Nurse with syringe

A question we often hear is this: does diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) need to be addressed in our math classes? Many people think that math classes are the one place where content is culture-free. After all, numbers are numbers, and answers to calculations are the same no matter what language or type of numerals you are using. So math, in its “pure” form, could be considered culture-free…as long as there was no attempt to apply it to any situations. But what use is math without context?

Math’s application is what gives it meaning. Students can only become productive math learners when math content is related to their experiences. That’s possibly why so many people dislike math and never did well in math classes at school. Maybe too many people were taught that math is only decontextulized computation and rules to be memorized with no connection to the real world. If so, it might explain why some teachers tend to teach math solely for the purpose of passing the test—because they think that’s the only use for it.

The applications of math vary, depending on the situation and individuals involved. In adult education, the term numeracy is often used rather than math to be clear that the focus is helping learners apply math in real-life contexts (only one of which is to pass a test). Those contexts should be based on the students’ worlds. When we include students’ lives in math curriculum, we invite them to bring knowledge and experiences from their own families, communities, and workplaces. These can all serve as positive resources for connecting math ideas to real contexts. In providing these connections, we are also saying that we value and respect who our students are and what they have experienced. Their knowledge and experience should guide how we develop culturally relevant math activities.

Here are a few examples of how the SABES Mathematics and Adult Numeracy Curriculum & Instruction PD Center is trying to develop culturally relevant math curricula:

  • We’re living in a time of a global pandemic, and students have questions about what that means and how a pandemic happens. We’ve developed a set of ASE-level lessons and ABE-level lessons, as well as a virtual workshop to answer these questions using simple visualizations. These lessons use actual state data from Massachusetts to give students a relevant real-world example of what exponential growth looks like.
  • We have developed a unit called Teaching about Vaccines that is timely for communities across the globe right now. This four-lesson unit includes prompts that encourage students to share their own viewpoints and experiences with vaccinations. These materials also have an online counterpart workshop of the same name.
  • When teaching a virtual class, it’s important to consider who your students are as you make choices about both the technology and the math content that you want to use. Our new online-facilitated workshop Planning for Remote Math Instruction provides an opportunity to do so with support.
  • Teaching Number Sense for Beginning Math Learners is another example of how we have tried to integrate students’ identities and communities into our materials. This packet includes opportunities for learners to discuss how people estimate and reason differently, sometimes based on what they were taught in their home countries. The packet also contains short true stories from other adult students illustrating the application of math in real-life contexts in other countries.
  • Finally, we have developed an asynchronous self-paced course called English Language Learners in the ABE Math Classroom, which is offered monthly. In this course, teachers learn strategies to be more accepting of the diverse community of learners they often find themselves teaching. Teachers also learn to consider their own implicit biases as they relate to math teaching and learning.

While our PD Center has always tried to incorporate real-life content into our work, we know that there is always more to be done. Developing DEI awareness and bringing it into our practice is an ongoing learning experience. Let’s learn together.

PD Center
SABES Mathematics and Adult Numeracy Curriculum and Instruction PD Center