Close your eyes and imagine a mathematician. What do you visualize? Do you have a specific person in mind? Maybe it’s one of your former teachers, maybe it’s a movie or television character that plays a mathematician; is it one of the characters from The Big Bang Theory? If I were to ask you to describe a typical mathematician would you describe someone of a specific gender, race, socioeconomic background? In the article, “5 + 1 Things Teachers Can do to Close The Math Achievement Gap,” Goorish Wibneh describes an achievement gap in mathematics in the Seattle Public schools citing that “between 2010 and 2014 more than sixty percent of black students failed their end-of-course algebra exams(compared with less than 20 percent of white students).” As a teacher who believes that every student can find success in math, I am alarmed at this statistic. What is happening in math classrooms that causes this gap?
Simply, there is inequity in teaching practices. In her book Mathematical Mindsets, Jo Boaler lists six strategies that teachers can employ in their classrooms to begin to address inequity. First, she believes that every child deserves access to high level content. Tracking students into high, medium, and low level math classes creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and encourages students to maintain the status quo of their placements. Her second strategy is to dismiss the idea of math giftedness. This is the belief that some people are born to do math and some are not. This ties into growth versus fixed mindsets. Overcoming the belief of math giftedness requires a shift towards a growth mindset. A mindset shift may be necessary for both teachers and students. Teachers who believe that all students have the potential to be successful in math create an encouraging environment; this, in turn, helps students believe that they can become successful in math. The next strategy to address inequity is to teach math for deeper understanding. Rather than teaching surface-level procedures, Boaler believes that teaching math through a problem-solving lens using real-world applications encourages all students to value math as more than a performance subject. Students are more successful in the long run when they learn how concepts are related rather than simply mastering algorithms which have no connection to a greater picture. In the same way, her next suggested strategy, collaborative learning, allows more access for students, and an opportunity to make deeper connections within mathematics concepts. When students work together, they share in the building of knowledge and deepen each other’s understanding through communication. Her next strategy is essentially addressing the idea of equality versus equity. It is not enough to equally praise the success of all students, but to, in a way, overcompensate for those that face additional barriers and disadvantages by specifically highlighting the successes of women and minorities in mathematics. Lastly, Boaler suggests that homework be eliminated altogether. She believes that the expectation of completing homework outside the classroom is highly inequitable. By assigning homework, teachers are creating barriers for students who are already faced with disadvantages. Homework is one more hurdle which can hamper success in mathematics. Even one small change in a classroom to address inequity can make a difference for a single student. By taking the first step of discussing inequity in our classrooms, we can begin to change the perception of “who is smart at math”. Eventually our students will imagine themselves as the mathematicians of the future.
Boaler, Jo. Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages, and Innovative Teaching. Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer Imprints, 2016.
Wibneh, Goorish. “5 + 1 Things Teachers Can Do to Close the Math Achievement Gap.” The Seattle Globalist, 15 Mar. 2016, http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2016/03/15/math-achievement-gap-solutions-seattle-public-schools-jo-boaler/47667.