Everyone Belongs in Mathematics

  • Everyone Belongs in Mathematics

    January 2024

    I often dread taking a taxi or rideshare from the airport to the hotel when I travel because I know that the driver will ask me about my occupation. After I share that I’m a mathematics educator, for the rest of my ride, the driver typically shares their “hate” of math and their feeling of being unsuccessful in that subject. I often hear similar things from my students’ caregivers at back-to-school events. It seems to be socially acceptable to admit that you are bad at math. Because of this, as a mathematics education community, we must continue to work on building more positive mathematics identities with our students.

    Building a positive mathematics identity can be accomplished in part by helping students realize they belong in mathematics. One way to do this is by telling stories. Our students should learn about the people who discovered mathematics. They should realize that mathematics has been developed to solve real-world problems and describe real-world phenomena. But which mathematicians are highlighted? If we share only stories of the archetypal white male European mathematicians, we are doing our students a disservice. They deserve to hear about the wide diversity of people who have created mathematics. There are many examples of wrongly attributed topics in mathematics; for example, they should know that Pythagoras did not discover the Pythagorean Theorem but that that mathematical relationship was used hundreds of years before him by the Babylonians, Indians, Egyptians, and Chinese. A new Powerful Mathematicians series for grades PK-12 centers on stories of underrepresented mathematicians that our students do not typically learn or hear about in school. These books will help students gain insight into the remarkable humans from ancient times to the present who have made an indelible mark on the mathematics we know today. By being exposed to these stories, students will see that it is not just white males who discovered and do mathematics; hopefully, they will see a bit of themselves and will begin to understand that they belong in mathematics.

    We also create positive identities by focusing on understanding the mathematical concepts students are learning rather than having them memorize rote procedures. When students understand what they are learning, the greater the likelihood that they will feel a sense of belonging and an appreciation for the wonder, joy, and beauty of mathematics. To help our students develop a solid understanding, educators must build on the funds of knowledge that they bring, recognizing and appreciating that the experiences of our students, their families, communities, and cultures may differ from our own. We need to learn from and with our students to help them truly believe they belong in mathematics.

    Students must be actively engaged to help them recognize that they can learn mathematics. Passively watching their teachers is highly unlikely to create positive learning experiences, and this behavior is likely to continue into adulthood when we still have so many who freely admit they dislike mathematics. Every student must be provided opportunities to make sense of the mathematics—not just those who currently see themselves as simply capable.

    As this new year begins, it is vital that we do more than just tell our students that they belong in mathematics; our actions must back up our words! We must help our students develop more positive mathematical identities if we want to better meet the needs of all our students and begin to change the societal norm that it is acceptable to dislike or fear mathematics.

    Kevin Dykema
    NCTM President