Culturally Relevant Teaching in Mathematics

June 11, 2021

One of the essential ideas in our concept paper, “Equitable Mathematics Instruction,” is culturally relevant teaching in mathematics. In the paper, to be released next month, we write: “aligned materials must be enacted in ways that align with theories of culturally responsive and relevant teaching (CRT). Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings’ seminal framework is insightful here; not only must instruction hold high expectations for students, it must also support students’ cultural identities and afford opportunities for students to critique inequities.” Because aligned materials vary in the degree to which they support culturally responsive or relevant teaching, it’s crucial to have a clear vision and understanding of what CRT in mathematics looks like.

Useful Frameworks

In addition to Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, several scholars have posited theories and evidence of CRT, both in general, content-agnostic settings and in math-specific ways. Notably, Zaretta Hammond’s well-known Ready for Rigor framework names four elements: Awareness, Learning Partnerships, Information Processing, and Community of Learners & Learning Environment; these ideas can readily be applied to mathematics through the creation of an inclusive learning environment that focuses on preparing students for success with cognitively demanding tasks.

In math specifically, the five equity-based practices from Julia Aguirre, Karen Mayfield-Ingram, and Danny Martin also speak to how CRT might look specifically in mathematics classrooms. Their book, The Impact of Identity in K-8 Mathematics: Rethinking Equity-Based Practices, names five concepts:

  1. Going deep with mathematics
  2. Leveraging multiple mathematical competencies
  3. Affirming mathematics learners’ identities
  4. Challenging spaces of marginality
  5. Drawing on multiple resources of knowledge

Another useful resource is a meta-synthesis from Casedy A. Thomas and Robert Q. Berry III: “A Qualitative Metasynthesis of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy & Culturally Responsive Teaching: Unpacking Mathematics Teaching Practices.” Featuring a review of published research, this paper names five findings that encapsulate CRT in mathematics: (1) caring, (2) knowledge of contexts and teaching practices using contexts, (3) knowledge of cultural competency and teaching practices using cultural competency, (4) high expectations, and (5) mathematics instruction/teacher efficacy and beliefs. These resources point us to ways of thinking, reflecting, and planning that can lead to culturally relevant and responsive teaching in mathematics.

So, what does it look like?

You may already be bringing CRT to life in your classroom in many ways! For example, as echoed in many of the frameworks and research above, we make mathematics relevant and responsive when we help students understand mathematics conceptually. Moving away from thinking of math as a series of disconnected procedures, facilitating discourse about math, and taking time to help students explore multiple problem-solving strategies are all part of CRT in math. 

However, one challenge to a universal definition is that CRT is highly contextual and should look different from classroom to classroom. As Thomas and Berry write in their meta-synthesis, CRT in mathematics involves “work with learners’ parents and families for mathematizing contexts, creating and adapting mathematical problems, utilizing questioning strategies to elicit learners’ local knowledge, requiring explanation and justification as it relates to context knowledge, and creating project-based opportunities incorporating funds of knowledge.” So much of CRT is about knowing your students: who they are, what they are interested in, and what is happening in their communities.

A further challenge is that CRT significantly rests on a teacher’s belief system, mindset, and capacity for reflection. As Thomas and Berry also note: “When a teacher has high confidence in teaching mathematics and high self-efficacy, believing that mathematics instruction should be student-centered, open-ended, inquiry-based, highly interactive, and impromptu, based on learners’ needs and interests…CRT [is] more likely to occur.” Thus CRT isn’t readily boiled down to a sequence of steps or tactical moves.

Considerations for planning

Let’s think about a lesson addressing sixth-grade work with volume and surface area of rectangular prisms, included in 6.G.A: “Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area, and volume.” A standards-aligned lesson like this one will consist of a series of problems and exercises where students must solve mathematical and real-world volume and/or surface area problems. But what are some planning considerations that can bring these problems and exercises to life in culturally relevant or responsive ways? Let’s consider a few:

  1. What is the math? Review the lesson, and also do the problems. What is happening mathematically? Which tasks in the lesson offer the richest and most cognitively demanding opportunities to do mathematics? What are the questions students might ask (e.g., “What is volume?” “How is volume different from area?”), and what are the answers? The better we understand the math itself, the more prepared we are to “go deep” and have high expectations for all students. Resources like the Progressions and annotated sample tasks from Illustrative Mathematics can be further resources for understanding the mathematical details of these standards.
  2. Why does it matter? How will we respond if students ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Being prepared to describe how geometry connects to other mathematical ideas or to future careers or everyday life will help create a responsive environment. Further, we can also consider how geometry may be a factor in inequities relevant to students’ lives and communities. Are there buildings in the community shaped like rectangular prisms that could be fodder for estimation, comparison, or discussion? For example, students could analyze how space is allocated for different purposes and advocate for new zoning regulations.
  3. What do my students bring? What prior knowledge, interests, and life experiences do my students have that connect to volume and surface area? Are there familiar objects in their lives that are rectangular prisms that could center the lesson? It’s also an opportunity to consider the array of strategies they might employ. How can we plan instruction that will highlight and affirm students’ different strategies?
  4. What will my students do? What will it look like when my students do math, and how can I make sure everyone gets a chance to do math? How can I create opportunities for discussion and debate? Prioritizing the cognitively demanding problems in the lesson will help ensure that students are challenged, and that problem-solving can be orchestrated with active, collaborative student participation.

Instead of a uniform approach to CRT, we need to consider the students in front of us carefully. We can all bring culturally relevant and responsive mathematics to life in our classrooms through deep reflection and consideration.

Want more? Read our concept paper about three foundational moves required for equitable mathematics instruction.