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Reading and Writing the World With Mathematics: Toward a Pedagogy for Social Justice

reviewed by Blidi S. Stemn - March 31, 2006

coverTitle: Reading and Writing the World With Mathematics: Toward a Pedagogy for Social Justice
Author(s): Eric Gutstein
Publisher: Taylor & Francis, London
ISBN: 0415950848, Pages: 257, Year: 2006
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This book, Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics, uses Paulo Freire’s Liberation Education epistemology as a conceptual framework for discussing the teaching and learning of mathematics for social justice in an urban middle school with predominantly Latino students. In addition to the conceptual model, the author provides practical examples of tasks that can guide mathematics teachers as they attempt to investigate sociopolitical issues through mathematics. In this highly informative action research, Gutstein argues that school mathematics should socialize students into interrogative and investigative roles and proactive identities so as to enable them to believe in their own power to contribute to the shaping of their communities and to society in general. The author’s definition of reading the world with mathematics includes the use of mathematics to “understand relations of power, resource inequities, and disparate opportunities between different social groups and to understand explicit discrimination based on race, class, gender, language, and other differences” (pp. 25–26). Similarly, he views writing the world with mathematics as “a developmental process, of beginning to see oneself capable of making the change. . . . And developing a sense of agency” (p. 27). However, for students to be able to read and write the world with mathematics, Gutstein contends that they must learn the subject matter with understanding because limited mathematical knowledge can prevent students from becoming agents of change. Clearly, this approach to mathematics education is contrary to the hegemonic ideologies which have been pervasive in many, if not most, mathematics classrooms particularly in communities where the minority is the majority.

One of the strengths of this book is that it has an abundance of ideas for classroom practitioners and mathematics teacher educators who are searching for ways to teach against the grain. Furthermore, Eric Gutstein situates mathematics teaching in the immediate context of students’ lives and in the larger context of society through a problem-based approach. This problem-centered model provides opportunities for students to discuss, critique, analyze, and take action on sociopolitical issues impacting their lives. It also supports the current mathematics reform efforts set forth by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). The ideas in this book can be considered as starting points and glimpses of what is possible even during this era of high stakes standardized tests.

The book is organized around nine chapters. In the first chapter, the author provides an overview of the book by making connections between mathematics education and social justice. In chapter 2, the author offers a conceptual framework for teaching mathematics for social justice. The framework, which is informed by liberation education theory, has two broad pedagogical goals—social justice pedagogy and mathematics pedagogy. The social justice pedagogical goals draw the reader’s attention to three overlapping components—reading the world with mathematics, writing the world with mathematics, and developing positive cultural and social identities. The three components of the mathematics pedagogical goals are reading the mathematical world, succeeding in the traditional sense, and changing one’s orientation to mathematics. Chapter 3 discusses how the author uses tasks based on real lives of students, films, readings, mathematics discourse, and field trips to develop students’ sociopolitical awareness. For example, Gutstein uses real stories such as “Tuesday Gardening Crew” for students to investigate whether racism is a factor in the price of houses. Chapter 4 provides more examples of projects and how students can develop a sense of social agency as they begin to write the world with mathematics. This involves students understanding a situation, seeing themselves as having the power to make a difference, and taking action.

In chapter 5, Gutstein analyzes the relationships between the Mathematics in Context (MiC) curriculum program for middle schools and mathematics teaching for social justice. He shows how the philosophy underlying the MiC program has an enormous potential in contributing to the idea of teaching for social justice. This problem-based reformed mathematics program uses contextual problems to cultivate mathematics power among middle school students. What is significant about this chapter is that the author provides evidence of the application of the mathematical goals of the conceptual model suggested in chapter 2. Chapter 6 describes how the author, along with the students, created a classroom culture that nurtured and facilitated the teaching of mathematics for social justice. The author highlights the conditions that made this approach to mathematics pedagogy successful and those that made it challenging. He points out that “an important aspect of creating a social justice classroom is providing students the opportunities to politically analyze their lives” (p. 143). Chapter 7 is written by four students, Maria Barbosa, Adrian Calderon, Grisel Murillo, and Lizandra Nevarez, who were in the author’s two-year mathematics class (7th and 8th grades). These students share their insights, perspectives, and experiences after two years of learning mathematics based on a nontraditional model. The experiences of these students are thought provoking and revealing; and, above all, they validate the idea that teaching mathematics for social justice provides possibilities for meaningful learning and student empowerment. In chapter 8 the author examines the views of parents regarding the teaching and learning of mathematics for social justice based on interviews with some of the students’ parents. These interviews were a result of parents’ resistance to the school principal’s decision to remove the author from teaching the class. It is important to note that this chapter contradicts the often held perception that parents of children of color and the poor, in particular, are disinterested in the education of their children. The concluding chapter discusses the implications of mathematics pedagogy for social justice for curriculum development, mathematics teacher education and teacher education in general, and mathematics teaching.

Gutstein has demonstrated in this action research project that a well-intentioned mathematics curriculum and teaching practices can achieve the dual goals of mathematics excellence and empowerment (i.e., raising students’ consciousness about sociopolitical issues affecting them, leading them to become change agents). As we go about developing mathematics curricula, planning lessons, and preparing future mathematics teachers, it is critically important for us to ask ourselves about the world for which school mathematics curricula and instructional practices are preparing students. Are we preparing students to become obedient and passive recipients of knowledge as described by Freire’s banking concept or are we preparing them to be able to read and write the world?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 31, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12359, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 10:12:09 AM

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About the Author
  • Blidi Stemn
    Hofstra University
    E-mail Author
    BLIDI STEMN, Ph.D., is currently an Assistant Professor of Education at Hofstra University. I teach mathematics methods courses for graduate and undergraduate elementary school teachers and have developed and taught the course Learning to Teach Mathematics from a Social Justice Perspective for the past two years. My interests include mathematics teacher education for social justice, mathematics identity formation of African American students, and a problem-based approach to mathematics methods courses. I am currently working on Mathematics Teaching for Social Justice: The Journey of a Mathematics Teacher, an ethnographic and action research paper, and identity formation of high achieving, urban African American students in mathematics. She is also co-PI of Teacher/Leader Quality Partnerships (TQLP) Program, a professional development program with teachers of low performing schools in Hempstead and Roosevelt School Districts in New York. Her publications include “Mathematics Identity Formation of High Achieving African American Students,” Connecticut Mathematics Journal. She is the co-author of two papers: “Do Numbers Have Shapes? Connecting Number Patterns and Shapes Through the Vedic Matrix," Teaching Children Mathematics, and “Mathematical Discourse: It Makes Good Sense,” Connecticut Mathematics Journal.
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