Dismantling inequality and discrimination through inquiry

Rarely do I read a book or article on mathematics education that stops me in my tracks. However, a contributor to the website suggested I look at a publication that has done just that. It is a workbook entitled A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction*, which is designed for teachers to reflect on how they perpetuate inequality and racism in their classrooms.

While its underlying concepts are intellectually intriguing, the workbook’s real importance lies in its practical relevance. Working out how the ideas of the California-based writers apply to my classroom in an inner-London comprehensive requires continuous reflection in and on action. Inequality and racism are everyday experiences for many members of my school community, yet the workbook poses urgent questions for all teachers in any classroom.

The authors raise too many issues to summarise here. I want to pick out two of the main contentions about attitudes and teaching models that sustain discrimination and discuss how inquiry offers an alternative. I could be accused of picking the two that make me feel most comfortable and ignoring those for which I do not have so much to say. The authors might claim that, in this way, I am perpetuating white supremacy culture by expecting a right to comfort.

The workbook asks us to consider the following contentions:

(1) White supremacy culture shows up in math class when teachers are teachers and students are learners.

The ideas that the teacher is solely in charge of disseminating new information and that new learning always comes from the teacher are examples of paternalism and powerhoarding (see Dismantling Racism for definitions of the characteristics of white supremacy culture, pages 28-35). Paternalism involves teachers believing they hold power in classrooms and thinking they are capable of making decisions for and in the interests of those without power. Powerhoarding involves teachers trying to maintain the power structures in the classroom and interpreting a student’s suggestion of a new approach as a challenge to their authority.

(2) White supremacy culture shows up in math class when “I do, we do, you do” is the format of the class.

The format, which is characteristic of direct instruction, restricts the type of thinking that is permissible in mathematics classrooms. It reinforces objectivity, which gives rise to impatience with ideas that do not fit the thinking of those in power, and the notion that there is only one right way, which leads to the dismissal of students’ own ways of reasoning and makes out that something is wrong with students who do not change. The “I do, we do, you do” format is also paternalistic because the teacher’s model becomes the standard and stifles students’ creativity.

Overall, white supremacy culture “creates a dynamic of paternalism where teachers are deciding for students what math they should interact with, without true consideration of the student’s experience” (p. 19).

Structural inequalities are reproduced in the classroom because the school cannot detach itself from society. In mathematics classrooms, according to Critical Mathematical Inquiry, injustices are perpetuated when students experience the curriculum as alienating, disenfranchising or disempowering. The first steps to overcoming these is not necessarily to teach mathematics about and for social justice, but to teach the subject with social justice. This can be done by supporting “a co-created classroom and a classroom culture that provides opportunities for equal participation and status” (p. 9).

This is the aim of Inquiry Maths. The model contains mechanisms through which students bring their experiences and ideas to the mathematics lesson. Firstly, the prompt is designed to pique students’ curiosity, promote questioning, noticing and wondering, and encourage students to develop a mathematical meaning of the prompt’s content. All students have the opportunity to participate; all questions and conjectures are considered respectfully and collectively.

Secondly, students are given a role in planning the inquiry through the regulatory cards. They have the space to learn to direct their own activity, to exercise agency, and to understand their rights and responsibilities in collective decision-making. The inquiry classroom aspires to be a community in which the inequalities outside are overcome, if only temporarily, and all students have the opportunity to develop their characters as learners.

The teacher who uses “I do, we do, you do” as the primary lesson format risks reinforcing the inequalities and discrimination that the powerless experience outside the classroom. The teacher who argues that children are too immature to know what is good for them denies students an opportunity to develop agency and learn how to exercise authority constructively.

The inquiry classroom, which promotes the co-construction of learning and encourages the participation of students and teacher alike in directing that learning, is a small step to breaking down social inequality.

Andrew Blair, May 2021

* There are five 'strides' on the Pathway to Equitable Maths Instruction.