Sunday, February 1, 2015

Social Justice in the Mathematics Classroom

In a Masters course I took recently, one of the required books focused on the issue of social justice and how it could be incorporated into different subject areas.  At the time, I found the chapter on math by Elizabeth de Freitas to be of particular interest, not realizing that I would ever be considering math as a teachable.  But, something stuck out to me about the fact that numbers reveal information about society - through statistics and prognostications - which tell us how effective we are in different areas.  Whether the issue is environmental or social, the numbers are a concrete way to show differences and progressions, both presently and longitudinally, which can sometimes paint a bleak picture of reality. 

However this way of engaging students can work as a way to light a fire under our youth.  As de Freitas (2008) writes, "[p]edagogy that dwells on the social injustices of a given context can trigger student 'moral outrage'" (in Wallowitz, 2008, p. 47).  Rather than seeing math as merely learning a concept, practicing, and then demonstrating it, I now see it as a vehicle for change - a way of bringing to light important social issues. 

The renowned social theorist Paolo Friere believed that bringing students' lives into the classroom was a way of reflecting on our world.  As this link shows, it can be a way for students to understand some harsh realities.

A goal I now have for any course I teach is to integrate social justice education in some way.  The following link provides an example of how teachers in New Zealand were achieving this goal.

In my opinion the above examples are great ways of integrating this concept within the math class, though this video shows how the idea can be misunderstood and oversimplified:

I would like to hear if you have incorporated social justice within your own classroom, and if so, how?

Thanks for reading,



Wallowitz, L. (ed.) (2008).  Critical Literacy as Resistance:  Teaching for social justice across the secondary curriculum.  New York:  Peter Lang.  


  1. "The renowned social theorist Paolo Friere believed that bringing students' lives into the classroom was a way of reflecting on our world. As this link shows, it can be a way for students to understand some harsh realities. "

    I love this, and think it can have even greater impact on students then increase in engagement. I believe bringing in the lives of the students can make the work and learning relevant and interesting which leads to better engagement and motivation. While doing this it allows the teacher to make positive student teacher connections that can lead to the students building up respect for the teacher. When the students respect you and know you care about their lives that extend past the classroom they will put in the effort to learn because they care what you think of them and do not want to disappoint you. Making connections and bring the students lives into the lesson is a great tool that should be used.

    Answering your question, I have used social justice during some lessons, in a smaller scale without realizing it, but after reading this and watch the video's I will start to incorporate it more as I think it is a great idea.

  2. I think there is a lot of potential to raise to student awareness whilst learning math by incorporating real world data into math problems. However, there is a real danger of indoctrination as well. Even though statistics may be 'black and white', social justice is not and statistics are easily manipulated, especially by someone with an agenda. Even without an 'agenda', people's views with always be influenced by their own background, political views etc. If a teacher or textbook author feel strongly about a particular topic, then they may use stats that will drive their viewpoint. This isn't to say that it would be done, or that it would be done maliciously or intentionally, it could be done with good intent but still misleading. For example, if I felt strongly about equality in pay between genders, I might show a statistic that says women in Canada make 20% less than men (this is a made up stat) and generate some math problem to go along with it. Students could then easily be led to believe that there is a pay gap between genders. However, does that stat take into account the type of job, full-time vs part-time etc.? Perhaps the women's group includes a much higher percentage of part-time workers. It actual fact, in may be that men and women in similar jobs with similar experience/qualifications make equal pay. The point is, stats are easily manipulated and it is vitally important that if social justice is incorporated into the classroom, that it be done without bias.

    I remember teaching a lesson on data manipulation when I was in England. I presented a statistic to a class which was "catholic/Christian girls had a higher rate of teenage pregnancy than non-religious" and I asked for feedback. Most students assumed that was a result of the girls being promiscuous. I could have left the students with this belief having simply showed them a statistic and allowing them to draw their own conclusions. In actual fact, the group of 'religious' girls polled had a higher rate of teenage marriage and were getting pregnant after being married. This additional stat changed the students perception.

    I love the potential of introducing real world data into the classroom but it must be done correctly and with caution.

    1. Michael -

      Thanks for your reply, and for bringing the issue of bias into the discussion. This is especially important when we consider that our students are impressionable, whether they think they have all the answers or not. One thing that I have learned is that our own awareness of what we believe is important for being able to recognize and articulate our own biases. This can be advantageous in the classroom because when we share our own background, we are showing students who we really are. I think that this transparency would be appreciated. In addition, presenting multiple sides of an argument (as this class has been doing with the iPad discussion) allows the class to come to their own ideas of what they choose to believe. I agree that being cautious in how we present statistics and information is vital in how we deal with real world issues, though there is tremendous upside in taking this approach to math.