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Culturally Responsive Mathematics Education

reviewed by Kathleen Nolan - November 02, 2009

coverTitle: Culturally Responsive Mathematics Education
Author(s): Brian Greer, Swapna Mukhopadhyay, Arthur B. Powell, and Sharon Nelson-Barber (eds.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0805862641, Pages: 400, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

As I pondered the title of this admirable collection of essays, I could not help but ask the pertinent question at hand: What, exactly, is meant by (a) culturally responsive mathematics education? Decidedly, this is precisely the question addressed by each of the chapter authors, albeit in ways that are embedded in stories of identity, cultural artifacts, curriculum development, social justice, computer design, semiotics, the environment, and the historical, anthropological, and highly politicized perspectives on mathematics as socially and culturally constructed. I quickly discerned that such a diverse collection of perspectives focused on the topic of diversity does not readily lend itself to a cursory review process— striving to encapsulate the flavor of a rich text such as this in 1500 words or less is akin, I suppose, to striving to encapsulate what it means to be culturally responsive in mathematics education in 370 pages or less!  

As I read the book, I reasoned that a fitting approach to review might be to glean insight from the book and its authors into my initial ponderings: What, exactly, is meant by (a) culturally responsive mathematics education?  To do this, however, required that I first moved past the double irony I encountered. Firstly, there can be no answer to a question that juxtaposes the word “a” with the term “culturally responsive”, since such a juxtapositioning would impose an essential nature on what it means to respond to diversity. As suggested by d’Ambrosia, it is imperative to avoid “the trap of the same” (p. 6), and the authors of this book attempt to do just this. Secondly, I was challenged to get past the irony of the narrow focus of the book, consisting of authors writing only from/within the context of the United States and lacking explicit gender and class discussions. A few chapters have the U.S. context so deeply embedded in the story being told (for example, Gutstein and Miller-Jones and Greer) that it can be challenging for the reader to think beyond U.S. soil and the taste of U.S. politics. However, the editors do forewarn readers of this second irony in the book’s introduction, partially excusing this lack of scope by referring to the book as “a pointer to changes” (p. 6). I concur; this book is a daring and commendable attempt to point to possibilities for change. I can appreciate the editors’ intention to draw attention to the fact that a culturally responsive mathematics education is still far from being realized in classrooms and institutions across the globe.

Perhaps, at the end of it all, this double irony worked well as a subtext for my responsibility, as a reviewer, to respond to the distinct ways in which each of the book’s authors interprets and embraces cultural responsiveness in the context of mathematics education. In this light then, I will return to my question: What, exactly, is meant by (a) culturally responsive mathematics education?

A key starting point for understanding culturally responsive education is provided by Moses, West, and Davis, who emphasize the need to attend “to the experiences and notions of students and teachers where they begin, which is always cultural” (p. 255). Davis, Hauk, and Latiolais astutely point out what should be obvious: that in order to be responsive to (diverse) cultures, one must first understand what is meant by culture and how we identify cultures in our classrooms. These authors describe culture as “a collection of learned ways of seeing and interacting with the world and a slowly evolving intergenerational template for the shaping of these learned behaviors” (p. 354).

In this book, even reference to the term “culturally responsive” heeds d’Ambrosia’s warning of avoiding the trap of the same as the chapters move between the language of culturally responsive, equitable, liberatory education, cultural affirmation, and other related expressions. For example, Moschkovich and Nelson-Barber describe a cultural affirmation approach wherein “practices and approaches to learning that are different from those of the dominant culture (reflected in school practices) are affirmed rather than denied” (p. 114). These two authors identify cultural content, social organization, and cognitive resources as the “three areas central to ensuring that curricula and instructional practice are culturally relevant for students” (p. 114).

Martin and McGee frame their description in the language of liberatory mathematics education, emphasizing “equitable learning and participation experiences inside the classroom, which can help foster equity outside the classroom” (p. 233). The language of equity is a further focus for Aguirre who defines equity to mean “that all students in light of their humanity—personal experiences, backgrounds, histories, languages, physical and emotional well-being—must have the opportunity and support to learn rich mathematics that fosters meaning making, empowers decision making, and critiques, challenges, and transforms inequities/injustices” (p. 296). Authors Civil and Quintos, in focusing their attention on parental involvement in U.S. schools, argue “that a fundamental component for establishing a culturally responsive education is a dialogue that breaks down the hierarchical and hegemonic practices” (p. 321) that so often characterize schools, and mathematics classrooms in particular.

In the context of mathematics teacher education, Geneva Gay demands a critical analysis of the language, culture, and mystic of mathematics before prospective teachers can begin to understand and embrace the beliefs and tenets of culturally responsive teaching. It is Gay’s elaboration on these tenets of culturally responsive teaching that provided a highlight for me in reading the book. She discusses five such tenets that shape the ideology of culturally responsive teaching: “… the importance of culture; the social construction of knowledge; the inclusiveness of cultural responsiveness; academic achievement involves more than intellect; and balancing and blending unity and diversity” (p. 197). While her original groundbreaking work with culturally responsive teaching was of a general (not specifically mathematical) nature (Gay, 2000), her application of the tenets to mathematics education highlights the multiple levels on which ‘responsiveness’ (should) reside(s). Gay’s chapter reflects the complexity involved in deconstructing the “socially constructed identity of mathematics” (p. 193).

It is along this line of deconstructing constructed identities that I experienced a degree of personal and professional tension while reading this book (which, I remind the reader, is not a bad thing!). As I read the individual essays, I found myself continually shifting between the authors’ diverse, at times dichotomous, range of approaches to living out (a) culturally responsive mathematics education. I began to ponder the following question: Are we, as mathematics educators and researchers, advocating for a pedagogy that asks students to recognize mathematics as its own cultural system or a pedagogy that acknowledges, and interconnects with, the cultural systems of the students we teach? Of course, the most politically correct response to this question is to say ‘both’, but at times I seriously wonder how we can accomplish a blend of both. One could say I experienced ponderings of the chicken/egg question. What comes first: the chicken (focusing on the culture of students) or the egg (focusing on the culture of mathematics), and whether focusing on both simultaneously (which is what I believe is an overall message in this book) is akin to aiming at a moving target? In other words, if we focus our energies on a pedagogy that is responsive to, and interconnects with, students’ cultures will we miss the opportunities for a pedagogy that highlights mathematics itself as a social construction which is reflective of particular cultural values and identities? That is, a pedagogy that focuses foremost on revealing and deconstructing the cultural properties and myths of western views of mathematics. In owning a responsibility toward the cultures that students bring to our classrooms, do we risk providing a culturally restrictive education? What if our attempts to respond in multiple ways to multiple cultures actually preclude students from traveling within, and learning from, cultures not their own—politically and socially charged cultures like mathematics that are, in and of themselves, worthy of a response?

It is worth qualifying that my foray into these critical questions is meant to demonstrate how I, like the authors in this book, grapple with the tensions inherent in not seeking a set of best practices, or resolutions, in the simple, straightforward, and sameness that has frequently been the trademark of mathematics education initiatives touted under, for example, a ‘math for all’ umbrella. A case is definitely made in this book for challenging traditional images of mathematics with more humanistic images (Ernest), by incorporating the theoretical framework of ethnomathematics (Mukhopadhyay, Powell, and Frankenstein; Barta and Brenner), and by using mathematics education as a weapon in the struggle for social justice (Gutstein). In most chapters of this book, mathematics itself is undoubtedly acknowledged as a culture but in only a few chapters (for example, Ernest and Gay) do I sense a focus placed on ‘studying’ (exposing, deconstructing, teaching) about/through that mathematical culture as a way to actually be culturally responsive in mathematics education.

In closing, I would like to draw attention to how, in my view, many mathematics education research endeavors continue to talk the good talk of culturally responsive pedagogy in mathematics education, but walking the walk in practice remains much more elusive. That is, research continues to profess mathematics as its own cultural system without having this cultural notion infuse its teaching and learning. I applaud the sincere efforts of the authors in this book to ground the ‘good talk’ (the theoretical discussions) in specific classroom and curricular experiences that do, indeed, serve as pointers to possibilities for real change.


Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 02, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15818, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 10:15:21 AM

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About the Author
  • Kathleen Nolan
    University of Regina
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN NOLAN is Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Regina.
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