Is Math Neutral?

The notion of neutrality speaks to the experience of being impartial or unbiased. It speaks to the absence of asserting value, power or privilege over another or the act of being impartial, unprejudiced and nonpartisan in nature. There are many areas of teaching and learning where the existence of prevailing politics is named and sometimes challenged: Whose stories do we include in the social studies/history curricula? What literature is considered to be the cannon? What art forms are considered cultured? But when educators think about the tapestry of math education, this notion of it being neutral tends to be widely agreed upon because of the perceived objectivity and absolutism that characterizes the ideas that are explored. But I wonder…is math really neutral?

“Math is about numbers. Surely it is neutral.”
This year, in supporting English Language Learners in math, I have learned many new Mandarin and Cantonese words from my students. More specifically, I’ve learned the inherent ways that Chinese characters are written to nurture a conceptual understanding of quantity. For example, the number eleven is written 十一 which means “ten-one” or can be understood as “ten plus one”. Similarly, the number twenty is written 二十 which could be understood as “two tens” or “two times ten”. Finally, the number thirty-three is written 三十三 Which could be understood as “three ten and three” or “three times ten plus three”. The fact that the word for the number eleven, when represented in English, has no relationship to the the concept of quantity speaks to the way numbers are represented are not neutral. This discrepancy in language representation speaks to the biased nature numbers are conceptualized through language. Thus proving an inherent bias in the ways in which numbers are conceptualized and number sense is acquired. Similarly, the bias toward English representation of numbers can limit the conceptual understanding of languages that represent numbers in a more conceptually friendly way.

“Math is about problem solving. Every has the capacity to solve problems.”
Consider the following problem: Brandon travels to the city using the subway. Each car seats 30 travelers. How many people might be on the subway if there are 10 cars? What background knowledge might students need to have in order to understand the context yet a alone respond the the problem mathematically? While the problems we pose to our learners may involve numbers that can be calculated and manipulated in flexible ways, the context, when coming from particular experiences, can deny access to the learning that needs to be achieved. In other words, if the context from which we invite students to explore math concepts can be carefully crafted in order for our learners to be able to relate to the ideas, they can also be unintentionally crafted in ways that could limit students access. In this way, contexts are never neutral because they come from a particular place of knowing or experiences that not all students have access to.

So there you have it. I’ve explored two very simple ways bias is experienced in math discourse. The presence of even one form of bias discredits the neutrality of math. If math, a lens for viewing the worlds through numbers, shapes and patterns, can be ladened with bias and politics, what else about the schooling experience share this similar trait?

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Updated: March 29, 2016 — 5:27 pm

The Author

Tisha Nelson

Tisha has taught in five schools in the Greater Toronto Area over the past seven years. She has experience as both an Occasional and Contract teacher teaching in Primary, Junior and Intermediate grades. Tisha is a workshop presenter and blogger for The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning. She also is an AQ instructor and an author of the book Rights and Equality published by Rubicon Publishing (The Sankofa Series). Tisha’s passion for teaching and learning can be summed up in her six-word philosophy of education, “Love and ingenuity commands sustainable transformation.”

1 Comment

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  1. Yale Cohen says:

    Math is neutral in the context discussed here…which is math EDUCATION… And, indeed, all education is context driven as the learner must relate to the educational material…that is the nature of learnining.

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