Mitigating Bias in Mathematics Instruction
by Nesta Marshall
You may ask yourself, “Who in my class has the potential to do well in math?” The resounding response must be that all children can succeed in math and even find pleasure in doing mathematical tasks (Boaler, 2016). Proficiency in mathematical concepts and competency with mathematical skills are not singular to a particular child, nor is there a certain group of children predisposed to be mathematicians (Boaler, 2016). Math is for ALL; it should be inclusive, transcending labels such as gender, classification (i.e., general education and special education) and ethnicity, among others.
Math for All professional learning prepares teachers to adapt mathematics lessons in ways that offer entry points so that all students can engage in rigorous, equitable, and high-quality mathematics. This professional learning is geared toward promoting three essential pillars of pedagogy—knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Teachers are armed with knowledge and skills for planning accessible lessons for all students, thus setting up students for success with mathematical tasks. Math for All also provides teachers with tools to examine and, ultimately, refine their dispositions regarding who their students are as learners and mathematicians.
Teachers, irrespective of race, have different lived realities, including their experiences with mathematics. Sometimes, the aftermath of these mathematical experiences may be latent, but later surface while interacting with students. Among these experiences are unconscious and unexamined biases or assumptions that may result in doing unintentional harm to others.
One assumption is the notion that students who are not Asian or White cannot excel in mathematics. Danny Martin, an education professor at the University of Illinois (cited in Anderson, 2017), mentions that teachers have been inundated with messages about the low proficiency mathematical skill set of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students. As time elapses, the drumbeat of these messages causes teachers to think that White and Asian students are born as mathematicians, thus having a significant innate edge. As a result, Black, Latino, and Indigenous students who perform well in mathematics are seen as outliers, whereas their counterparts from other ethnicities who shine in similar fashion are considered to be gifted. It should also be noted that Wagner et al. (2020) propose that the marker of ethnicity or skin color is still being used as a determinant of a person’s value and functioning levels. With this in mind, how can teachers’ assumptions about their students as mathematicians be unearthed, altered, and refined? Here are three mindsets for teachers to consider as they work to mitigate any ethnicity-driven biased disposition.
1. Surface and Acknowledge the Biases
A heightened and honest self-awareness of one’s dispositions or attitudes is a good starting place for bringing an unconscious bias to the conscious realm. As teachers examine how they communicate expectations to students, they should self-monitor the messages they convey. For example, when teachers speak, do students hear, “Perhaps math is not for you,” or do they detect, “You can be a doer of math?” Also, teachers’ acceptance of substandard student performances, coupled with lowered expectations of students’ capacities, likely will impede their students’ perception of themselves as mathematicians. A teacher’s reflection on their attitudinal beliefs when preparing for and facilitating mathematical lessons can pave the way for students to view and engage in mathematics with confidence (Boaler, 2016). Teachers must put aside societal norms to disrupt the perpetuation of any ethnicity-driven bias in their instruction.
2. Foster Curiosity and Exploration
A curiosity stance is another way to cultivate a disposition that regards students’ potentialities, giving them room for growth. In essence, this stance removes any limits in teachers’ expectations of their students’ abilities. In light of this, three probing questions that open the door for exploring the possibilities of why a student may be stuck or unable to move forward with completing mathematical tasks should be considered: What is going on here? What is missing? What else is not being asked or heard? Teachers should intentionally embed this inquiring frame of mind into their work with students. In essence, the classroom should be a laboratory where the answer to the math problem does not supersede the processes that must coalesce. In this laboratory, all students should have equal opportunity to experiment with the content and materials as they work toward figuring out the solution. This process orientation sets the stage for teachers to:
“praise wisely … not praising intelligence or talent … [b]ut praising the process that kids engage in, their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement. This process praise creates kids who are hardy and resilient … And [teachers] can actually change students’ mindsets … every time [students] push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time, they can get smarter. This happened because the meaning of effort and difficulty were transformed. Before, effort and difficulty made them feel dumb, made them feel like giving up, but now, effort and difficulty, that’s when their neurons are making new connections, stronger connections. That’s when they’re getting smarter.”
To put it another way, the teacher should be laser-focused on possibilities and positivity rather than impediments and inadequacies.
3. Build Positive Mathematical Identities
A third point to note is that a commitment to the construction of students’ positive mathematical identities is a disposition that can yield fruitful outcomes. The messages that students are exposed to and the role models that are promoted in their learning environment can play a huge role in developing and shaping students’ mathematical identities (Grootenboer, 2013). Essentially, when students see themselves in others, this point of reference or “mirror image” serves as a catalyst for enhancing their growth and enlightening their perception as learners. Identity development, whether mathematical or otherwise, should not be used as a measurement for behavioral outcomes, but rather as a factor that informs how students can be “enculturated into mathematical practices” (S.B. Oppland, quoted in Martin et al., 2020, p. 19). In other words, students’ mathematical identities should be viewed as an entry point for building their sense of self-worth as mathematicians and not as a predictor of how they will perform. “The health, richness and quality of the students’ mathematical identities have a significant impact on their future opportunities” (Grootenboer & Zevenbergen, quoted in Grootenboer, 2013, p. 325).
Taking this into consideration, teachers should ensure that students, regardless of their backgrounds, have ample opportunities to appreciate the mathematical achievements of varied ethnic groups, including Indigenous, Black, and Latino peoples. Successful mathematicians of all ethnicities can inspire and affirm young and budding mathematicians of our day. Their vision of themselves must be confirmed by a teacher’s assumptions-free disposition. It is simultaneously essential to acknowledge that race, ethnicity, and gender, for example, are important components of students’ identities and not lenses through which assumptions are made about mathematical abilities.
To that end, here’s a “five-course menu” of questions that a teacher can use to nurture an unbiased disposition:
- How am I “showing up” for my students?
- What lens am I viewing my students through?
- What are my expectations for my students?
- How do my biases limit my students’ potentialities?
- How am I supporting each student to be a mathematician?
Teachers should keep in mind that biases can cause them to do things that they deem to be supportive of their students but can actually be detrimental. If teachers think that Black or Latino or Indigenous students are not fit to do great mathematics, they may unnecessarily scaffold mathematical tasks in ways that remove opportunity for productive struggle. Therefore, the need for nurturing a healthy and productive disposition is critical. Teachers should be encouraged to launch this journey or re-embark on it. They should be committed to abandoning any ethnicity-driven biases while embracing a buoyant position on honoring the all-inclusive abilities of the mathematicians, (i.e., all students) in their learning milieu. Though the road may not be well-traversed by all teachers in this moment of time, the final destination will be well-worth the journey. So, fellow teachers…come onboard!
Anderson, M. D. (2017, April 25). How does race affect a student’s math education? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/04/racist-math-education/524199/
Boaler, J. (2016). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students’ potential through creative math, inspiring messages and innovative teaching. Jossey-Bass.
Dweck, C. (2014, November). The power of believing that you can improve [Video].TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve?language=en
Grootenboer, P. (2013). The praxis of mathematics teaching: Developing mathematical Identities. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 21(2), 321–342.
Martin, D. B., Gholson, M. L., & Leonard, J. (2010). Mathematics as gatekeeper: Power and privilege in the production of knowledge. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 3(2), 12–24.
Wagner, D., Bakker, A., Meaney, T., Mesa, V., Prediger, S., & Van Dooren, W. (2020). What can we do against racism in mathematics education research? Educational studies in mathematics, 104(3), 299–311.
Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.