Bank Street Releases Occasional Paper Series #41

The new Bank Street Occasional Paper Series #41—“Critical Mathematical Inquiry” —launched today to explore how teachers can reframe their mathematics lessons to surface discussions on instances of inequity and injustice. This approach to mathematics, known as Critical Mathematical Inquiry (CMI), can offer students a space of belonging, a sense of agency, and a deep inquiry into world and community issues that matter to them.

In the interview below, Guest Editors Mark Russo, District Supervisor of Mathematics and Computer Science for the Pascack Valley Regional High School District and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University, and Steven Greenstein, Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Montclair State University, provide further insight into what we can expect from Occasional Paper Series #41 and how educators can expand their view of mathematics as a venue for socially conscious engagement.

Q: What are the complexities and challenges of teaching through a Critical Mathematical Inquiry (CMI) lens and how can educators navigate these issues in their classrooms?

A: There are powerful and visible institutional forces and factors that are oppositional to teaching for CMI and that constrain teachers’ visions and intentions to do so. These include the usual suspects: pacing guides, testing regimens, curricular mandates, and others. Fahmil Shah, for example, outlines how standards, content, and assessment focus mathematics teachers on commercial-administrative issues over socio-analytical ones. That said, teachers who teach math for social justice, or CMI more broadly, do find curricular spaces in which to do this work.

Still, there are challenges, which we’ve learned about from Tonya Bartell’s work. As these teachers design their lessons, they experience a tension between their mathematical goals and their social justice goals. Sometimes the math takes priority over the social justice, and sometimes the integration of the two goals is difficult to accomplish. In that case, the math and the social justice get separated. This is a problem, because the math is meant to be used to make sense of the injustice—to “read” the world, as Rico Gutstein says—and the injustice is meant to provide a context that can help make the math more meaningful. Sample lessons and readings have helped teachers understand how to teach for social justice. We hope the contributions to this issue can do that for our readers.

Q: CMI suggests teaching and engaging with mathematics in a way that has larger positive social, cultural, and political implications. How does this differ from teaching classical mathematics?

A: Classical mathematics is great. We each have a passion for both the content and practice of mathematics. What drives us as mathematics educators is to share that passion and nurture it within students. School mathematics is something else, unfortunately. When Scott Walker was governor of Wisconsin, he sought to alter the mission of the University of Wisconsin by removing words that called on the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” This workforce imperative is what drives a lot of what goes on in public school today. CMI imagines something broader, something much closer to searching for truth and improving the human condition.

Paulo Freire, renowned educator, philosopher, and advocate of critical pedagogy, opposed a conception of literacy as skill-like and hyper-individualistic. His own conception is about social and political public expression. That contrast between notions of literacy offers a language for contrasting conventional schooling and its emphasis on skills and workforce preparation with classrooms that operate as venues for critical mathematical inquiry. In these classrooms, students bring everything about themselves and their communities to practice freedom and democratic participation, critically analyze their world, and act to challenge injustice and promote change.

Q: This issue illustrates the potential of mathematics as a lever for social justice, which involves creating opportunities for children to connect emotionally with the material. What are some examples of this type of content and what are the social-emotional skills that children may develop as part of this work?

A: It may be more accurate to propose that children connect emotionally with the experience. That includes both curriculum and pedagogy. We talk about this in our introduction to the issue, where we lay out how we think about a critical pedagogy for CMI. Readers are probably already aware of the benefits that students experience when their teachers seek to cultivate culturally relevant caring relationships with them. That’s classic Ladson-Billings, who talks not only about care, but about critical care. Tanya Maloney and Jamaal Matthews draw on this work in a nice piece they just published. It explores the connectedness that Black and Latinx students experience in classrooms with teachers who enact what they refer to as an empathetic caring pedagogy. Kari Kokka’s work is great, too. She found that social justice mathematics offered middle school students opportunities to experience healing practices. She calls this “healing-informed social justice mathematics,” and beyond the goal of developing mathematical knowledge and critical consciousness, it offers the added dimension of developing students’ well-being—in a mathematics classroom!

Several pieces in this issue also illustrate the potential for students to connect emotionally through their engagement in CMI. The essay, “Cultivating a Space for Critical Mathematical Inquiry” demonstrates how teachers can elicit their students’ mathematical, home, and community knowledge to develop curriculum that students could connect with on an emotional level. Readers can find other examples of curricular opportunities in Frances Harper’s piece, which describes a food desert project; in Lynette Guzmán and Jeffrey Craig’s piece, which presents The World as 100 People; and in Theodore Chao and Maya Marlowe’s piece, which tells the story of the Peace Park lesson. In terms of the social and emotional benefits, Elinor Albin and Gretchen Vice’s piece demonstrates how young children’s participation in CMI helped them better understand their own emotions, better empathize with their peers, and think more deeply about the meaning and importance of community. We see no reason to believe we wouldn’t see these same results with older students.

Q: In their essay, Chao and Marlowe discuss the link between mathematics and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. How can educators implement lessons that connect to emotionally and politically charged issues while maintaining a focus on mathematical literacy?

A: It’s an important question. As we mentioned earlier, CMI teachers can expect to experience difficulties as they try to balance mathematical goals and social justice goals. Bringing a Freirean notion of literacy to bear on how we think about mathematical proficiency has been a great place to start. Existing CMI curriculum offers a decent amount of practical support, as well. We provide some suggestions in the introduction to the issue. In their piece, Theodore Chao and Maya Marlowe acknowledge the tension between mathematical goals and social justice goals and offer some advice for managing the tension in their closing thoughts. The pieces by Francis Harper, Cathery Yeh and Brande Otis, and Laurie Rubel and Andrea McCloskey make similar contributions. We also suggest imagining a Venn diagram of Rico Gutstein’s framework of classical, community, and critical mathematics knowledge. We try to keep our aim on the intersection of those three forms of knowledge as we design and implement CMI activities.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this issue?

A: We hope through our framing of CMI that the contributions to the issue do two things. First, that they provide readers with an image of mathematics as a powerful tool for analyzing and addressing instances of inequity and injustice. And second, that they demonstrate that mathematics classrooms oriented to CMI can offer students a space of belonging and a venue for their agentive inquiry into issues that matter to them. We hope these prove to be powerful themes for readers that inspire them to develop critical pedagogies and curricular experiences for use in their own classrooms or wherever they have some educational influence.

Click here to read the full issue of Occasional Paper Series #41.