Posted on March 22, 2021

Decolonising Math Is Rooted in a Decades-Old Conflict

Greg Ashman, Quillette, March 4, 2021

For decades, a conflict has been simmering in the elementary school classrooms of the English-speaking world. On one side are those who place mathematics understanding above all else and whose teaching methods involve asking students to figure out ways to solve authentic mathematics problems, focusing on the process while de-emphasizing the importance of obtaining correct answers. On the other side, often painted as stuffy traditionalists, are those who assert the importance of explicit teaching, practice, and memorization. Welcome to the math wars.


Those who support the learning-through-problems approach are always able to find a new angle. Sometimes it is technology. Once, it was the advent of the 21st century. In 2021, the strategy appears to be one based on social justice. You may think that the ends of social justice would be best served by teaching math in the most effective way possible, but that does not appear to be the case.

California’s new mathematics framework, for example, devotes two chapters to equity and engagement. In these chapters, we read that equitable and engaging teaching involves using open, engaging tasks, teaching towards social justice and inviting students’ questions and conjectures. {snip}


This approach is sold on the grounds that it honors the diverse lives and histories of students from a range of cultures and from historically marginalized groups. In reality, such tasks are likely to overload the working memory of children who have not yet mastered the relevant concepts, unless degraded to the point that they involve little, if any, math. {snip}

Some take this approach even further, arguing for an antiracist approach to math education. A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction, is a document created by teachers and educationalists in California with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Some of what it propounds does not sit within the frame of the traditional math teaching debate, such as the need to “center ethnomathematics.” Ethnomathematics is apparently the relationship between culture and mathematics and is a term that “requires a dynamic interpretation.” Centering ethnomathematics asks teachers to, “Identify and challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views.” This looks like an attempt to politicize math and turn it into one of the humanities. If disadvantaged children receive this kind of teaching while their more advantaged peers learn actual math, any achievement gap can only widen.


There is an odd tension here. It’s not entirely clear whether the advocates of new math regard the subject as a legitimate form of enquiry that should be made more accessible to people of color or merely an expression of white supremacy that needs to be dismantled, decolonized, and turned into a social science. Recently, Twitter blew up with a discussion about whether 2 + 2 can equal 5. The central point of contention seems to be between math’s claim to universal truth and the kind of subjective, lived-experience approach embraced by many social justice movements. As A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction explains, “The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so. [sic] Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuate[s] objectivity as well as fear of open conflict.” Which is, of course, a profoundly silly take.

There are even those who think that objective, rational linear thinking—math—is a facet of “whiteness.” I view such an attitude as racist, not least because it discounts the work of non-white mathematicians as well as the obvious fact that math courses are often more popular with minority students than with white students. However, if you really did believe that math was somehow an expression of an oppressive white culture, why teach it at all? Or at least, why teach it well?