Connecting Mathematics Education to Social Justice Issues

Audrey Breen

Using lessons about social justice to increase students’ connection to mathematics is a way to show how mathematics can be a tool to critique and improve the world.

Can teaching mathematics be used as way to educate citizens who critique and improve the world? According to Robert Berry, professor of mathematics education at the University of Virginia, teaching math for social justice provides students the opportunity to use mathematics to advocate for social changes through deepening their understanding of math.

“Teaching mathematics for social justice is critical for a democratic society and allows students to use their lived experiences and interests to deepen their understanding of mathematics,” said Berry, a professor in the UVA Curry School of Education and Human Development. “Importantly, it also positions learners to be actors in their world.”

Berry_High_School_Math_Social_Injustice_Cover[2].pngThis notion of using math to explore social justice is the focus of Berry’s most recent book, High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice. Berry co-authored the book with Basil M. Conway IV, assistant professor at Columbus State University, Brian R. Lawler, associate professor at Kennesaw State University, and John W. Staley, the coordinator of special projects at Baltimore County Public Schools, Maryland. The authors provide a framework for socially just mathematics instruction, along with lessons that allow students to learn mathematics and learn more about social justice.

The authors want students to understand how mathematics can help them make sense of their world -- specifically in the context of injustices in their community, state, nation, or world.

According to Berry, living in an increasingly data rich society means citizens need to learn to grapple with mathematics, statistics, and modeling to understand and produce an equitable society or support an inequitable one. Topics where these ideas intersect include a fair living wage, gerrymandering of legislative districts, income inequality and food deserts, or climate change.

For example, in a lesson focused on gerrymandering, students may explore how gerrymandering happens and how mathematics can define and quantify the associated equity issues. Students can use geometry, percentages, ratios and other mathematics concepts to understand the impact that gerrymandering has on voting.

“Students can then draw their own conclusions using mathematics to determine for themselves whether gerrymandering is fair and equitable,” Berry said. “Such a lesson affords teachers and students to engage in grade-level appropriate mathematics using a context to examine a social justice issue.”

According to Berry, teaching mathematics for social justice is critical for four reasons, the first of which is that it builds an informed society.

“Mathematics serves a role to inform both teachers and students about the lives of people, contexts, and conditions that may be different from their own,” Berry said.

Second, teaching mathematics for social justice connects math with students’ cultural and community histories and in doing so creates opportunities for deepening mathematical knowledge. Third, it empowers students to confront and solve real-world challenges they face.

“Critical consciousness in teaching and learning mathematics supports identifying issues that are unjust and allows the use of mathematics as a tool to analyze, critique, and confront those unjust contexts,” Berry said.

Finally, Berry says that when teachers and students use mathematics to explore, understand, and respond to social injustices, they learn to use mathematics as a tool to transform inequities and create social change.

The social justice standards and topics in the book align with Teaching Tolerance Standards, a set of standards focusing on the need for students to develop and understand identity, diversity, justice and action.

“The Teaching Tolerance Standards include a strong and persistent commitment to help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy,” co-author Staley said. “Not only are we positioning students as mathematicians who explore and understand injustice, we are providing them opportunities to become active agents of change through appropriate response.”

Using lessons about social justice to increase students’ connection to mathematics is also a way to show how mathematics can be a tool in addressing specific injustices.

“For decades too many students have had mathematics classroom experiences where they did not develop the self confidence that they can do mathematics,” Berry said. “Meanwhile, we’re aware that joy found in mathematics often comes from the ability to explore, understand, and respond to our world. We hope to help every student have a more relevant and meaningful experience by connecting mathematics lessons to social justice topics.”

Part of the hope for the authors is that students make meaningful connections between the practice of mathematics and improving their communities, and in doing so, they find the joy in mathematics.

Ultimately, resources like Berry’s new book and other supports for teaching mathematics for social justice will provide the answer to students’ age-old question, “How will I use ever use this in my real life?” before it is even asked.