Mathematics is often positioned as an objective and pure discipline. However, the content and the context in which it is taught, the mathematicians who are celebrated, and the importance that is placed upon mathematics by society are subjective. Mathematics has been used to normalize racism and marginalization of non-Eurocentric mathematical knowledges, and a decolonial, anti-racist approach to mathematics education makes visible its historical roots and social constructions. The Ontario Grade 9 mathematics curriculum emphasizes the need to recognize and challenge systems of power and privilege, both inside and outside the classroom, in order to eliminate systemic barriers and to serve students belonging to groups that have been historically disadvantaged and underserved in mathematics education.
Research indicates that there are groups of students (for example, Indigenous students, Black students, students experiencing homelessness, students living in poverty, students with LGBTQ+ identities, and students with special education needs and disabilities) who continue to experience systemic barriers to accessing high-level instruction in and support with learning mathematics. Systemic barriers, such as racism, implicit bias, and other forms of discrimination, can result in inequitable academic and life outcomes, such as low confidence in one’s ability to learn mathematics, reduced rates of credit completion, and leaving the secondary school system prior to earning a diploma. Achieving equitable outcomes in mathematics for all students requires educators to be aware of and identify these barriers, as well as the ways in which they can overlap and intersect, which can compound their effect on student well-being, student success, and students’ experiences in the classroom and in the school. Educators must not only know about these barriers, they must work actively and with urgency to address and remove them.
Students bring abundant cultural knowledges, experiences, and competencies into mathematical learning. It is essential for educators to develop pedagogical practices that value and centre students’ prior learning, experiences, strengths, and interests. Such pedagogical practices are informed by and build on students’ identities, lived experiences, and linguistic resources. When educators employ such pedagogy, they hold appropriate and high academic expectations of students, applying the principles of Universal Design for Learning and differentiated instruction to provide multiple entry points and maximize opportunities for all students to learn. By acknowledging and actively working to eliminate the systemic barriers that some students face, educators create the conditions for authentic experiences that empower student voices and enhance their sense of belonging, so that each student can develop a healthy identity as a mathematics learner and can succeed in mathematics and in all other subjects. Mathematics learning that is student-centred allows students to find relevance and meaning in what they are learning and to make connections between the curriculum and the world outside the classroom.
In mathematics classrooms, teachers also provide opportunities for cross-curricular learning and for teaching about human rights. To create anti-racist, anti-discriminatory learning environments, all educators must be committed to equity and inclusion and to upholding and promoting the human rights of every learner. Students of all identities and social locations have the right to mathematics opportunities that allow them to succeed, personally and academically. In any mathematics classroom, it is crucial to acknowledge students’ intersecting social identities and their connected lived realities. Educators have an obligation to develop and nurture learning environments that are reflective of and responsive to students’ strengths, needs, cultures, and diverse lived experiences – identity-affirming learning environments free from discrimination. In such learning environments, educators set appropriate and high academic expectations for all.
Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy in Mathematics
High-quality instruction that emphasizes deep mathematical thinking and cultural and linguistic knowledge and that addresses issues of power and social justice in mathematics education is the foundation of culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy (CRRP) in mathematics. In CRRP classrooms, teachers reflect on their own identities and pay attention to how those identities affect their teaching, their ideas, and their biases. Teachers also learn about students’ identities, identifications, and/or affiliations and connected lived experiences. Teachers develop an understanding of how students are thinking about mathematical concepts according to their cultural backgrounds and experiences, and make connections with these cultural ways of knowing in their pedagogy. This approach to pedagogy develops social consciousness and critique while valorizing students’ cultural backgrounds, communities, and cultural and linguistic competences. Teachers build on students’ experiences, ideas, questions, and interests to support the development of an engaging and inclusive mathematics classroom community.
In mathematics classrooms, educators use CRRP to create anti-racist and anti-oppressive teaching and learning opportunities to engage students in shaping much of the learning and to promote mathematical agency investment in the learning. When students develop agency, they are motivated to take ownership of their learning of, and progress in, mathematics. Teaching about diverse mathematical approaches and figures in history, from different global contexts, can offer opportunities for students to feel that they are reflected in mathematical learning – a key factor in developing students’ sense of self – and to learn about others, and about the multiple ways mathematics exists in all aspects of the world around them.
Mathematics is situated and produced within cultures and cultural contexts. Challenging Eurocentric ideas about learning mathematics is key to a CRRP approach. In an anti-racist and anti-discriminatory environment, teachers know that there is more than one way to develop a solution, and students are exposed to multiple ways of knowing and encouraged to explore multiple ways of finding answers.
Indigenous pedagogical approaches emphasize holistic, experiential learning, teacher modelling, and the use of collaborative and engaging activities. Teachers differentiate instruction and assessment opportunities to encourage different ways of learning, to allow students to learn from and with each other, and to promote an awareness of and respect for the diverse and multiple ways of knowing that are relevant to and reflective of students’ lived experiences in classrooms, schools, and the world. When making connections between mathematics and real-life applications, teachers are encouraged to work in partnership with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis individuals, communities, and/or nations. Teachers may respectfully incorporate culturally specific examples that highlight First Nations, Inuit, and Métis cultures, histories, present-day realities, ways of knowing, and contributions, to infuse Indigenous knowledges and perspectives meaningfully and authentically into the mathematics program. In this way, culturally specific examples make visible the colonial contexts of present-day mathematics education, centre Indigenous students as mathematical thinkers, and strengthen learning and course content so that all students continue to learn about diverse cultures and communities in a respectful and informed way. Students’ mind, body, and spirit are nourished through connections and creativity.