From Math Shame to Math Liberation

Kid Giving Up on Math HomeworkIn 1976, Ms. Magazine published an article titled “Math Anxiety: Why is a Smart Girl Like You Counting on Your Fingers” by Sheila Tobias. This was the start of a movement in mathematics education to identify and treat the fear of mathematics, especially in women. Women have come a long way mathematically since the 1970’s. On tests of mathematical skills, male and female students are doing comparable work,1 and women have now surpassed men attaining undergraduate degrees in the sciences and mathematics. But there are still issues with equity in mathematics education, from the unequal racial and ethnic achievements that prompted a Florida district to set achievement levels by race, to differences in urban, suburban, and rural mathematics achievement, to the persistent low numbers of female researchers and faculty in mathematics.

We are not just afraid of mathematics — we are ashamed of our mathematical performance. The shame is lurking right up there in the title of the Ms. Magazine article — if you are so “smart,” why are you “counting on your figures?” Finger-counting is like a public proclamation of innumeracy, and the title implies that finger-counters should be ashamed. I have a PhD in math, and I count on my fingers all the time. I was always a terrific math student until I hit my dissertation, and now I, like many other women in math and science, think that I’m not good enough at math. We all feel that being “good at math” is for someone else. We’re good at the math that we have already mastered, whether that is arithmetic, algebra, statistics, or even calculus, but like the children in a 1980’s study by Kouba and McDonald, we don’t think what we’re good at counts as “real math.”

From the “new math” of the 1960’s to the Common Core of this year, there have been many efforts fix our collective problems with mathematics, but has anything changed? Yes, women are no longer shut out of math and science, but the faculty of mathematics departments are still largely male. Yes, we have seen slight narrowing in the achievement gaps between white students and African American students,2 but at the same time we have narrowed the types of thinking that we are asking students to develop3 as we “teach to the test” in order to improve basic skills.

Mathematics is still alienating. Mathematical knowledge is is externally given, unquestionable, abstract, and far too removed for the contexts of people’s lives. Mathematics is one of the few areas in which we think it is good when the students get their entire knowledge about a subject from one source: their teacher.4 In many classrooms, students can’t use methods they learned from elsewhere or methods they invented themselves. Above all, there is an emphasis in mathematics on being “right” that just isn’t present in other areas. Mathematics is seen as an objective arbiter. Unlike other subjects, there is often no room for other points of view. In science, the interpretation of data may lead to different conclusions, and theories change as new information comes to light. In history, there are some immutable facts, but there is plenty of room for interpretation of those facts through different lenses. In literature, the interpretation and interaction with the subject is everything. In mathematics, you are right or you are wrong.

This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face or contextualizing their mathematical work and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just memory, but also understanding and intelligence, both because math requires the performance of mental skill and because mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability. People feel silenced by mathematics, lacking the vocabulary and voice to discuss their ideas and thoughts.

All of this adds up to a culture of mathematics that is alienating and disenfranchising. As math educators, if we want to truly change mathematics education, we have to start by actually listening to students and adults who have been silenced and shamed. We have to reach out to the people who have been so turned off by the state of education that they have chosen to remove themselves from the conversation. If we want to create a system of mathematics learning that gives people power, then we have to stop looking for ways to convince everyone that math is amazing and essential and start believing them when they tell us it is not.

Even while we listen to those who have been left behind and find ways to help people deal with their mathematical shame, we have to use caution. The self-esteem movement of the 1970s had a big impact on education. It was thought that raising students’ self-esteem would increase their interest in and enjoyment of subjects (such as mathematics). Those theories have been widely debunked,5 and some believe the emphasis on self-esteem has produced generation of young people that feel entitled to praise and benefits regardless of their performance. We don’t want to repeat these mistakes in mathematics. The reason to talk about mathematical shame and disenfranchisement is not so that we can all feel better about ourselves. On the contrary, we need to deeply challenge ourselves and our children. We need to expand the conversation from “why math sucks” and “why people suck at math” to how can we change mathematics and ourselves so that we are able to be more powerful mathematically as a culture.

It is up to each of you to do something about mathematics education. You can’t leave the job to math teachers and professors of mathematics like myself, because we’ve already shown that we don’t have the answers. Your thoughts about mathematics are crucial in order to improve the mathematics situation in the US.







5 thoughts on “From Math Shame to Math Liberation

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