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Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers

reviewed by David W. Stinson - September 20, 2013

coverTitle: Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers
Author(s): Eric (Rico) Gutstein & Bob Peterson (eds.)
Publisher: Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee
ISBN: 0942961552, Pages: 300, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

Discussions about critical mathematics or more broadly social justice mathematics initially appeared in the education literature thirty years ago. But only within the past decade or so has a growing critical mass of mathematics educators (i.e., mathematics education researchers and teacher educators, classroom teachers, mathematicians, and policymakers) begun to recognize the empowering yet uncertain possibilities of social justice mathematics in transforming pre-K–16 mathematics teaching and learning for students and teachers like. The emergence of this growing critical mass is due in large part to Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Bob Peterson’s 2005 first edition of the edited volume Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers. The 2013 revised and expanded (15 new contributions) second edition reviewed here holds great promise in continuing to build momentum within the social justice mathematics education movement. This building momentum is evident from the increasing number of mathematics education conferences, books, and special issues of journals that have an explicit focus on social justice (or critical) mathematics. Even the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has begun to recognize the productive possibilities of social justice mathematics as evident in the recent publication of the edited volume Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice: Conversations with Educators (Wager & Stinson, 2012) and the social justice mathematics presentation strand planned for the 2014 NCTM Annual Meeting and Exposition.

Why has the Rethinking Mathematics edited volume played such a pivotal role in building momentum of the social justice movement: the unique personal and professional lived experiences of its editors. Both Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Bob Peterson have extensive lived experiences as education scholars and researchers as well as community activists and mathematics classroom teachers (Bob at the elementary school level and Rico at the middle and high school levels). They have brought these unique lived experiences to bear in pulling together a collection of articles that are both–and rather than either–or into a single edited volume. In other words, in a single volume they provide both the theoretical grounding and practical applications of social justice mathematics teaching and learning. The more than three-dozen contributing authors of Rethinking Mathematics are nationally and internationally known mathematics education scholars, researchers, and teachers educators as well as classroom teachers and community activists. This eclectic collection of contributing authors provides multiple entry points to explore the empowering uncertainties of teaching and learning mathematics for social change. These multiple entry points make Rethinking Mathematics an excellent comprehensive yet condensed pedagogical and curriculum resource for mathematics education researchers, teacher educators, and policymakers as well as mathematics classroom teachers and community activists.

In the preface of the expanded and revised second edition, Gutstein and Peterson (2013) begin by clearing up a “few misconceptions” (p. xii) about social justice mathematics. First, social justice mathematics is not just for children who have been historically underserved in schools and in society generally but is beneficial for all children. Although Gutstein and Peterson explicitly state that students of color and low-income/working-class students should learn mathematics for social justice, they also state that social justice mathematics is important for “all students, including those from schools and communities of privilege, [who] need to study their reality and learn mathematics to understand and shape the world” (p. xii). Second, Gutstein and Peterson respond to the often-asked question: Is social justice mathematics somehow a less rigorous, water-down mathematics? Acknowledging the “gate-keeping” status of school mathematics, Gutstein and Peterson contend that social justice mathematics requires a firm commitment to students learning not only “the necessary math to deal with and get past the unjust gates” but also “the math necessary to tear down the gates entirely” (p. xii). And third, the “cultural relevance” of social justice mathematics teaching is necessary for Black, Brown, and low-income children because they cannot learn “traditional” school mathematics. Here, Gutstein and Peterson argue that all education (not just mathematics education) should be culturally relevant, building on the knowledge, culture, language, and lived experiences of all students. But social justice mathematics education must move beyond cultural relevance, preparing students “to change the world, at a time when its transformation is so urgent” (p. xiii).  Each of the 32 chapters in Rethinking Mathematics, many with accompanying classroom extensions, activities, projects, and lesson plans, subdivided into Parts One, Two, and Three, address either directly or indirectly these misconceptions about teaching and learning mathematics for social change. Part Four: Resources for Rethinking Mathematics is an appendix of sorts that offers 10 pages of websites, books, curriculum guides, and other resources that will prove useful in co-creating with students a “rethought” (p. 1) mathematics classroom.

Part One: Viewing Math Broadly contains seven chapters; three are new contributions. The chapters in Part One provide insight into how mathematics might be used across the curriculum; the historical, cultural, and social implications of mathematics; and the “adventures” of learning to teach mathematics for social justice. One of the new contributions is a candid interview between Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Danny Martin as Martin responds to questions on how rethinking mathematics might assist in making salient the racialized mathematics experiences of all children. Martin says that he would “like people to not just rethink mathematics, but to rethink mathematics and its intersection with race as one kind of rethinking” (Gutstein, 2013, p. 29).

Part Two: Infusing Social Justice Into Math Classes contains 19 chapters, including nine new contributions. Each chapter in Part Two convincingly demonstrates how socio-cultural, -political, and -economic events, many pulled from the front pages of newspapers, can effectively be used as pedagogical resources in the teaching and learning of rigorous and culturally relevant mathematics. Some of the new contributions include Jana Dean’s “Living Algebra, Living Wage”; Kathryn Himmelstein’s “Racism and Stop and Frisk”; and Michelle Allman and Almanzia Opeyo’s “What’s a Good School?” Throughout the chapters, contributing authors illustrate how social justice mathematics not only assists children (and adults) in understanding and uncovering the injustices of local and global events but also how it might be used as a sociopolitical tool to transform such injustices.

Part Three: Infusing Social Justice Math Into Other Curricular Areas contains six chapters; three are new contributions. The chapters in Part Three reveal how social justice mathematics might be integrated into science, history, language arts, and social studies classrooms as well as in community workshops. For example, in “Transparency of Water,” Selene Gonzalez-Carillo and Martha Merson illustrate how they used social justice mathematics to engage youth and adults from a community organization in performing a critical statistical analysis of drinking water.

Although the specific mathematics content discussed throughout the chapters in Rethinking Mathematics is contextualized in elementary, middle school, or high school classrooms (or community organizations), the authors provide enough background and detail in presenting the lessons or activities that the mathematics content itself can be expanded or contracted—depending on the level and experiences of learners—for most any in-school or out-of-school mathematics learning context. In other words, for the mathematically savvy educator, the ideas presented in each chapter provide the seed for lessons and activities spanning pre-K–16 mathematics content. As most state and district-level mathematics educators diligently work to align mathematics curriculum to the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice as outlined in the Common Core State Standards, the ideas presented in Rethinking Mathematics can serve as most useful points of departure in critically extending and enhancing those standards for students and teachers alike.


Gutstein, E. (2013). Rethinking mathematics and its intersection with race: Interview with Danny Martin. In E. Gutstein & B. Peterson (Eds.), Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers (2nd ed., pp. 26–29). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Gutstein, E., & Peterson, B., (Eds.) (2013). Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers (2nd ed.). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Wager, A. A., & Stinson, D. W. (Eds.). (2012). Teaching mathematics for social justice: Conversations with educators. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 20, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17257, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:07:28 PM

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About the Author
  • David Stinson
    Georgia State University, Atlanta
    E-mail Author
    DAVID W. STINSON is an associate professor of mathematics education in the College of Education at Georgia State University, Atlanta. His research interests include exploring socio-cultural, -historical, and -political aspects of mathematics and mathematics teaching and learning from a critical postmodern theoretical (and methodological) perspective. He is the current editor-in-chief of the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education and co-editor (with Anita A. Wager) of the book Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice: Conversations with Educators (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2012).
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