Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers


reviewed by Blidi S. Stemn - 2006

coverTitle: Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers
Author(s): Eric Gutstein, & Bob Peterson (Eds)
Publisher: Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee
ISBN: 0942961544, Pages: 171, Year: 2005
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Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers is a collection of articles that offer insights and valuable ideas of how mathematics teachers can infuse sociopolitical issues in the teaching and learning of mathematics. The editors, Gutstein and Peterson, as well as the chapter contributors provide practical examples of activities for integrating mathematics and other disciplines. In general, the book suggests a curriculum and a pedagogical model that “seeks to deepen students’ understanding of society and to prepare them to be critical, active participants of democracy” (p. 1) while learning rigorous content. This approach to mathematics education is significantly different from the traditional approach where the student learns to reproduce mathematical knowledge that is often “centered” in the context of the white culture, hence perpetuating the status quo. In addition, Rethinking Mathematics implicitly reaffirms the view that mathematics is value laden and cultural bound with social context considerations. As pointed out in the introductory section, “teaching mathematics in a neutral manner is not possible. No math teaching—no teaching of any kind, for that matter—is actually neutral although some teachers may be unaware of this” (p. 5).


Although the book is divided into four parts and the individual chapters can stand alone as a resource, together they provide both conceptual framework and practical suggestions about what it means to teach mathematics from a social justice perspective and what it looks like in practice. Furthermore, the authors suggest concrete ideas that can help teachers develop the knowledge base, attitudes, and skills needed to begin or continue their journey as reformed mathematics teachers. In the introductory section, Gutstein and Peterson outline some of the potential benefits of using social issues as a vehicle to drive mathematics instruction. Clearly, these benefits supplant the conventional purpose for teaching mathematics—to acquire skills and numeracy necessary to progress through the mathematics pipeline so as to meet the technological needs of this society.


Part one, "Viewing Math Broadly," sets the stage for the remainder of the book that is crafted by contributors critically analyzing the purpose of mathematics education. The authors, Peterson, Frankenstein, Tate, and Anderson, seem to rationalize that mathematics education must be about developing students to think critically about issues affecting them in their communities and globally and to be able to make informed decisions through mathematics. To achieve this, the subject must be linked to real-life issues that the students encounter on a daily basis. The benefits of this pedagogical strategy are that “students are being prepared to take an active role in our democracy and are provided important insights into, and understanding of, the role of mathematics within the democratic system of governance” (p. 37). The authors provide a broader goal of mathematics education to include preparing students to become critical consumers of knowledge and to play an active role this democratic society.  


In part two, "Infusing Social Justice into Math Class," the authors offer practical examples of how mathematics teachers can integrate social issues into the mathematics curriculum. In addition to learning mathematics, these real-world activities and projects allow issues of race, poverty, inequality, and justice, to be raised and explored at a deeper level. Mathematics becomes a tool for analyzing, critiquing, and understanding social issues affecting the daily lives of students. For instance, in chapter three, Gutstein describes a racial justice project in which a group of students used graphs and mathematical models to investigate and grapple with issues of race and discrimination in the mortgage industry in their community in Chicago. Here students are exposed to the power of mathematics as a tool for investigating real-world problems and making informed decisions. What is also significant in this section of the book is the multicultural perspective brought into this conversation. This dimension enables all students to realize that mathematics is a contribution of many cultures from around the world and that it is not the sole creation of men from white European backgrounds.


The authors in part three, Kellogg, Peterson, and Bigelow, present practical ways teachers can infuse issues of social justice and mathematics into other content areas. Mathematics is used to extend students’ knowledge of how the subject can be used to interrogate and explore issues relating to social studies, health, and nutrition, among other curricula areas. This content-integration teaching model not only benefits students, it also creates endless opportunities for mathematics teachers and teachers from other disciplines to collaborate in a way that the traditional curriculum does not encourage. This strategy gives students the opportunity to experience the interconnectedness of mathematics and other subject areas and how mathematical skills can be used in other subjects.  


Part four is a compilation of resources for rethinking mathematics teaching and learning from a social justice perspective. These carefully selected websites, books (practical and theoretical), and curriculum resource guides contain great ideas for teachers who want to use social justice issues to drive the mathematics they teach.


Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers is a significant contribution to the literature on social justice and mathematics education. The book offers teachers practical activities and ideas that they can use in their classrooms. The editors and the contributors have implicitly challenged all of us in the business of educating students at all levels to reflect on our curriculum and instructional practices and to ask ourselves two important questions. First, what are the goals and rationale for mathematics education? Second, what sociopolitical values are implicit in the mathematics curriculum and teaching? The essays and teaching suggestions presented throughout this book show how we can teach students rigorous content and at the same time bring the world into the mathematics classroom so that students can see and experience the power of mathematics as a tool for reading the world. As Zaslavky eloquently indicated in chapter 14, “Bringing the world into the mathematics class by introducing both cultural applications and current societal issues motivates and empowers students. . . . To carry out such a program effectively requires a new approach to curriculum development, teacher education, and assessment processes. But it is well worth the effort" (p. 128–129).




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1709-1711
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12225, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 4:54:45 AM

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