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There is an argument often made that maths is cold, hard, and rational, and as such is in some sense exempt from the swirling tides of cultural debate. The argument goes that as mathematicians we can sit back and enjoy a quiet cup of tea with our equations while the rest of the educational world grapples with important and thorny issues of representation and decolonisation. But maths is a human subject, enacted by humans, with all the messiness, bias, and socio-cultural baggage that arises in every facet of human activity. As mathematics educators we cannot simply sit back and bask in a shared sense of satisfaction that our subject uniquely rises above the issues of the human bodies and minds that enact it. We must instead critique our subject and examine our responsibility to address issues of equality, diversity, identity, and belonging (often referred to as EDIB).
Quite apart from the well-documented imbalances around engagement and “achievement” in mathematics (and STEM subjects more generally), there are similarly well-documented issues stemming from the historical development of our subject; who has been supported to do maths in the past? And who is valued and remembered when they do? In my main area of focus, statistics education, the very names of the techniques and methods of analysis we teach our students are inseparable from issues of racism and eugenics1 that underpinned and motivated much of their development, and as educators we are made complicit in the veneration of those who did great harm when we are obliged to repeat the names Fisher, Pearson, Galton…
As educators then, we face multitudes of choices every time we plan or deliver a lesson to students, and these micro-decisions, often made without conscious thought, determine to a great extent whether we reinforce or subvert the more toxic legacies of our subject; whether we invite students in or construct barriers; and whether we represent our students positively within their experience of the subject. When we deliver a lesson on “Pearson’s” product moment correlation coefficient, do we allow the name to pass without comment? Allow the harms he enabled to go unacknowledged? Or do we choose to spend some time exploring the dehumanising history associated with the mathematics being learnt?
I turn, as I often do, to research for ideas. We each need to develop an equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging (EDIB) lens and become comfortable with applying it at every level of engagement of our work both within the classroom and without. According to John Mason,
What we attend to is also described as what we are aware of. But these are different from what we are conscious of. For example, I know that you know how to breathe, and to regulate your breathing. I conjecture that until I mentioned breathing, you were unaware of either your breathing or your powers of regulation. Thus awareness is not simply consciousness.2(p23)
This is as true for EDIB work as it is for the mathematical structures that John was exploring; how can we attend to EDIB issues if we are not aware of where they arise? And gaining awareness takes work! We must engage with the issue: read, explore, seek and grapple with perspectives other than our own, and then crucially apply our developing EDIB lens to every decision we make until it is second nature. There is of course a cost to this. It takes time, it takes a conscious effort – especially at the beginning of this journey – and it may provoke criticism from those who choose not to engage, who choose to maintain the belief that EDIB work is for other, less pure, less rational subjects. We must learn to accept and embrace this cost, because if things could change without a cost, they would have already. Ultimately the cost of EDIB issues is paid somewhere – our choice as educators is whether we are prepared to take on some of that cost ourselves or simply to leave it to our students to pay through their exclusion, discomfort, and invisibility in the subject.
This is a complex issue, and this blog is too short to go into detail about how to develop an EDIB lens, but we have recently published a set of design guidelines for assessment and resource design which may be a useful starting point. We would urge you to make a commitment to begin to audit your choice of task selection and design using your developing EDIB lens. For example: Do you select tasks that represent a broad range of identities such as race, age, disability, gender, or sexuality? Who is succeeding in mathematical activity in your questions and who is it that requires help? Who has high represented status and who has low? Who gets to exercise agency and who has to conform? Who is solving problems and who is presented as the source of the problem?
By being aware of these questions and many more that arise as we do work in the EDIB space, we can all become agents of change and help make mathematics more accessible and more inclusive, and ultimately allow all our students to feel a sense of belonging in the world of the mathematician.
Join the conversation: You can tweet us @CambridgeMaths or comment below.