Monday, January 21, 2019

Equity and Teaching Math

A student once remarked that Math is black and white. There's always one correct answer. There is no grey zone.  One of the facets of Math is that we have proofs, and facts like the Pythagorean Theorem are true. That's something to be celebrated! Math is special, and there are things we do in Math that you do not get to do or experience in other subjects. Of course, Math isn't black and white, and there are grey zones just like in every other subject.

Further, there exists a perception that since math is 100% objective, then people who are mathematicians are 100% objective in all facets of their lives. One hundred percent. I wish...  But just because Math is founded on logic and proof, doesn't mean that the human system of math education is immune to the human condition. Teaching is a cultural activity. Schools are designed and run by people, and inequities exist today. The content we teach and how we teach it are not designed via an axiomatic or scientific method, and not every instructor reads the education literature.  I'm not saying that this work is "bad" or done without careful thought. People think hard about this stuff, and do lots of good work. Much of what we teach is done, because it's important and valuable. So don't get me wrong. The point is that math instructors are not immune to blindspots and bias, and more importantly there exist feasible, doable pedagogies that can positively contribute. The focus of this post is what we can do to make things more equitable.

Using IBL methods does not guarantee equity, but it's a framework that has room for instructors to make choices that levels the playing field and provides opportunities for all students to have equitable opportunities to learn. Giving all students a fair number of chances, visiting student groups in an equitable way, affirming and valuing student input, and making all students feel welcome and respected, are some of the ways we can move the needle in the right direction.

Let's get to a specific strategy. A doable strategy can be applied to small group discussions and Think-Pair-Share. Generally when groups are used, the instructor can visit each students (over time) the same number of times.  The instructor can raise softer voices and redirect the louder voices for greater benefit to others and themselves. Rather than asking for volunteers (where the usual suspects raise their hands the fastest), assign the first one or two chimers and ask them to talk to their group first. Then ask the assigned chimers to share what they discussed with their group. If you keep track of who has chimed in, you can be sure to spread the chances around, and follow up each comment with an appropriate compliment ("Thank you for the insightful question/comment!"). It's the instructors job to provide an equitable set of opportunities. The common, "Are there any questions...?" teacher move focuses by default on the louder voices and not on the softer ones.

Also asking, "What did your group discuss..." is more inviting than questions like, "What's the right answer?"  The reason is that you can ask people to share their thoughts and not put them in a right/wrong answer scenario, which is higher stakes. It also invites asking questions without judgment, and gets more questions and ultimately solutions out in the open. The instructor or the class can't answer a question that isn't asked. The instructor can, however, create conditions where students feel comfortable asking questions.

In summary, spread the chances, keep track using a seating chart or roster, use prompts that invite people in, and give appropriate, positive affirmation.  Instructors don't have to revamp their entire teaching system to work on equity in the classroom. Every instructor out there has the opportunity to do something in their next class, by incorporating the strategies described here. These strategies raise softer voices and encourage those who get things faster to spend some of their time helping others via the group discussions, which in turn helps them learn math even better.

We are better when we all learn together!