Educator’s View: The Biggest Equity Issue in Math Is Low Expectations. From Origami to Super Mario and the Lebombo Bone, 3 Ways to Fix That
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Throughout my 18-year career in urban education, I have taught mathematics to elementary and middle school students. Additionally, I have worked as a district school improvement coordinator and math director. Consequently, I have pondered extensively on how we can create a more equitable math education for all students.
The most significant issue of inequity that I have observed is the presence of low expectations. Numerous students believe that they are incapable of mastering math, and these self-imposed expectations persist in the classroom. Unfortunately, education tends to focus on students’ shortcomings and gaps, highlighting their failure to meet standards and falling behind. This perpetuates a culture of low expectations, leading students to adopt low expectations for themselves.
Research has consistently shown that success in math is not predominantly determined by innate intellectual abilities. Instead, it is influenced by the messages students receive, the opportunities available to them, and their approach to learning. Let’s explore how schools can initiate changes in these aspects.
The first step is to abandon the deficit mindset and provide teachers with professional development opportunities that equip them with strategies to identify and capitalize on students’ strengths. This also entails expanding our perception of what math entails. For instance, some students might claim that they cannot comprehend fractions; however, these same students can expertly fold intricate paper shapes, such as origami or fortune tellers. These paper folds serve as tangible examples of fractions.
These paper folds can be utilized to teach about common denominators, forming a part of what I refer to as "math close to you." Every individual possesses mathematical abilities, and it is crucial to help students recognize that they already possess mathematical skills. I have encountered students who beatbox or rhythmically drum on their desks, essentially keeping time in fractions. They already possess an intuitive understanding of fractions, but they do not perceive these actions as "math." When teachers identify a student’s strengths and connect them to the math being taught in the classroom, it significantly transforms the student’s attitude.
Teachers can further promote equity by offering feedback that aids students in comprehending that mistakes are valuable learning opportunities. Focusing on students’ thought processes requires teachers to broaden their perspectives. As Phil Daro, a contributor to the creation of the Common Core, emphasizes in a video titled "The Case Against Answer-Getting," correct answers are essential, but they should be viewed as part of the learning process rather than the end product. While it is important not to disregard the importance of obtaining the correct answer, math encompasses much more than that. Profound learning occurs when students make mistakes.
When students receive constructive feedback for incorrect answers, they can analyze their errors, adjust their thinking, and attempt alternative approaches. If mistakes are seen as impasses, students will learn to rely on the teacher to provide them with the correct answer. However, by positioning students as capable thinkers who can identify the necessary changes to reach the right answer, students will increasingly recognize their potential for success in math. They will understand that they are active participants in their own learning journeys.
In fact, they may even find joy in the process. In gamified education, there exists a concept known as the Super Mario Effect. Essentially, when children play video games, they do not become discouraged by the obstacles they encounter or the number of times their characters fail because they remain focused on the objective of reaching the princess. Each challenge becomes an opportunity for learning. This is precisely what teachers must cultivate in the math classroom – the understanding that every wrong answer is simply another chance to learn.
Lastly, teachers can foster equity by showcasing the historical and cultural applications of math. For example, there is a 40,000-year-old artifact from sub-Saharan Africa known as the Lebombo bone, which exhibits distinct mathematical markings. This artifact serves as evidence that cultures worldwide have been utilizing math for tens of thousands of years. By utilizing this and similar examples, we can demonstrate to students that math has been an integral part of human civilization throughout history. Highlighting the diverse ways in which different cultures employ math helps students recognize that math is universal and applicable to everyone and everything.
Twana Young holds the position of vice president of curriculum and instruction at the Mind Research Institute. With over 20 years of experience in the field of education and management, she has also been a member of the Math Advisory Committee for the Council of Great City Schools. This committee is comprised of representatives from all the major urban school districts in the United States. To contact Twana Young, please email her at email@example.com.