Recently I participated in City Summit 2013, a local community-based effort to connect people and their city in new ways, and in the process, foster a sort of re-imagining of what communities might look like. Keynote speaker, John Perkins, recounted his own personal story growing up as the son of a sharecropper in Mississippi in the 1930’s. Through a series of difficult and painful experiences Perkins became conscious of the racial and social injustices faced by African Americans in Mississippi. These experiences fueled his later involvement in the desegregation of Simpson County schools, as well as his work with the broader civil rights movement. In his keynote, Perkins described the empowering nature of education: “Education allows us to subdue our environment rather than be subdued by it.”The Algebra Project
Robert Moses began working with civil rights activists in 1960, and in 1982 founded the Algebra Project, a foundation committed to establishing quality mathematics education for all children. The aim of this foundation and its current work is to increase access to and understanding of algebra in underserved communities, with the expressed conviction that this understanding has significant impact on students’ social and economic futures. In discussing Moses’ convictions, UC Berkeley Professor Alan Schoenfeld states: “Who gets to learn mathematics, and the nature of the mathematics that is learned, are matters of consequence.”In a 2013 interview, Moses described the pivotal role algebra plays in a society increasingly dependent on technology: Host: “Talk about algebra and what makes it important in general terms. Is it a skill that needs to be acquired for its own sake, or to give students a framework for thinking about other things in different ways?”Moses: “The information age…has ushered in a quantitative literacy that has put algebra and logic as a necessary literacy for our democracy.”KQED interview Bob Moses 2.6.2013On EquityDuring the 2013 NCTM Annual Meeting held in Denver, CO, Uri Treisman delivered the Iris M. Carl Equity address. His comments called attention to the empowering nature of mathematics education: “Mathematics is the biggest determinant in upward social and economic mobility. We need to rebuild our education systems so they allow students to advance. Schools are places where we produce citizens with deep commitments to democratic ideals.”Mathematics as a tool
We use mathematics as a tool to make sense of and understand the world around us. We need mathematics to help put events and trends into perspective, to look rationally and reasonably at aspects of these events that may not be apparent on the surface. Mathematics helps us go deeper. Common Core Mathematical Practices emphasize critical thinking as students make sense of mathematics, and as teachers work hard to ensure that students learn to solve real world problems. But what kind of problems do we hope they solve? How will students learn to recognize problems that are in need of solving, and from what perspective will they approach these problems? We want our students to ask important questions: What’s a reasonable wage? What figures might constitute discriminative behavior? Why are certain communities underserved in terms of assets or resources? The question here is whether it is enough to deliver a rich mathematics instructional program, or whether we should also strive to help students use mathematics in meaningful ways. Think about some of the enduring concepts students explore during their school study of mathematics: number
, counting,
patterns,
structure,
measurement
, data,
change
, variable,
function,
statisticsThere are, of course, more. Now think about a current issue or problem that needs attention in your local community, city, or state. You may even want to think globally. Here’s the question: How many of the above concepts are required to think critically about this issue and understand it? Better yet, how many of these would play a role in any sort of solution to this problem?Could it be that while students have been asking “When will I ever have to use this?” we’ve been giving many of the wrong answers? Rather than listing jobs that require math skills, perhaps we should revoice that question for students: Oh, you mean “When will your mathematics understanding intersect an opportunity for meaningful change?”The world needs mathematical thinkers.
66 Comments
Allison
8/9/2014 04:31:27 pm
I agree with you that we need to offer our students a better answer to why they need to learn the math. In the past, I've answered, similar to what you posted, all the different careers that might use the math. However, when the students reply with, "but that is not a career that I am interested in." we need to follow through with a better answer. Social justice situations are the better answer to why they need to learn the math. Great article!
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Mindy
7/1/2015 11:29:19 am
I was thinking the same thing Allison! There have been so many times when students were frustrated or bored and would ask the dreaded question, "when will we ever use this?" Sometimes I would list a few careers and other times I would tell them they need to know the material if they want to make it to high school or college. Either way, they never liked the answer they were given and I was left with a class full of uninterested students. They need to realize that math is everywhere and with their mathematical knowledge they can make a difference!
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Elizabeth
7/21/2016 08:33:30 am
Allison -
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Auban
7/25/2016 05:08:36 pm
Elizabeth,
Laura M
9/11/2014 11:16:28 am
Math is indeed a tool and when applied to social justice can be used to quantify and compare major issues that effect humanity. Sometimes we look at the numbers and we realize that an issue might not be as severe as we thought. Sometimes, however, once we quantify an issue we can find alarming facts and in the case of social justice, looking at these can spark the observer into activism. Of course watching for bias is always critical to discuss with students as well.
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Serena Lane
8/9/2018 03:06:54 pm
I totally agree that seeing the numbers when it comes to social justice issues can really solidify the necessity for change. I've always wanted to create a meaningful social justice project for my high school students regarding the drastic increase in mental health diseases and suicides in our community. The main factor that has hindered me from going further with the project is the lack of reputable data I was able to find online. I hope this course will provide websites that can be trusted with loads of useful data. I completely agree that teaching our students to find the possible persuasive nature or bias of certain articles and information found online and on various social media platforms is also extremely important.
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Jeffrey K
11/11/2014 03:55:46 am
Mathematics is certainly a tool to make sense of or explain events in life. Teaching students how to use math to identify inequities and promote change, will result in students viewing and doing math in the present tense rather than focusing on what mathematicians did 2000 + years ago. Student's curiosity and attention will be inspired when looking at Social Justice Mathematics.
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Lori
12/8/2014 05:39:45 am
Mathematics is indeed the ultimate quantifier. If we can teach students not only a series of rules and concepts, but also how it applies to real world situations, it makes much more of an impact on their lives. Some of our biggest problems in this country involve math and numbers; budget, our nations deficit, the stock market, taxes, etc., we can start by helping students understand the math behind these issues.
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Allison
1/21/2015 04:50:45 am
I agree that mathematics is essential to quantifying, analyzing and comparing real issues around the world. I am often asked by my students when our topics will be used in real life and I often struggle to find a meaningful answer. I agree that we need to give our students opportunities before, during, and after our lessons to directly apply mathematics to social justice issues. The more they are able to directly connect the math to making a meaningful change in the world, the better they will be able to understand it.
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Evelyn Sankey
6/24/2015 03:02:28 am
You said that well - couldn't agree with you more.
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Dan I.
5/7/2015 01:14:51 am
I agree that mathematics can be used as a tool for change, and should be taught as such. With many of the changes and shifts associated with Common Core, I think that incorporating social justice issues will be easier. There is a focus on problem solving, and when the problems are meaningful, it will provide motivation to students to find solutions, or at least strive to understand the problem. I tend to teach students based on a conceptual understanding of a problem, not just a formula or a process to be memorized. Now, I'm looking to take the next step, which would be to incorporate bigger issues that effect the community. It can be both a source of motivation for students, and a way to make their learning meaningful.
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Katie
7/23/2015 05:28:32 am
I teach my students in a very similar way. While anyone can teach for memorization by using a formula, it takes a lot more creativity and determination from the teacher to educate students by showing them how to process and relate to information. Incorporating real world scenarios into lessons can help students to recognize when and how to utilize the concepts they are being taught in the classroom.
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Dennis I
6/1/2015 10:59:03 pm
Mathematics in any form can be a huge tool in making sense of the world around us. It can give us standards and stats to judge circumstances and situations we experience.
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Dennis I
6/2/2015 12:18:10 am
By using the math that we have learned, we gain a better understanding of the world and can make better comparisons, conclusions and evaluations when we are exposed to data presented in order to highlight a current event.
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Evelyn Sankey
6/24/2015 03:00:34 am
There are so many issues that can be discussed, with mathematics being so relevant. Any issues of inequality - wage disparity, access to energy and resources, life span, infant mortality, incarceration rates... Using math to compare the situations of wealthier people or healthier countries to poorer ones, or of one race to another, brings the issues home in a way that doesn't happen without the numbers being included.
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Jessica Grenz
8/11/2016 09:43:51 am
I agree with you that there are many issues that can be discussed and explored with our students in which mathematics is in the forefront. By including social justice issues into the math curriculum, we can make our students more informed of the world around them and become more active members of society. Looking at the numbers involved in these issues promotes math students to use their prior knowledge and build upon it in ways that they may not have before.
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Brian Van Hise
5/7/2017 01:51:58 pm
I agree that math can play a role in helping students understand many of these topics. And by introducing the mathematical concepts to them along with these issues they will hopefully see the relevant side of math and its potential to be applied to other avenues of their life.
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Marco
10/24/2017 05:12:45 am
I agree with you Brian. I feel that the most important part about this is that the kids can hopefully extend their learning into other applications outside of the classroom. One of the biggest things we try to teach the students is to be problem solvers and that requires taking learned concepts from one area and applying to others.
Denise M.
7/7/2015 12:12:48 am
I think using social issues to hep us teach mathematics is a way to help answer the age old questions asked by students, "Why do we have to learn this?" or, "When am I ever going to use this?" I also think using mathematics and teaching about social issues makes both more real to the students, and when something is real to them, they tend to be more interested and have an easier time storing it in their long form memory. It can help make math meaningful.
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7/13/2015 03:29:03 am
I am guilty of having made a bulletin board entitled, “When Will You Ever Use Mathematics?” Pictures of construction sites, the stock market, banking, and various businesses depicted the answer to the question. After reading the article, I understand that I need to navigate differently, especially for the reason that not everyone in my classes will be destined for the specific careers posted on my bulletin board. Social justice issues, the societal issues, will effect all of my students throughout their lives. The article ends with a powerful message - "The world needs mathematical thinkers."
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7/13/2015 04:47:58 am
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Marco
10/25/2017 07:51:50 am
I used to have the same thing on my wall too. The occupations that utilize math. But how do we know what the kids are interested in becoming? If they don't want to be any of those things, do they just shut down and "pass' on learning math because there not going to be banker? That's why I took mine down and I now focus on bringing in the critical thinking aspect like you & the article so proactively suggests.
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Michelle D
7/17/2015 04:24:32 am
I think that it is very telling when students ask "when will I ever use this," because it shows that we are not doing a good job of giving them meaningful tasks. It seems as though teaching mathematics through a social justice lens helps students to apply what they are learning to a meaningful issue as well as using that issue to teach new concepts. It is important for students to know about age appropriate issues in the world so that they can mold their own beliefs about these issues and act on them if they so choose.
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Loren B
8/16/2015 04:33:04 am
Very true!!!!
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Wendy Boettcher
1/20/2016 10:11:12 am
I think it is very important for students to understand "why" they are learning the math and its relevance to the real world. Social justice issues are the best way of making that one-to-one correspondence and keeping students engaged.
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Teresa Vande Creek
1/15/2017 02:53:43 pm
If I use social justice issues as a springboard to present my mathematics, I'm hoping I will never nee to answer the age old question "when am I ever going to use this" again.
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Emily Clarke
7/29/2015 03:53:19 am
I agree with the idea that it is very important to have mathematically educated citizens for an informed and effective democratic society. For example, there are so many percentages, graphs and statistics used to discuss and understand important current events in newspapers, on t.v., and online. My students often ask how Algebra is used in real life, rather than basic mathematics. I have a difficult time coming up with examples of how it might be useful to them in their future. I would really like to continue learning about how the Algebra that Robert Moses mentioned in his quote is “necessary for our democracy” in his own specific and practical terms so that I can better answer my students' question.
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Loren B
8/16/2015 04:30:45 am
I have a poster in my room which says "When am I ever going to use this?" with all the jobs explaining the math skills needed to perform them. I realize how much more I can relate real life examples to my students and not just show what is relevant for a give position. Making a meaningful connection to my students through math is very important for their thought processes and life skills.
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Wendy Boettcher
1/20/2016 10:04:29 am
I teach middle school math and when you relate seventh grade math to a career most students will tell you that they have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. The information is not relevant to them at the point of their life.
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1/14/2016 01:23:00 pm
I like social justice math because students are solving problems using numbers that really matter. Students are focusing on issues that are happening in the world and working with real authentic, and meaningful numbers.
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John Lanning
1/15/2016 04:19:41 pm
I often talk to my students (high school freshmen) about mathematics being the key that opens several doors. When they give me the "when am I going to use this" comment, I talk about how they are going to live lives not only different from their parents, but different than any other generation that has ever lived. The more knowledge a person has in any area, and specifically math, science, and interpersonal communication, the better prepared the person is for an unknown future.
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Rachel C
12/27/2017 10:54:40 am
Such a good point! The old "Knowledge is Power" posters and PSA's are simple and to the point, but I like your explanation of students lives being different from their parents.
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Katie G
2/21/2016 03:31:01 pm
This article is a valuable reminder to me about the power of education and, more specifically, math education. Mathematical thinking is so ingrained in 21st citizenship and communication and, as Moses suggests, is "a necessary literacy for our democracy.” Reading this has certainly helped me to refocus on the big picture instead of thinking of math solely in terms of the enduring concepts that must be met according to a curriculum; I think my renewed focus can only help my students to understand the social implications of their mathematical understanding.
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Jennifer Gilliland
2/29/2016 08:46:34 am
I believe using Social Justice Issues to teach math can only help students advance their learning. I have always said if students are interested in what they learning, not only will learning be easier but more fun. Students will obviously be more interested in learning if they are learning something they can apply or use in their own life.
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Wong Lee
3/12/2016 12:53:43 pm
Social Justice Math is model with mathematics. It is applying mathematical concepts to solve real world problems. Using social justice issues to guide mathematics instruction is a good idea. It serves as a motivational tool. However, the math skills and math concepts go hand in hand. Most at risk students struggle with the skills, so they don't often have the opportunity to apply it solve real world problems. Consequently, they always question what is being taught. They have all the same question: "When will I ever going to use this?"
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Keri
4/7/2016 03:46:09 am
When will I ever use this? I used to ask that very question when I was younger. I feel it is really important for students to understand why they are learning what they are learning. Math through Social Justice is a great way to accomplishment this. It offers real, authentic problems for our students that will allow them to become critical thinkers.
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Jenna Evans
2/27/2017 12:21:52 pm
Me, too Keri! I asked this a lot, and now answer it for my own middle school aged child. I love the statement above: “When will your mathematics understanding intersect an opportunity for meaningful change?”
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Ian Wu
7/22/2018 06:20:09 am
I agree- when students are interested and care about what they are learning, they tend to ask more questions and learn to apply what they have learned beyond the classroom. In some of my classes, I offer students the opportunity to tell about themselves and explain why they are taking the course (a majority of my students are recent high school grads or transfer students). Most of the time they are simply taking the course to fulfill a major requirement. I would like them to think beyond this and be able to utilize the math that they learn even if they change majors. I agree that the use of Social Justice math will allow them to not only improve on their critical thinking, but also help them see mathematics as a tool to become more engaged beyond the classroom.
Al
4/30/2016 04:26:25 am
The response to "Will I ever have to use this?" at the bottom of the article sums up for me how important social justice math is in our classrooms. Every student will encounter social justice issues at some point in their lives. Equipping students with the mathematical ability to make some sense of these problems is an important task I am excited to embark on as a high school math teacher.
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Christine
7/12/2016 05:54:05 am
This article was inspiring for me. I have encountered hundreds of students who, like those mentioned above, were unsatisfied with the list of careers I could list who will use math on a regular basis. One of our main purposes, as educators, should be to foster an environment of critical thinking. Through integration of current events and various social justice issues into our classrooms, our students will realize that mathematical thinking and reasoning is a valuable tool that they can use to make a difference in the world.
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My comment refers to the section entitled "The Algebra Project." The district that I teach in is low-income. The students were only expected to know minimal amounts of algebra. Then, a new administration came in requiring University of Chicago materials to be used. Students were frustrated and failing. There was no previous preparation for the students. Students NEED to be taught algebra skills from kindergarten. These skills need to be build upon and strenghtened every year, especially since my group was low income.
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Jessica Grenz
8/11/2016 09:37:57 am
Social Justice Math encourages our students to become members of their community, members of society, by giving them the opportunity to mathematically explore current issues. Students will be able to focus on the mathematics involved in social justice issues rather than asking the question, "When will I ever use this math?" Being an active member of society does not necessarily come naturally to all students, it is the responsibility of parents and teachers to promote this path and promote students to learn through exploration, conjecture, and discussion.
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Caitlin Thompson
1/10/2017 08:27:07 am
Yes, we want our students to be able to solve real-life application problems, but we also want them to be able to look at any given situation and see the Math that it involves.
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Victoria Thornton
1/14/2017 02:28:45 pm
I love Moses' comment about the necessity of people understanding algebra and logic in order to be part of our society today. This couldn't be more true! Even something as simple as a commercial stating a statistic that makes their product sound promising. Students (and all people) need to be able to think critically and logically about what was stated. What information was not given? What could the spokesperson be leaving out that would make his/her statement hold true but may make the product less promising? Everyone needs algebra and logic to be able to make informed decisions which will lead to change.
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Josh
2/13/2017 10:15:04 am
I'm starting this course at a time when social justice is on trial (literally). Among other issues, Trump's "Travel Ban" is being fought over. It's easy to think of global issues right now. As I read in the blog,
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Jim Baroody
2/7/2019 02:13:56 pm
I am all in with your thoughts here, Josh. So many of the things our current politicians push are seemingly not based in the facts that math can provide. Instead of looking at the data, analyzing it, and coming to fact-based conclusions, many are deciding what conclusion they want and then manipulating the numbers to support that. Some don't even go that far...they just argue for what they want with baseless opinions.
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Jenna Evans
2/27/2017 12:19:36 pm
I work in early childhood education and I can't help but wonder the amount of change we'd see if every young learner learned to be a mathematical thinker right from the start. Engaging our students in thinking outside of their egocentric selves, and using the critical thinking and mathematics skills they acquire from even a young age may very well be the catalyst we need to see a nation of change.
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Cindy Slater
3/28/2017 04:40:57 pm
I have to agree with so many of the comments about feeling like we give inadequate answers to students questions about using the math we teach in "real life". It's embarrassing and disrespectful to the students I teach to give them those answers. I want what I teach them to be relevant and valuable beyond getting to the next level in math class.
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Brian Thornley
4/4/2017 11:55:56 am
I agree we need to tell them why we are teaching them certain concepts. Part of the issue is the 1950's/1960's school model for mathematics. We are teaching towards Calculus(at least high school class progression) which was a result of the space race. We needed more engineers, well we still need engineers, but that model doesn't fit everyone. If we focused on a path to statistics we would be creating generations of students who see the value in the number and what it can mean when applied to any situation.
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Clara Manso
3/28/2017 04:41:32 pm
I really feel that if we have our students changing the question " when will I ever have to us this?" to " When will your mathematics understanding intersect an opportunity for meaningful change?" can be really useful l in having them see the power of math.
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Sasha Friedman
4/28/2017 03:34:19 pm
I absolutely believe that students should learn how to properly interpret statistical results and learn the critical thinking skills to evaluate the methodology of how the data was collected and what questions were truly answered by the study design and data collection process. Furthermore, students need to learn critical thinking skills to not make mental mistakes including falling for: correlation does not equal causation, Simpson's Paradox, the Ecological Fallacy, among others. Peace.
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Elena Bertrand
6/16/2017 12:06:30 pm
You bring up some great points about how students need to be able to appropriately interpret statistical data and critically consider the validity of results. This will help to create a more informed generation of learners.
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Elena Bertrand
6/16/2017 12:03:53 pm
Twenty years past high school, most adults won't remember synthetic division or how to find a derivative, but hopefully they will remember how to reason logically and use their knowledge thoughtfully to answer difficult questions. Being able to think critically about information they hear and ask the right questions to get the fully story is vital for a functioning society.
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Allison Collins
4/20/2019 05:54:20 am
I find the connection to, as Elena put it, a "functioning society" to be the one I want most to explore with regards to this topic. I teach PreCalculus which is a class full of rich critical thinking and problem solving, but I struggle with giving my students a great way to apply their knowledge that is meaningful for them. I love that a new connection I could make could involve a greater societal good. I want to delve further into that way of viewing my class and mathematics in general.
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Jessica S
10/23/2017 09:18:48 am
I probably get the, "When will we ever use this in the real world?" question every day in mathematics. Sometimes, I cannot really think of an answer for them. Exposing students to social justice problems will help answer that question, and it will get students interested in the mathematical content that they are learning. It also teaches students how to problem solve and how to analyze data to support a claim.
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Mindy H
12/14/2017 01:38:20 pm
I think a lot of people have already mentioned this, but I often tell my students that they may not use the specific concept being taught in class (like factoring and rules of exponents) but just taking math (especially higher level math) is really increasing their critical thinking and problem solving skills. These are skills that will help them in life and make them smarter people.
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Rachel C
12/27/2017 10:46:35 am
I don't think there is a teacher in the world, mathematics or otherwise, who hasn't heard the question, "When will I ever use this?" Social Justice issues seem a perfect way to provide answers to that question -- they affect everyone from one angle or another. Sometimes I tell my students that some of what they are learning in math can be compared to a football or basketball player who participates in physical conditioning. Sure the player is not going to use those particular skills in a game, but they prepare the body for the rigors of competition. In the same way, these mathematical skills are preparing the mind for the rigors of life and logical, rational thought. I am looking forward to exploring social justice issues in my classes. I think it will be an eye opener for my students and me.
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Matthew
4/2/2018 06:41:17 am
The question of "When will I use this?" is taken care of in a social justice math setting. If we are building students to be well-rounded global thinkers then having them work on problems that deal with fair wages, fair trade, clean water, hate crimes and the math and the issues that go with those kinds of issues helps build the types of people who are aware of what is going on around them. If they aware, then they have shot in understanding and taking action in those things they believe that need to changed in a positive manner. We can give them the tools to plan, think, trouble shoot and consider others. Instead of solely reacting.
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Robert Moulton
6/15/2018 01:19:42 pm
THE MOST COMMONLY ASKED QUESTION IN MATH! When will I use this? As most people responded, we answer with the jobs that are used. I love the idea of explaining some of the social injustices in the world and asking how they will fix them. Down it use numbers, measurement, data, pattern, change, function, stats, etc.?
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Mike
7/31/2018 12:42:30 pm
I love the comment about how math can and should be used for equity. I teach in a school where in one class I will have students who live in million dollar homes with students who are on free lunch.
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Carly
5/3/2019 07:11:54 am
This morning, I was reading the results of recent high school graduates and it is always interesting to see their comments. One comment that stuck with me, especially in light of this article, was the comment that we need to teach about diversity and the world outside of the bubble of the homogenous HS where I teach. Between that comment and this article, it really stresses the importance of including showing how numbers can lend themselves to discussions in a seemingly "black-and-white" course.
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Eric
5/22/2019 05:41:19 pm
Carly,
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William Forney
6/17/2019 08:03:43 am
Carly, I can identify with your struggles. While we as math teachers always desire for our students to be able to apply the mathematics that we teach to real-world problems, sometimes we have to come to terms that not every lesson will necessarily be immediately applicable. Sometimes, what we are doing is teaching foundational skills that will be built upon later in students' mathematical development.
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Eric C
5/22/2019 05:33:31 pm
To be honest, all I needed to read here was the final part. I have heard the timeless question from a lot of kids: "when will I ever need this?" The answer I usually give seems so outdated and insufficient after having read this article. The entire concept that learning mathematics could give a student the ability to advance some sort of meaningful change is quite powerful. Although I plan in the future to adapt this into my answer, I am skeptical of how it will be received without some specific examples to get the point across. I assume by the end of this class, I will have a better idea on how to do that.
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William Forney
6/17/2019 07:57:10 am
I've been teaching for 25 years, and to be honest, I used to get asked the "when will we ever use this?" question a lot more than I do now. I teach 8th graders, and I find them to be much less inquisitive than they used to be. Sadly, I think this is largely a result of the depressed socioeconomic conditions of the community. A large percentage of my students don't seem to be growing up with family expectations of achieving beyond their current situations. Mathematics is the great gatekeeper. But it's not fair for me to expect the 13-year olds that I teach to understand why it is so important to develop mathematical literacy. I have to make sure that I teach them this importance. And I think we have entered a time where social justice issues provide math teachers with a real opportunity to make mathematics relevant to students in ways never before possible. I am hopeful that this course will help me to see some concrete examples of how I can do a better job here.
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Andrew Mashhour
10/1/2019 10:27:48 pm
Many students ask when am I going to use this in real life. When I was teaching basic math, I always tell them how about when your at the grocery store and need to estimate the price of few items you're going to purchase? Also, how do you know you are getting the right change? In these times students are so dependent on their calculator on their phone. I really like the response in the article, "Oh you mean when will your mathematics understanding intersect an opportunity for meaningful change?"
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