Cathery Yeh, posted April 24, 2017 —
Inspired by Anita Bright’s work
(2016), my preservice teachers and I had been analyzing the “hidden messages”
in K–grade 6 textbooks and were surprised by what we found. Let’s start with a series
of problems that a preservice teacher identified in the textbook Math Expressions, which was being used
in her fifth-grade fractions and decimals unit:
Amie used 7/9 yard of
ribbon in her dress. Jasmine used 5/6 yard of ribbon in her dress. Which girl used
more ribbon? How much more did she use?
In the last basketball
game, Joel made 4 out of 7 free throws. Carlos made 5 out of 9 free throws.
Which boy made the greater fraction of his free throws?
Ms. Hernandez knitted a
scarf for her grandson. The scarf is 5/6 yard long and 2/9 yard wide. What is
the area of the scarf?
What do you notice? What is
normalized and valued in these problems? We had the opportunity to review many
more word problems in this textbook, and the examples above represent typical
patterns in word problems we reviewed. Contexts related to looking pretty,
being helpful, and being a homemaker were attached to problems with girls’
names; problems with boys’ names reinforced athleticism, competition, and masculinity.
Any one of these scenarios are unproblematic of and by themselves, but when looking
at patterns across several problems, we see a consistent message about gender
normativity—the idea that there is only one way to be a boy and another,
different way to be a girl.
In the rare instances when we found a
gender-fluid problem (e.g., David’s dad baked a dozen cookies to share with
him, his sister, and his mom), the problem continued to conflate gender with a
heterosexual identity. As a class, we could not find problems involving nonnuclear
families (e.g., two moms, a single dad) or gender nonconforming characters
(e.g., John buying a doll at the store).
What happens when gender is seen and understood
as fixed and dichotomous? A restrictive notion of gender has an adverse impact
on all students. Gender socialization
and stereotypes influence students’ impressions of what is acceptable, and they
shape performance, STEM-based participation patterns, and violence (Barnett and
Rivers 2005; Kosciw et al. 2014; Rands 2009).
The 2013 National School Climate
Survey found that 90 percent of gender variant students were verbally harassed
and more than half reported gender-based physical violence in the past year
(Kosciw et al. 2014). Students who are perceived to be gender nonconforming are
significantly more likely than their peers to be harassed and assaulted at
school (Kosciw et al. 2014).
Genderism and heteronormativity are
not the only hidden message in word problems. We have found that almost all
word problems have hidden messages; issues of classism, racism, and consumerism
are rampant. How many math problems can you identify in your school curriculum
that perpetuate competition and individualism (e.g., “Which boy made the
greater fraction of his free throws?”) versus collectivism and community (e.g.,
“What can we achieve working together?”)
Schools send powerful messages to our
students about what is valued and whose knowledge and experiences are deemed
important. These messages have such deep historical and cultural roots that we
often don’t even notice them. But mathematics word problems could serve as a
vehicle for students to analyze privilege and oppression, such as analyzing the
gender pay gap or the differences in the rate of hate crimes and police
brutality between transgender and cisgender populations.
realize my observations are limited by my own worldviews as a cisgender female,
a teacher, and a mother. My
goal for writing is selfish in that I still have much to learn as an educator.
I hope this series of posts encourages conversations about how we can collectively
create mathematics learning spaces that are humanizing and welcoming for
students learning disciplinary practices while we also embrace and leverage the
diversity of children and families we serve.
messages are found in the mathematical word problems in your textbook? How have
you reframed these problems to better reflect the diversity of the students and
families we serve? We want to hear from you. Post your ideas in the comments
below or share your thoughts on Twitter @TCM_at_NCTM using #TCMtalk.
Join us on May 8, 2017, when we discuss the third blog
post in this series, teachers’ choices about number and language while
implementing mathematical tasks.
Rosalind, and Caryl Rivers. 2005. Same Difference:
How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs.
New York: Basic Books.
Bright, Anita. 2016. “Education for Whom?
Word Problems as Carriers of Cultural Values.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education 15 (1): 6–22.
Indigo. 2011. “Snips and Snails and Puppy Dogs’ Tails: Genderism and Mathematics
Education.” For the Learning of
Mathematics 31, no. 2 (July): 27–31.
Joseph G., Emily A. Greytak, Neal A. Palmer, and Madelyn J. Boesen. 2014. “The
2013 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,
and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools.” Research report. New York: Gay,
Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Kathleen E. 2009. Considering Transgender People in Education: A Gender-Complex
Approach. Journal of Teacher Education
60 (4): 419–31.
Cathery Yeh is an assistant professor
in the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University. She is the lead
author of the newly released NCTM book Reimagining
the Mathematics Classroom: Creating and Sustaining Productive Learning
Environments. Her work focuses on creating classroom spaces for generative
learning, agency, community, and collective praxis.