3/23/18: What I Learned from Rochelle Gutierrez at CIME 2018

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When I saw the line-up of speakers before I registered for this conference, I was so excited that Rochelle Gutierrez would be here. It is just an honor to hear her speak, so here are my main takeaways from her talk:

Rochelle’s talk was all about rehumanizing mathematics for classrooms and citizens, so she first talked about practices that dehumanize both teachers and students, such as valuing speed over process, evaluations that do not honor complexity, context, or our own goals, focusing on control/domination, rule following instead of rule breaking, separation of practice from politics/values/ethics, and she asked us why we continue this violence if the practices that dehumanize students and teachers are the same.

Rochelle gave us some examples of what counts as rehumanizing math classrooms:

  1. Participation/Positioning – authority shifts from text/teacher to other students; students as meaning makers
  2. Cultures/histories – students reconnecting with their own histories or ancestors/roots.
  3. Windows/Mirrors – Students being able to see themselves in curriculum and in others (appreciation, not just critique) Becoming the best person in their own eyes
  4. Living Practice – Understanding mathematics as something in motion, students thinking of math as a verb, not noun.
  5. Broadening – Decentering of: Algebra/Calculus/Number Sense, symbolic representation, and favoring the general case to make room for other forms that allow students to see more qualitatively or other forms that would count as math.
  6. Creation – students inventing new forms of mathematics not just reproducing what has come before.
  7. Body/Emotions – Invitations to and examples that draw upon other parts of the self (e.g. voice, vision, touch, intuition over logic), the senses matter for any real world problem (can’t just pretend); a critical element is joy.
  8. Ownership – mathematics as something one does for oneself, not just for others. Desire to “play” or “express oneself” through mathematics.

Here are some more ideas that she had, separated into “low risk” and “high risk” actions:

Rehumanizing Mathematics (low risk)

  • Refuse a “standard” algorithm
  • Require the body in the classroom in order to do mathematics
  • Refuse to privilege abstraction over context
  • Refuse terms like “misconceptions” “abilities” “achievement gaps” when talking about students
  • Interrogate the idea that our society will improve if everyone goes into STEM fields
  • Affirm intuition as just as important as logic
  • Survey students, colleagues: What is dehumanizing? What are we prepared to do about that?
  • Challenge the unearned privilege that mathematicians have in society
  • Invite students to present their ideas in languages that are familiar to them.

Rehumanizing Mathematics (high risk)

  • Bypass typical policies to place students into honors courses or “gifted” groups
  • Make transparent the culture and history of mathematics and how those relate to power structures in society (whose mathematics?)
  • Choose not to be on the same page as colleagues every day (because students are unique)
  • Call a meeting with someone in authority to propose a new curriculum or way of learning.
  • Organize informational sessions for community members
  • Organize protests/walk outs/die-ins with lists of demands

Rochelle had a list of questions to consider but here are the two that really piqued my interest:

  • How does the elitism that is created by specializing in STEM fields justify the dominance of others who are outside the field?
  • How do we involve everyday citizens in radically reimagining a more humane practice of mathematics?

For the first question, society tends to view people in the STEM fields as “really smart” which can cause elitism, and even within the field, I know there is some intimidation factor, throughout the ranks. I bet that students feel the same way entering our classes too. That’s why I try my best to make my math classroom as much of a safe space as possible and that their ideas are valued. How can we minimize the elitism overall though?

For the second question, citizens first need to be informed that the typical math practice is not humane. Students are treated as machines who compute algorithms, stay in their seats, are able to memorize quickly, and are hardly allowed to be creative. Rochelle said “Students are following arbitrary rules for 15 years. That guarantees your place in society. This creates a docile society” and I wholeheartedly agree. We need to have students see themselves in math.

Overall, I absolutely loved everything that Rochelle had to say. We need to treat students as individual people, and if we want more people to appreciate math, we need to make sure that they see themselves in math. Students are not machines where we give them algorithms to compute and formulas and theorems to memorize. We should appreciate them for who they are and make them see that math serves a purpose in their lives.

I’ll end this post by a quote from Rochelle: Get off the sidewalk and into the street and make history with us.

Thank you for reading.