Changing the answer to
‘Are you a math person?’

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Talk to anyone in your circle of family, friends, and co-workers and it won’t be long before someone says, “I’m not a math person.” Comparatively, when it comes to English Language Arts, we don’t have an American norm of saying, “I’m not a reading person.” So why is it so commonly accepted to not be a “math person”? What could we, as an education community, be doing differently to change this?

Our K-12 team talked to numerous students, teachers, parents, researchers and policy makers to address this question. From those conversations, the common consensus was: a first step to changing this outcome is to build inclusive learning environments where every student can thrive in mathematics, especially students who are Black, Latinx and/or experiencing poverty.

In our effort to synthesize what we do (or do not yet) know about building inclusive learning environments in education, we have partnered with members of the Mindsets Scholars Network and emerging scholars from the fields of psychology, sociology, economics, neuroscience, computer science, education, social work, public policy, and more. Together, these researchers are focused on how to build inclusive learning environments that support growth mindset, belonging, and purpose and relevance. Regarding inclusive classrooms, the researchers are engaged in two key projects led by the Mindset Scholars Network:

Inclusive Mathematics Environments Early Career Fellowship

Eleven outstanding emerging scholars will be working with senior researchers to author ten research syntheses on inclusive middle grades mathematics classrooms for students from minoritized groups in mathematics, including Black, Latinx, and Native American students, students from families facing economic disadvantage, students who are multilingual learners, girls, and LGBTQIA+ students. One scholar will be producing an interpretive summary, drawing out insights for practice and policy audiences. We anticipate sharing these findings with the field within a year.

K-12 teachers and classrooms research portfolio

This initiative focuses on identifying and codifying teacher practices and behaviors that facilitate a sense of belonging and positive academic identity development, particularly in mathematics contexts, among minoritized students. The aim of this new scientific research is to:

  • Identify teacher behaviors and beliefs that foster a sense of belonging, support positive academic identity development, and predict academic achievement, particularly in the middle grades;
  • Examine how teacher behaviors are experienced by students, especially how teachers or classrooms are experienced differently by different students; and
  • Investigate the extent to which teacher beliefs and practices are related to students’ social, psychological, and academic outcomes using innovative computing approaches such as computer vision or speech processing.
You can learn more about the research projects that were awarded, here. We anticipate sharing these findings in 2021. Additionally, last fall, the Mindset Scholars Network gave us a wider overview of research that relates to inclusive learning environments. They held a daylong briefing that focused on what students feel and think about school. This year’s theme was “Is my voice heard? Does my voice matter?” We encourage you to watch this video essay highlighting speakers’ remarks from the convening. The Mindset Scholars Network also published a summary of the event and videos of select sessions on its website. Here is just a sampling of what we learned:
  • Student Voice: To center our discussion on student voice, we began the day by hearing from a panel of students, two of whom developed and taught an ethnic studies course in their high school for a student body that was 80 percent students of color. The presenters described how students thrived when they had access to a representative and purposeful curriculum and ended up teaching an entire week of class on their own. Participants also had the chance to meet two students who served as peer counselors in high school, advocating both for themselves and their peers to get their entire class into college. You can see their work in the riveting documentary Personal Statement. The full recording of this session with student leaders is available here.
  • Math Educators and Student Voice: Panelists shared the importance of educator vulnerability in math classrooms. They’ve seen firsthand: (1) the power of educators stepping back from the position of “expert” and giving students the chance to do a better job explaining a math concept and (2) the power of having students facilitate math conversations and develop math problems themselves. All were examples of how giving students space to think, explore, and lead yielded greater curiosity and engagement with math. The full recording of this session is available here.
  • School districts supporting Student Voice at a systems Llvel: Leaders at Baltimore City Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools talked about programs they’ve built and rolled out that center on student voice. In Baltimore, the BMore Me program gives students an opportunity to explore their identity in the context of Baltimore’s history and current events, while strengthening their skills for college and career. Chicago Public Schools shared their civics curriculum and programming that encourages youth to be active and informed citizens. A summary of the strategies that the two districts shared is available here.

If you want to learn more about incorporating student voice, I highly encourage you read this 5 page document that summarizes key research papers on student voice. We’d love to hear from you: How have you incorporated student voice? What does an inclusive learning environment look like for you? Tweet to us at @GatesUS! ----

Karen Johnson, Senior Program Officer, K-12 Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Karen leads the Middle Years Math work, focused on supporting grades 3-9 students to deeply know, use and enjoy mathematics. The work centers on identifying opportunities to catalyze research and development of new, breakthrough solutions to support both students and teachers in mathematics. Her R&D investments include: building inclusive learning environments, supporting teachers in their pedagogical knowledge and content knowledge, and engaging and challenging students in mathematics. Prior to joining the foundation, Karen spent a decade developing K-12 digital tools in social studies, science, math, and language arts.