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Rochelle Gutiérrez: Shaking Math Education to the Core

As somebody who is passionate about math education reform, I was excited to hear that Rochelle Gutiérrez, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois, was coming to speak about “Rehumanizing Mathematics” at convocation. Most people would agree that the way we teach math in this country is deeply flawed; I would argue that it is, in fact, a critical issue for social justice, the soul of mathematics, and the basic humanity of the schooling experience.

In her talk, Gutiérrez outlined a phenomenal vision for revolutionizing math education, and returning beauty, joy, and humanity to the subject—and on the way, made me question everything I thought I knew about what math is.

On Friday afternoon, as I raved to my friend about rehumanizing mathematics, she asked me: “But isn’t the reason people like math because it’s so inhuman?” The question gave me pause. This is how our society sees math—abstract, separate from human beings, a sign of intelligence—something you’re either good at or you aren’t. At its core, math is far more of an art than a science, and shows itself everywhere in nature—and yet our public schools turn it into children’s daily torment session, where they are forced to spend an hour doing computers’ work, drudging through computations, nomenclature, and meaningless algorithms.

Most people have had to live through more than 13 years of this “slow violence,” as Gutiérrez aptly calls it, to the point where saying “I was never any good at math” is almost cool in a way that “I never got the hang of that whole ‘reading’ thing” never could be. The pent-up trauma and anger at the math education system could be felt bubbling beneath the surface in the chapel, as audience members shared stories of how they had felt dehumanized in math class. They had been told that they were not good at math, and thus not intelligent, and they had had to fight to believe that was not true.

The truth is that we are all born mathematical—in the words of Bob and Ellen Kaplan, founders of the Global Math Circle, we all have the “architectural instinct”—but only those who thrive on the narrow, detached-from-humans slice of it that we teach in school are left liking what we call “mathematics.”

Although this negative experience of math is widespread, it is not distributed equally across the population. The math education system consistently excludes and disadvantages women, people of color, and other minorities, preventing them from full economic access as the highest-paying jobs increasingly require quantitative reasoning skills.

In his book Radical Equations, Robert Moses argues that this is an issue on the same level of importance as the civil rights movement of the 60s. Gutiérrez seeks to combat this injustice by rehumanizing mathematics.

To do so, Gutiérrez challenges the very nature of math; to her, math can be found in musical rhythms, in dance steps; it can be found when deciding on a Tupperware for your leftovers, or when understanding “to what degree the seal nation as a whole is sick” based on the health of an individual seal.

By looking to indigenous perspectives and ethnomathematics from around the world, Gutiérrez paints a picture of math that extends beyond imagination, far past the confines of the arbitrary Algebra-Trigonometry-Calculus sequence that we stick to so religiously, or even the proofs of upper-level math that math majors tend to cite as “real math.”

Mathematics is taught for its supposed utility like no other subject. To Gutiérrez, mathematics should be a creative, artistic process. In her ideal world, the answer to the often-asked question of “when am I ever going to use this?” is: “you might not use it, and that’s okay; that’s not the point.”

I have struggled with this very question—even as a self-proclaimed math lover, I have often questioned the entire of field of mathematics, asking how they can justify exploring abstract concepts which seemingly have no foundation in reality—no “use.”

What Gutiérrez is suggesting is revolutionary. In the post-convocation lunch, she gave the example of an assignment her daughter was given in English class: to write a page of nonsense. Such an assignment has no practical “use,” but is simply done for the artistic value of it, and the building of a craft.

Just as you would create something unrealistic in art class, or do more than just play scales while jamming on an instrument, Gutiérrez wants children to be creative authors of mathematics, rather than consumers. She wants them to break rules; to “come up with a fifth” basic operation, to see what happens when the sum of the angles of a triangle exceed 180 degrees.

Gutiérrez made it clear that she does not advocate for an “anything-goes” sort of mathematics; in her classroom, falsehoods will still not pass for truths. But she sees these rule-breaking pursuits, which can lead to entirely new realms of structure such as non-Euclidian geometry, as inherently valuable and inherently human, and as a critical step in rehumanizing mathematics for everyone.

If a life-long math lover like me finds this idea liberating, I can only imagine what it could do if unleashed in the schools.

Gutiérrez stated clearly that the rehumanization of math is an ongoing process; we are just at the beginning of this revolution, which is vital for social equality, the soul of mathematics, and the wellbeing of our children.

Her talk was full of ideas and suggestions, as she reexamined every angle of math education, but her message rung out loud and clear: math is vast, varied, and human, and we should teach it as the creative, beautiful, joyful thing it is. I highly recommend her talk (a recording can be found on the Carleton Convocations website), and I hope that you will join the movement to rehumanize our children’s math education.

One Comment

  1. J WALTZ J WALTZ April 2, 2020

    You know, as an engineer, I have had to study a lot of math, and I’m pretty good at math.

    I agree that the way we teach mathematics could be greatly improved. I had a very hard time with trigonometry in high school and calculus in college. Differential equations was even worse. My college instructor for differential equations actually felt that everyone in their university career should encounter at least one class that was beyond their capabilities. He accomplished that goal with me, but still gave me a passing grade. To this day I do not understand the wisdom (?) of his approach.

    What I don’t agree with Rochelle Gutierrez about is that there is actually any particular “whiteness” or even inherent bias in mathematics as a subject. I mean we use Arabic numerals, right? In my growing up in the ’60’s, it was my experience that girls were inherently better at math than boys.

    This article proposes that a triangle’s angles can equal more than 180 degrees, and seems to imply that we should somehow be teaching falsehoods like that, especially to minority students. I don’t believe that Jaime Escalante would stand for such foolishness – though he would likely embrace any approach to teaching math that would be more effective.

    I’m also guessing that Rochelle Gutierrez somehow missed the movie Hidden Figures…….

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