Math & Identity

I just read this great piece by Karin Brodie:

Entitled: Yes, mathematics can be decolonised. Here’s how to begin


When we think about math, we often think about the content – but what about the way we think about it, the way it is taught? If think about math in these ways, we are able to consider how identity plays a role in how we teach, understand, and apply math.

What is identity? It is connected to the groups that we affiliate with, the language we use, and who we learned the language from. I believe that we all have different identities depending upon the different groups that we belong to, and that this has implications in terms of the languages and discourses we use.

What is important is that I recognize the intersection of my identity with identities embodied within the Ontario Public School system, my school board, schools, and students that I will be working with next year. In identifying this intersection, can I truly facilitate math learning, and promote higher achievement for students? Especially if my identity is stark compared to the identities that exist within classrooms across Ontario schools?

But this is not comfortable. One of the ways we as educators try to deal with this discomfort is to think of math as a ‘purist’ subject. This is but one way that we can strive to reconcile the dissonance we can feel about dealing with multiple identities in math.

But it is important to hear the identities and cultures of our students, in order to ask better questions about how math can be learned, versus merely finding the ‘right’ answer.

What can we do?

I think that Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) is one way to begin to address this question and forge a path forward. Inherent in CRP is the idea that I as an educator would continue to use student culture to transcend the negative effects of dominant culture. It becomes a tool to explain the ways in which I will develop deeper cultural knowledge of students, and thus use cultural referents to increase opportunities for student learning.

Here is a great piece to learn more about CRP: Framework for a Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy:

I do have many questions however.

How do I know that I am actively supporting a safe school environment, and not just thinking that I am because it fits with my own identity and dominant culture in society?

How can teachers situate their own privilege and oppression of themselves, and that of others? It is through this that we can start to understand identity, and understand how diverse our experiences surrounding math can actually be.

When we consider the multiple identities of teachers and students, we can understand that a standardized test is just one type of outcome for student learning. There are so many additional ways that we can capitalize on to enhance student achievement in math, to help us move beyond the spaces where we simply consume knowledge, into spaces where we can critically examine mathematical knowledge and how it plays out in our lives, and with our own identities.

This is especially important with Indigenous students. Canada has a history of experience with colonizing Indigenous communities. Because Indigenous peoples were on this land first, it stands to reason that the diverse cultures of Indigenous peoples are allowed to be welcomed and understood in our classrooms, as a way to promote and enhance the identities of Indigenous individuals, cultures, and incorporate their diverse experiences with math.

It causes me to ponder the importance and power of language. Language is part of our identity, it forms how we know the world – thus how we understand and know math. We need to learn the languages and narratives of our student identities, and check out our own, in order to co-create the necessary mathematical experiences that will lead toward higher math achievement.

Perhaps it is important to use CRP to help co-create new languages of math in our unique environments of unique identities and cultures – that can help us shape our understandings of different cultures, contexts and sensitive issues. It will be important to have agreed upon norms, and exercise them in ways that help us to foster truth and respect. It will also be important for me to frame this as discourses of education, and not discourses of the individual.

It is also important to facilitate the creation of math opportunities that allow students to discuss their own aspirations for the future.  Noting how students solve problems, and sharing the different ways that problems are solved. I can strive to move away from relying on my own identity and personal experiences to make sense of how math should be solved in the classroom. In this way, I recognize that math is culturally defined, and that I can change the narrative that I learned from dominant culture that math is a pure subject that has the correct answers, and is culturally neutral.

It is time to get really uncomfortable with math.


Deborah McCallum