Center for Inquiry and Equity in Mathematics

Who gets to ask questions in mathematics?

Core Beliefs

The Center for Inquiry and Equity in Mathematics is built on a set of core beliefs:

First, Mathematics is a human activity, and asking mathematical questions is an important part of doing mathematics (e.g., Dossey, 1992). However, mathematics continues to be widely seen as a static body of knowledge that gets delivered to students (Lerman, 1990; Ernest, 2016).Children mostly answer questions that books and teachers ask them. This misperception of mathematics limits the potential for students’ authentic engagement: when students are deeply engaged in mathematical thinking, they will go in unpredictable directions (Kennedy, 2006). Not allowing students to follow their mathematical wonderings shuts down engagement (Duckworth, 1987) and, by extension, real understanding of mathematical ideas and the practices of mathematics.

Second, for students of color, this situation is exacerbated by an additional challenge: there is a dearth of visible mathematicians of color. This conveys to students, including preservice teachers, that mathematics is not a space in which people of color engage (e.g. Zirkel, 2002), reinforcing the common narrative that doing mathematics is for white individuals (Ladson-Billings, 2001).  And if a teacher believes, even subconsciously, that only a few people can do mathematics, and those few are almost never students of color, it impacts a teacher’s perspective and expectations when they walk into the classroom (Thompson, 1984, 1992), thereby shaping their students’ perceptions about their abilities and futures.

Third, we treat aspects of equity and inquiry as inseparable in the instruction of mathematics and, therefore, we must treat them in tandem. For example, history shows that school mathematics has evolved in ways that systematically excluded Black children from access to the content (Berry, Pinter, & McClain, 2013). Three outcomes relevant to students of color emerge from these social realities: (1) Students have differential access to high-quality mathematics instruction due to their racial identities; (2) students’ experiences of racial stereotyping interact with mathematical identity development, which can detract from mathematics learning; and (3) for students who identify as members of marginalized groups, high-quality mathematics instruction can equalize access to mathematics (Nasir, 2016). Therefore, to be prepared to teach in the U.S. context, classroom educators need to develop a particular set of “knowledge, dispositions and practices,” particularly in supporting students to draw upon their own funds of knowledge (Turner et al., 2012, p. 68) to address these outcomes. Martin (2007) highlights that among these and other capabilities, successful teachers of African American students need to work as change agents in their own contexts, fighting existing deficit views of their students. In doing the kinds of work highlighted by Martin and Turner et al., teachers are performing acts of culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris, 2012). Building on Ladson-Billings’ (1995) culturally relevant pedagogy, Paris suggests that we should aim not just to recognize students’ culture, but an essential part of the work is to create a system to sustain these identities. Empowering students to pose their own problems and investigate them is a way of honoring students’ own identities in the mathematics classroom.

Finally, we believe that mathematics can be a vehicle for what our advisor, Francis Su (2017), calls “human flourishing” (p. 485), and if we want our students to gain access to this possibility, we must attend to issues of equity.

For these reasons, we must give students opportunities to flourish in their mathematics classes, and to do this we must offer pre-service teachers: opportunities to re-envision what mathematics is; opportunities to conduct mathematical inquiry – to investigate their own questions, and come to see mathematics as the creative, human activity that it is. And we must give pre-service teachers a robust vision of who does mathematics. 


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