Equity in Math Education: It is a Journey not a Destination

I am not an expert. I am not a leader. I am not good at math.

As you can see above with the linking, those are not cheap words. I have committed whole articles to them.

I am also a person of color who has faced discrimination in education on two counts. The somewhat obvious based on being brown, but another one, which has been far more detrimental to my career — which eventually led to my departure from the classroom in 2013.

I suffered institutional discrimination.

I don’t have a math degree, and even though I have given over 50 workshops on creative mathematical instruction over my 19 year teaching career — including the Learning Through The Arts program at Toronto’s Conservatory of Music — my salary movement was impacted and any official leadership opportunities remained permanently locked.

Credentials and color. I spent almost two decades never certain of my currency in math education.

It also didn’t help that my mentors were rebels of their time, and introduced me to the writings of Whitehead, Russell, and Rousseau. So, being outspoken from the outset of your teaching career with an unstable currency of your own value is not for the faint of heart.

I am surprised I made it that long.

I have offered my personal education background and philosophy in math education because it is inextricably woven into my deepest thoughts about the most challenging topic math education has ever faced — equity.

Twenty years ago, I got the first real fruit from my fortunate mentor, Peter Harrison, whom I have written about a few times in my over 100 Medium articles.

He loaned me this book. Well, not this exact book. A first copy — signed. This is actually my third copy of the book, coffee stains and all.

That book I read front to back. It took me a year. It was insanely dense. And, it put me on a path that, even to this day, I am quite unsure about. All I know is that it initiated a heavy purpose to my thoughts and actions.

Luckily, there is a word, which I only came across last year, that precisely defines my own journey. Not just in math education, but in life in general.

That’s me. The Snail.

In the Summer of 2010, I did a workshop on equity, focusing on the work of Dr. Ron Eglash(Africa and fractals). A teacher had brought about a dozen black students from a youth camp to my math presentation. The deflating body language of those kids — leaving a summer/sports camp to listen about math — was quite obvious. However, after I had finished, everyone of those kids sat near me at lunch, eyes beaming, wanting to know more about their roots and the roots of mathematics.

One of the slides of my 2010 Presentation

And, inasmuch as I remember the power of that afternoon, this is really the first time I have shared that story. Up until now, the only person who knew about it was Peter.

You already know where this is going. Yeah, it is in the title, but now evidence for it is seeping out. I have been a fierce proponent of equity and math history for twenty years now — it is tattooed heavily in many of my writings.

But, I am no expert. And, everyone of us will have/is having their own personal journey about it. Legislating it. Ham fisting it. Shaming educators on Twitter with callouts about where they should be and shouldn’t be is something that I don’t subscribe to. The intention is to accelerate and mandate, get to equity checkpoints with inorganic legislation and reprimanding.

It will never be confused with empathy, grace, and kindness.

I had enough of it, that I took a week off from Twitter.

Fortunately, over the past two years, I have had the challenging opportunity to practice what I supposedly preach — right in my own backyard, with the digital math company I work for, Scolab(Buzzmath/Netmath).

They have been around for 15 years. I will say this now. Wherever I will be in the future, no company will ever have nicer and more gracious people. Just this past Spring for NCSM/NCTM in San Diego, the company rented a larger accommodation, so that my family — with kids — could stay with the seven people from the company.

That said, as nice as they are and have been, doesn’t mean the company doesn’t face everyday challenges and hurdles.

The biggest one was/has been equity. Specifically, getting rid of the their original avatar of a white, elderly male named Alfred.

Alfred was an endearing and affable character that was loved by its creators and by thousands of students and teachers in Quebec(where the company initially started). The intentions of the founders(3 are White and one is Asian) were genuine and positive, and only based on what they knew about mathematics/math education over 10 years ago.

But, while I saw the Alfred avatar as problematic as soon as I got hired by the company, I wasn’t going to change gears on how I saw equity — a personal journey. Also, since this company is the only one I know that teaches math history and has the Indian mathematician, Aryabhatta, as the first mathematician students encounter in the Missions part of the platform, I had a feeling that the conversations around eliminating Alfred would be less challenging.

Ayrabhatta

I didn’t say not challenging. I said less challenging.

Alfred represents more than just some cartoon figure. It represents the creative heart and origin of the company. It also, for the most part, represents them. The challenge and discussions that followed was that it didn’t represent everybody else. And, if you are going to participate in the burgeoning world of math education, you need to be about everybody else.

But, it also has to have a deep understanding about why it is about everybody else. That takes time. That takes patience. That is a journey. There is only one real stop. The very end. And, somewhat like Waiting for Godot, it never will arrive.

It won’t arrive for my company and it won’t arrive for me. It is a lifetime endeavor of learning and reflecting. That’s how big equity is. Be wary of those who think they have all the answers and want to package it off as some kind of gift, layered with academia language. It’s like we are all back in teacher’s college, treating education like it is a science experiment — and completely forgetting it is filled with wonderfully imperfect humans.

Just like me and like everyone else at my company.

This past week, we had a big presentation at the Ministry of Education here in Ontario. The last pillar of our presentation was equity. It has now become the most important mission of our company. Two years ago, equity was seen as something as a threat to the company — Alfred had to go.

Alfred is gone. And, in the wake of several hundred hours of conversations, the gold distillate of why has emerged for everyone at the company. But, more importantly that why is seen a journey — which will be imperfect.

If you think you have it all figured out. That’s great. I don’t. But, I also value people and my relationships/friendships with them. Yes, Brene Brown says “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind”. So being damn clear about where you stand on equity is paramount. That is only one part of the equation. Being or being seen as unkind in maybe a sterile delivery of one’s clarity does the exact opposite of its humanizing intentions — it dehumanizes us. It turns equity and learning in general into a dry, academic competition. There is a constant higher regard for ideas over people.

I have zero interest in boarding a ship with such legislative overtones and velocity and thou shalt checkpoints.

I am on the Flying Dutchman. But, I don’t feel any doom that I will never reach port. I feel buoyed that somethings in life are so big, bigger than you, that their consumption has a time line beyond one that you can give.

Equity. Filled with ideas about race, culture, class, authority, and inclusivity of ideas — ideas that are not institutionalized — is one of those big ideas.

Be thankful it landed in our lifetime. And don’t spend time in social media sound bites making people feel bad about where they are in equity, and cornering the market on “doing it for the kids” — since when do you know the students of that teacher.

Spend time with long conversations making them feel good about the journey they will embark. Equity is not about obedience, legislation, and political correctness. Equity, in the end, will merge with the rich, global history of mathematics that permeated every culture, civilization, and class hierarchy in the world. Equity is about celebration of our historical diversity.

Our history of mathematics should be our rudder and our compass.

Destination? How about just to get better…

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon

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