A recent conference explored the potential relationship between math instruction and social justice. For those of us using community indicators to create community change, some of the same lessons apply -- and the good news is that these lessons are now available in a standardized curriculum.There's a resource called Radical Math that provides this framework to connect learning math with social justice. From the guide (PDF), here's two reasons why integrating these two concepts makes sense:
- Good math doesn’t mean good politics
There are some textbooks and popular curricula that are useful for teaching young people mathematics. Many of these texts even use real-world contexts for instruction. However, very few of them are relevant to our young people, and they don’t have students investigate issues of social justice. Talking about a jar of Jelly Beans can be a fun way to learn about probability. But studying probability in the context of a unit on how the Lottery increases the economic divide between rich and poor will allow the class to cover the same mathematical content while simultaneously investigating an important issue of economic inequality.
- Good politics doesn’t mean good math
Many people often make the mistake of thinking that just because we are talking about important and relevant issues, that there is good teaching and learning going on in our classrooms. Unless the math content itself is strong, even the most provocative conversations and lessons are actually doing students a disservice. It is an act of social in-justice to deny young people the opportunity to master the math that they are in your class to learn.
There's a fascinating article called Making Numbers Count at Tolerance.org that discusses this approach to learning math. I liked this quote from Janet Wayne, an 11th-grade math teacher in Los Angeles:
"These kids got involved socially and politically in their communities because they knew the numbers," Wayne says. "And I have to tell you, that's why I love math."
The approach is not without its critics, of course. I'll leave the arguments about politics in the classroom to others. But finding a way to increase statistical literacy by using real-world social justice data can't be all bad.
The resources page at Radical Math links to a series of background information (and a number of indicators data sources).
If you've been working with local math classes with your community indicators projects to provide the data for them to learn about graphs and data analysis, please share. If you aren't, here's an interesting idea to explore.