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How to Support Cultural Diversity in Math Education

When you think of famous mathematicians, who comes to mind? Isaac Newton? Albert Einstein? Maybe Benjamin Banneker or Katherine Johnson? The first two may appear in more textbooks. But Black mathematicians Benjamin Banneker and Katherine Johnson also made history.

Benjamin Banneker‘s accomplishments include building America’s first clock to strike hourly. He also called on Thomas Jefferson to abolish slavery. Katherine Johnson, one of NASA’s “human computers,” performed the calculations that sent the first astronauts to the moon.

Teachers strive to reach every student. Making math culturally relevant is one way to motivate success.

What Is the Importance of Diversity in Math Education?

Students working through their math assignments may not appreciate the value of math education. Yet, success in math is a predictor of future success, including in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

STEM offers some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs today. Advanced math skills are not necessary for every STEM career, but a foundation in math is essential for everyday life as a functioning citizen.

Minority groups in the U.S. continue to be underrepresented in STEM careers. According to Pew Research Center, the STEM workforce comprises just 9% Black workers and 8% Hispanic workers. Improving math education can create a more diverse and talented STEM pipeline and society.

Writing for the World Economic Forum, Vijay Eswaran describes the business case for diversity as “overwhelming.” Diversity gives companies a competitive edge, leading to higher levels of creativity, innovation and revenue.

How Can Educators Make Math More Inclusive?

The best educators understand the benefits of diversity for all students. Following are several strategies for supporting cultural diversity in math education:

Implement culturally responsive teaching methods

Who can argue with instruction that increases student motivation, interest in academic content and assessment scores? Culturally responsive teaching is associated with these outcomes and more.

EdWeek defines culturally responsive teaching as “using students’ customs, characteristics, experiences, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction.”

One aspect of culturally responsive teaching involves sourcing instructional material that reflects students’ cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Mr. Elementary Math shares other characteristics of culturally responsive instruction in math, such as:

  • Ensuring an inclusive learning environment that prioritizes well-being for all students, such as when students collaborate on solving a “math problem of the day”
  • Facilitating open-ended conversations about math, with students sharing their reasoning, listening, adding on and asking clarifying questions in a “judgment-free” space
  • Communicating high expectations for all students and supporting success through strategies such as step-by-step photo directions and scaffolding
  • Moving away from memorization to focus on critical thinking and problem-solving, guiding students in connecting their prior knowledge and experiences with new knowledge

Introduce students to diverse math role models

If students from minority backgrounds lack confidence in math, it may be because they do not see themselves represented in the math world. Bringing diverse role models into instruction can help students make stronger connections to math.

For example, CareerGirls.org is a free video-based platform with over 800 diverse role models. Many of these role models hold STEM roles such as coder, robotics designer and Mars Rover engineer. Similarly, Mathematically Gifted and Black shares the stories of Black mathematicians, including young “rising stars.”

Increase diversity in the teaching workforce

Think back to your school-age years. Did you have teachers who looked like you? Unfortunately, nearly 80% of public school teachers identify as non-Hispanic white, which means many students of color may never have teachers who look like them.

Building a diverse teacher workforce can have long-term positive impacts on students. According to the Learning Policy Institute, students of color who have teachers of color are more likely to:

  • Have higher test scores
  • Graduate high school
  • Succeed in college

Strategies for increasing teacher diversity include offering incentives for teaching in high-needs schools and subjects. For example, Norfolk State University offers a Master of Arts in Urban Education with a concentration in Mathematics. Math educators who work in critical shortage teaching areas may be eligible for a salary increase and tuition assistance.

Math teachers can set their students on a path to rewarding careers. For example, Information Security Analyst ranks number one in U.S. News & World Report‘s 100 Best Jobs and Best STEM Jobs for 2022. Information security analysts earn a median salary of $103,590.

Earning a Master of Arts in Urban Education with a concentration in Mathematics can prepare educators to encourage a culture of diversity that allows all students to thrive in school and beyond.

Learn more about Norfolk State University’s Master of Arts in Urban Education – Mathematics online program.

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