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Using Math to Understand Your World—And Your Neighbor

Like all math teachers, Professor Kate Johnson of the Mathematics Education Department studies variables. The variables that Johnson examines, however, usually don’t show up on the page.

Johnson researches how math teachers understand personal and social identity and equity in mathematics. Specifically, Johnson prepares future teachers to teach math in a context which eliminates social inequity and empowers students to seek social change. For scholars like Johnson, math is not just some cold abstraction, but a personally meaningful language.

“Mathematics is a tool that we use to tell stories about who we are,” Johnson said. “For example, people tell a lot of stories with statistics, like ‘oh, white people are not in prison as much as black people.’

“That’s using mathematics to tell that story,” Johnson continued. “I want to teach mathematics in a way that allows students to see that that is a particular story that people are pushing, but it’s not necessarily the only story that can be told.”

Just as statistics can paint certain demographics in either a positive or negative light, mathematics tells stories of how wealth gets unequally distributed and how different cultures have developed unique mathematical systems tailored to their own needs. According to Johnson, the rich diversity of possible stories is often represented by only a relatively few standard narratives.

“There are stories that we tell . . . where we talk about the mathematical discoveries of, for example, the white European men and not so much the people from the Middle East and certainly not women’s stories and contributions to mathematics,” Johnson said.

While most people have heard of Isaac Newton, very few know of Hypatia—the first woman known to have taught mathematics (c. 355–415). Emilie Du Chatelet and Sophie Germain are two women from the 1700s who contributed to the world’s knowledge of math. In the Middle East, Al-Khwarizmi was known as the father of algebra because of his work in the 9th century. The real ways mathematics were developed, used, and taught are much more nuanced than we would assume from reading the average algebra textbook.

“A lot of people would say that mathematics is a neutral activity, but I would argue that it’s not because mathematics is created, reinvented, and discovered by people, and people have identities and histories,” Johnson said.

If you are like most people, you might be wondering: How can mathematics not be neutral? After all, how many ways can you say that two plus two equals four?

“I would argue there are a lot [of ways]!” Johnson said.

This is because individuals’ personal lives, histories, and cultures can impact their understanding of mathematics.

“We can lose sight of the fact that every human has their diverse identities and baggage, so to speak, that they carry into the classroom and that interacts with and shapes how they understand the curriculum and the material and their participation,” Johnson said.

Johnson considers it her role to teach prospective math teachers to understand how the social and psychological complexities of mathematics affect the classroom.

“Teachers need to be aware of their own baggage and their students’ baggage,” Johnson said. “I think sometimes teachers can get sort of pigeonholed into believing that their way of seeing the world is the way to see the world. We need to learn how to respect other peoples’ ways of seeing the world.”

By Mitch Rogers Posted on