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Mathematics Teaching, Learning, and Liberation in the Lives of Black Children

reviewed by Jo Boaler - September 08, 2010

coverTitle: Mathematics Teaching, Learning, and Liberation in the Lives of Black Children
Author(s): Danny Bernard Martin (ed.)
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0805864644, Pages: 376, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

When I was asked to review the book, Mathematics Teaching, Learning and Liberation in the Lives of Black Children, I jumped at the opportunity – for there cannot be a more important question in mathematics and beyond, than the ways we may improve the educational experience of children of color. Many months have passed since the book was sent to me, and it has been my constant companion on trains, planes, and in waiting rooms, even moving with me as I left England for a new life in the United States. But though my reading locations were varied, the messages I received from the book were not, particularly regarding the nature of teaching approaches that support, rather than suppress the potential of African American students. This book pulls no punches, clearly setting out the ways that we all contribute to the inequities of the educational system. It also communicates the ways that things can be different – giving the details and nuances of teaching and learning interactions that are often overlooked in research analyses. Readers will learn about the ways that equitable teachers regard students, the messages they give to students, the connected and relational pedagogies they use, and the role of cultural references in the promotion of equity.  These research analyses are all framed within a wider call – to research, to teach, and to think differently about African American students and the opportunities they receive.

Danny Martin’s opening chapter begins the call with some controversial and hard-hitting headlines – two of which I found particularly unsettling. Martin tells us that mathematics education researchers are too white, and those of us who use test results to highlight inequities contribute to racism. I found these claims unsettling partly because I am guilty on both counts, but also because his points are well made. Of course there isn’t much I can do about my color and Martin concedes that there are some white researchers who have helped the situation and some black researchers who have not. But mathematics education research probably would have focused more on the experiences of African American children and used lenses and theoretical frameworks that could help combat inequality if the researchers themselves had experienced the racism that pervades the educational landscape and is well documented in this book. Martin’s second accusation – that those of us who use test scores to highlight inequities are in fact contributing to racism, was a harder one to accept, but his argument is again reasonable – mathematics tests normalize white children’s experiences, and “under-assess and under-value” African American children’s experiences, and each time we report gaps in achievement we help to create perceptions of inadequacy. Other arguments could be given for the importance of using test scores to highlight the need for change, but Martin’s opening chapter achieves something important – he gives us a new way of thinking, and of framing issues of racism that serves as an important prelude to the chapters that follow.

Martin’s chapter is followed by “Section II” of the book on “Pedagogy, Standards and Assessment,” which includes a number of studies that have identified the most effective teachers of African American students. This is the most consistent section of the book with different authors repeatedly identifying the same important aspects of good teaching, also highlighted in other studies. The similarity of the messages in these chapters is not a criticism – for too long educational research has given mixed messages about effective teaching. These chapters are very clear – when teachers hold high expectations (Clark, Johnson & Chazan), seek to incorporate students’ experiences and ideas (Matthews), promote classroom discourse and develop communities of learners (Malloy), teach concepts as well as procedures, enable students to develop agency and authority (Malloy), make connections between mathematical topics and between math and the world (Walker), and generally engage students actively, rather than passively, in the learning of math then African American students (as well as others) are well served. Fortunately the aspects the authors highlight as equitable are also characteristics of good teaching, for all students.  

One potential characteristic of equitable teaching was, however, not consistently reported and that was the notion of cultural relevancy. A number of authors outside of this volume have found that when teachers draw upon cultural references and use aspects of African American culture in their teaching, then students respond with more positive outcomes (see for example Carol Lee, 2001). Berry III & McClain provide a list of “dimensions of the African-American experience” such as spirituality, harmony and communalism, and they also argue that it is critical that teachers draw upon these cultural references, but other authors, such as Malloy found that some of their most highly effective teachers did not draw upon cultural references in their teaching. I have also studied highly effective and equitable teachers who did not make use of cultural references, but they did embody the other characteristics reported in the various chapters, such as building communities, supporting agency, teaching for understanding, and promoting discourse (Boaler, 2009). It seems clear that when teachers are able to draw upon students’ cultural experiences in their teaching that this can be extremely positive for students, but the research presented in this book suggests that cultural references are not the most important part of teaching for equity, and perhaps not even a necessary part. Given that many beginning teachers feel daunted at the idea of drawing from students’ cultural backgrounds particularly when they come from a different culture themselves, or there are many cultures represented in the classroom, this may be good news.

The chapters in section III ask a critical question that has not received much attention in mathematics education: how are students being socialized as they learn mathematics? Or as Kara Jackson puts it: how is the “doing and using of mathematics related to who one might become?” (p. 195). For the years that students sit in math classes teach them so much more than mathematical knowledge and understanding, shaping their development as human beings in quite profound ways. Not surprisingly the lens of “identity” comes to the fore in many of the chapters in this section, with some of the authors considering how a positive identity may be offered in schools (Spencer), that values African American culture and mathematical achievement simultaneously. Others, such as the chapter by Nasir, Atukpawu, O’Connor, Davis, Wischnia and Tsang unpack the influence of negative stereotyping that is “so deeply embedded in American thought” (pp. 231-2). Nasir et al. also give a helpful and well argued case against the idea of an “oppositional culture,” that many have proposed as being the one on offer to African American students, showing the case to be much more nuanced and complex, through their own research. Other authors provide much needed portrayals and analyses of successful African American students – males (Stinton) and females (Johnson), helping to provide balance in the educational research landscape which, as Stinton highlights, seems replete with examples of African American students who reject mathematics; Struchens and Westbrook provide an interesting account of students’ experiences, showing the important details in the ways that inequities operate for African American and other students. The authors used the Opportunity to Learn Framework to highlight directly and powerfully the ways that students are denied critical opportunities in their educational pathways.

In this section in particular, readers are treated to a panoply of writing styles and theoretical perspectives with chapter authors taking inspiration from sources as varied as Critical Race Theory, Liberation Theology, and even Negro spirituals. Identity is a common lens, and many authors provide a refreshingly different and challenging take on theories of opposition and deficit. My favorite chapter of the book was the one written by Kara Jackson, who provides an incredibly powerful portrayal of the ways that mathematics teaching socializes children, providing unintentional yet damaging messages about life, people, and their potential. The book ends, somewhat uncharacteristically, with a straight-forward account of the ways universities and schools may work in collaboration to improve equitable learning opportunities.

This is a book that I heartily recommend to anyone who cares about equity and tackling racism, and it is a book that appropriately and refreshingly put teaching at its center. The book presents many different forms of research and writing, colorful and engaging accounts, insightful and chilling accounts of racism, and powerful new lenses and theories to consider the issues. This may be the first collection of its kind in mathematics education that brings different authors together to focus exclusively on African American children, but hopefully it will be the first of many, as the different authors teach us there is much still to know, understand, and research in moving towards a more equitable future for America’s students.


Boaler, J. (2008). What’s math got to do with it? Helping children learn to love their least favorite subject – and why it’s important for America. Penguin: New York.

Lee, C. D. (2001). Is October Brown Chinese? A cultural modeling activity system for underachieving students. American Educational Research Journal, 38(1), 97-141.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 08, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16129, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:18:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Jo Boaler
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    JO BOALER is Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University. She is author of: Boaler, J. (2009). The Elephant in the Classroom. Helping Children Learn & Love Maths. Souvenir Press: London. Boaler, J (2008). What’s Math Got To Do With It? Helping Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject – and Why It’s Important for America. Penguin: New York. Boaler, J & Humphreys, C (2005) Connecting Mathematical Ideas: Middle School Cases of Teaching & Learning. Heinneman: Portsmouth.
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