the tutor was not changing the plan when the plan in place was not working to expectations or effective. It is important for the teachers to increase accountability instead of expecting it from the students in a single day whose cultural basis may not be fitting with the prospects of the classroom. In other words, a balance must be there. The teachers must apply their professional judgment in initiating changes for the students who need it and also when necessary (Colquitt 2014). Too much mathematics class’s remediation, for instance, may suppress the students’ improvement who are prepared to move to the next class. On the other hand, too little remediation in mathematics classroom may leave behind less prepared students. Again, to be impartial is to be familiar with the student’s differences, make the modifications that are necessary to the instruction practices, and to begin the important help to all students’ success.

The research by Ensign (2003) provided an example of teaching that is culturally linked and the supportive evidence of its effect on the learning and teaching in the mathematics classes. The study used qualitative or descriptive measures in delving more into the teaching matter that is culturally connected and noted that learners, notwithstanding their upbringings, have a higher likelihood of contributing to the solving and writing mathematical problems that they often come across daily. The problems are authentic, contextual and mirror a curriculum that is revolving around students. Just like Gutiérrez (1999), Ensign (2003) chose an urban setting and got similar results. That is when the students from the low socioeconomic status and the colored students have the content and households that are favorable to learning; the results are analogous to those of their white colleagues. Similarly, Ensign (2003) noted the lack dependency by the students on the problems of the textbooks in generating interest of the students in mathematics. Despite the fact that writers of mathematics textbooks claimed to provide examples and problems that are relevant, they are reliable to the writers themselves but not to the learners (Ladson-Billings 1995; Ensign 2003). This leads to a “disconnect” between learning and teaching of mathematics and can be eliminated by letting the learners to get in the mathematics from their communities and their homes.

For every discussed researches, they offered a glimpse of the mathematics classes that are full of mathematics that is engaging, relevant and rich. According to Colquitt (2014), these factors are significant to the student’s success, especially the colored students. Students will work when the context is significant. Similarly, Tate (1995) posited that it is no longer an option for the classrooms providing authentic learning for the students, but is a prerequisite, if the learners are to realize success in mathematics subject. Tate (1995) indicated that colored students are often compelled to comprehend the white’s understandings to be to realize success in a mathematics classroom. The tutors who in most instances are normally white select textbook problems that were written by majorly white authors from a perspective of the whites. This is also noted by Ensign (2003) who claimed that the textbook problems are irrelevant to the colored students hence forcing them to learn mathematics and also get identified with a new context that sometimes they have no understanding or experience previously. For instance, changing the Eurocentric faces and names to the traditional faces and names of the Hispanics, for instance, does not brand mathematics relevant culturally. This shows the textbook writer’s deficiency of cultural sensitivity and contributes to the students difficulties in doing mathematics. The approach of textbooks in teaching mathematics results and put up with the learning atmospheres that are inequitable and holds captive social justice in mathematics classes’ progress in United States.

A demonstration on how educators must and can decamp from the traditional practices and teaching textbooks is provided by Tate (1995). The illustration lets the students convey in issues plaguing their societies and apply mathematics as a tool for advocacy in promoting change. Tate (1995) used interviews, artifacts, and observations in describing a discussion in a classroom that evolved into a project for social justice in a qualitative study tutor who implemented social justice pedagogy successfully. The social justice project incorporated mathematical concepts and skills use in defining a community problem, initiated change improving the quality of the community of students, and presented the issue to the policy makers. This was a sincere study that illuminated the sincere desire of the teacher for learners to recognize, right the wrongs and analyze in their localities. This led to the enablement of the student, knowing deeper of mathematics as a tool for advocacy, and the student’s duty in making modifications for the better (Colquitt 2014).

In literature reviewing a small section of Frankenstein (1997) and Ladson-Billings (1995), the ultimate teaching responsibility is a socially just and equitable classroom heavily rests upon the preparation programs of the teacher Gay and Howard (2000) offered a basis preparing of the future teachers deliberately to teach student populations that are diverse ethnically. The future teachers in most instances are uncomfortable discussing teaching from a perspective of multi-culture or race. “Both in services and pre-service are perplexed on how they can simultaneously teach for multicultural education and meeting academic excellence standards. Most of them think it is impossible, even as they claim to accept the necessity of doing both” (Gay and Howard 2000). Every educator comes with a list of principles to the classes, whether unsubstantiated or substantiated, and such values influence how the teachers teach their students. Using a disaggregated data, Gay and Howard (2000) also expounded on the multicultural education need. Native American, Latino and African American learners poorly achieve continually in mathematics, and this substantiates the results by Ladson-Billings (1995) and Tate (1995). The difference between teacher preparation program and desirable teaching practices is a racism side effect, particularly about mathematics education since mathematics is often regarded as the “gateway “allowing or denying access to many careers and colleges. Gay and Howard (2000) further suggested that more preliminary courses in diversity and multicultural teaching be necessary of everyone who is planning to be accredited to educate the aspiring teachers and the children. Lastly, Gay and Howard (2000) declared that pedagogy for cultural education teaching need to be an effort shared. All instructors of teachers, not only the colored, have the responsibility to prepare a future teacher to teach with social justice and cultural sensitivity in mind. Given that majority of the tutors are not the colored people, the duty must begin with the undergraduate students and be spread amongst all teacher educators to have major role potentially in teaching mathematics in classrooms that are fair socially.

The idea of preparation of the teacher is not exclusively for the coursework but also incorporates a component of reflecting on oneself once the educator is in the classroom. This is significant for the teachers of the twenty-first century. According to Gay and Howard (2000, pp.8), reflections include (a) critical honesty of white perceptions of truth and dominance that is culturally conditioned; (b) genuine empathy perspectives, issues and experiences of other tribal groupings; (c) advocacy for distribution of privileges and power again amongst different ethnic groupings; and lastly (d) making investments on energies and resources in the real change process.

Similarly, Rousseau and Tate (2003) stressed the significance of reflection of the teacher as means of improving the equity in mathematics classrooms amongst students. To further elaborate on this argument, the idea of color-blind teaching is regularly used in justifying all students’ equal treatment. However, from a perspective of CRT, color blind teaching is an instrument for keeping intact the present structures of education. Not recognizing color means a conscious choice of the teacher to distinguish and disregard the variances amongst students that are undeniable and then refute that the variances lead to teaching practices that are inequitable and should be taken into account when lesson planning (Ensign 2003; Ladson-Billings 1994).

Lastly, Rousseau and Tate (2003) noted that reflection of oneself by the teacher is significant in assisting in the elimination of classroom inequities. The educators viewing equity as equal distributing of resources see equity not as an outcome but as a process. Additionally, when teachers make a reflection on equity as a socio-economic matter, they may not recognize the racism consequences and shift the blame of learner academic failure and apathy on the deficiency of education of their parents. This leaves the prevailing power sharing as it is and obscure the necessity for changing the practices and policies contributing to the failure of the colored students in mathematics.


In conclusion, the partial literature review on social justice in education places the teacher educators and teachers with consequences to improve the present mathematics education state. Education courses for teachers should implement the viewpoint to prepare all tutors to be able to educate all students. This needs the teacher to be aware of issues of equity, classroom diversity and the needed support to implement these ideas appropriately. The rule should be the relevant teaching needs, and not the exemption of fairness in mathematics learning will assist in the obstacles linked with learners and educators preparation for the societies where they are anticipated to flourish. Rousseau and Tate (2003, pp. 212) asserted that “equal treatment if it leads to different outcomes is not equitable.” It is significant that teacher educators and teachers rise to the occasion to provide socially, equitable just environments by doing what is right for all students of mathematics.


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