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Published March 04, 2019
Jacqueline Leonard, a University of Wyoming professor of elementary and early childhood education, recently published the second edition of her book, “Culturally Specific Pedagogy in the Mathematics Classroom: Strategies for Teachers and Students.”
Throughout its pages, Leonard advocates for the use of culturally specific strategies that use students’ culture as a launchpad for learning mathematics.
“Teachers have to put themselves in the place of the other to understand the assets and challenges students from different backgrounds may have,” says Leonard, who also holds the Fulbright Canada Research Chair in STEM Education at the University of Calgary. “Teachers should learn how to draw upon the history and strength of students’ communities to present them with relevant problems that can be used in mathematics classrooms.”
The acclaimed manuscript delves into over 30 years of research into cognition and culture. Leonard describes and analyzes several pedagogies that emphasize culture in the teaching and learning process. Her analysis illustrates the main principles of each theory to highlight their similarities, as well as their nuanced differences. The text guides the reader through a wealth of research to show that students’ academic achievement can improve when their culture is taken into consideration.
Leonard makes the case that many teachers shy away from developing lessons with their students’ culture in mind because they have never learned to do so and are unprepared to teach in such a manner. Alternatively, when culturally specific methods are used, teachers can be met with ambivalence from their superiors because they have included elements beyond the standard mathematics curriculum.
“Many teachers in urban school districts do not live in the same communities as the students they teach. The majority of teachers come from white and middle-class backgrounds,” Leonard says. “Students of color could come from indigenous or racially segregated communities. These communities have assets and culture that many teachers are often unaware of.”
Despite decades of work to provide equal education for all children, the reality is that, even today, education can be bleak for marginalized groups. Leonard calls upon teacher educator programs, teacher educators and prospective teachers to bring about change within their programs. To ensure equality for all students, educators must be willing to make race, equity and social justice a primary component of their programs, she says.
“In all of the courses I teach, students read at least one article or book chapter on the use of culture or cultural pedagogy,” Leonard says. “In mathematics methods courses, they are required to develop lesson plans that include history, culture or a social justice issue.”
This experience instills the students in her courses with a bit of background knowledge into teaching with a student’s culture in mind. This introduction can provide new possibilities for UW College of Education graduates to be able to connect with their future students and help them reach their true potential.
To help prepare future educators to teach using culturally specific pedagogies, the book presents lesson plans they can use to better serve culturally diverse students. These lessons aid students in developing a mathematics identity and help them realize the importance of mathematics in their daily lives by embracing how mathematics is culturally significant to them.
“Indigenous, Hispanic and African-American students could benefit from culturally specific instruction if examples from these communities are used to introduce concepts and ideas in mathematics. For example, quilts and blankets could be used to learn about geometry and symmetry,” Leonard says. “Other cultural exemplars, including students’ own creative ideas, may be used to develop games or other technology-based tasks.”
The lives and careers of African-American women who pioneered in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields are examined in the book to provide insightful, real-life examples teachers can use to tie mathematics to its applications. The text also explores how mathematics is applied within the fields of robotics, computer programming and space flight. Multicultural literature also is used to provide context that allows students to make connections to African-American, Hispanic and Asian cultures.
“I hope teachers will become more creative when they teach mathematics lessons. Some people think that math is an abstract set of numbers and rules. However, mathematics is embedded in culture,” Leonard says.
The book also includes discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement to connect current issues affecting African-Americans and other marginalized communities to the importance of teaching marginalized students mathematics for social justice. This approach helps students understand critical problems facing their communities such as racial profiling and unfair lending practices.
“My primary purpose for writing the book is for teachers and students to see themselves in mathematics and mathematics curriculum. If they see themselves, then they will develop a stronger mathematics identity and learn to use it to empower their lives,” Leonard says.
People interested in learning more about applying culturally specific pedagogy in their classrooms can rent or purchase the book.