EdFix Episode 23: Fighting Racism with Mathematics

DEBORAH BALL:

Math has a role to play in disrupting white supremacy and racism that no other subject has.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

Welcome to EdFix. your favorite source for insights about the practice and promise of education. I'm Michael Feuer. I'm the Dean of the Graduate School of Education And Human Development at GW. And it is a special treat for me today to introduce an all around champion of American education, Dr. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the William H Payne collegiate professor of education at the University of Michigan and the former Dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, who in her spare time is also the director of something called TeachingWorks while also continuing to do something that I know she loves, which is teaching. And she has continued to teach elementary school children, even during these past 15 years while she had been Dean. So welcome, Deborah.

DEBORAH BALL:

I'm so glad to be here, Michael. Thank you so much for inviting me.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

There is this big argument in the community about what comes first thinking about a recovery, getting back to something that vaguely looks at least recognizable, if not, "Normal," and also using the occasion to learn new things about what's happening in education and whether this could be a moment where we say we've got an opportunity now for what one of our colleagues has referred to as the grand reset, big vision about where we have failed, where we couldn't be succeeding more, but I wanted to start on by asking you about your experience with the kids in the classroom. Bring us up to date on the mood, the [inaudible 00:01:52], the feelings of our wonderful people who are either doing or benefiting from schooling one way or another.

DEBORAH BALL:

Yeah, I think that's a really important and timely question, Michael. And I think probably none of us really has a good handle on the range of ways that children and families and teachers have been experiencing the last 16 months. It's been a very challenging period and the narratives out there about what has been going on are all over the place, right? So we hear a lot of worry about things called learning loss or people being behind, kids being behind, almost crisis language about that. But we've also heard people urging that we not instantly assume that, but that we learn more about what the story may have been for different young people over the last year. I think we also don't know very much about what children might've found opportunities to learn in their communities, for their families as a function of being home. At the same time, we also are quite aware that there were really just very unequal kinds of access to other forms of learning that kids had over the last year and we don't know what that has meant.

DEBORAH BALL:

And as I listened to the return plans, I feel like we have to grapple with those multiple possible stories because they're probably all true in different ways at different parts of the country for different groups of people and I think we don't know. There are kids who've lost family members who've suffered directly with the direct effects of the pandemic, and those also very highly related to differences in demographics that we know that black families, indigenous families, other families of color were much more likely to have suffered direct effects and death in their family, and the death rate has been very high. We have other children who may have had very privileged opportunities to learn things individually that are better than their regular experience and their families were spared of this. So I feel like anybody, and certainly not I, is not great...

DEBORAH BALL:

Not well positioned to know for sure what the whole story is. And that makes things really hard for policy makers and school leaders, because without really knowing enough, we're having to think through something that I and my colleagues have been thinking about as, to Gloria Ladson-Billings 'point, which I think is important that this is an opportunity for reset, how in that space we (A), understand what that could mean and (B), take advantage of it, and how do we broaden our concern for health and public health issues of which there are so many to worry about right now. I'm thinking of the work that I'm reading from various people about attending to kids' social and emotional health. What it's going to feel like to go from being very isolated, whatever the situation has been to being back with people. What's the opportunity to directly think about how the beginning of school could be a time for really focusing on both academic, but also social, emotional relational health? And that seems like it's in the space of the reset.

DEBORAH BALL:

Something like a healthy return to school. I'll say one more thing, which is I had the opportunity to work with my colleague, Darrius Robinson, teaching children online this year. You're quite right, that I find it really crucial for me that I keep teaching because it allows me to keep my feet on the ground, but I don't from that in any way imagine that anything I do when I teach children, gives me a full sense of what it's like to be a teacher working day in and day out all day long in a multiplicity of settings that teachers do that work. And I have huge respect for that. Having done that a lot of my career too. But I did have the opportunity to teach Math to a group of two for about six months on Zoom. We met weekly and half the children were children from Southern California and half from Michigan, which was kind of a cool thing to be able to try, and I came away from that both hugely again, so impressed with children and their capacity to be flexible and to learn things.

DEBORAH BALL:

An example of that was how fluently our children in this class who were third, fourth, and fifth graders by grade level standards, but basically eight to 12, how fluently they communicated across multiple modalities in these Zoom environments. So, whereas they often didn't have their cameras on or had creative things in their boxes on Zoom, they would turn on their Zoom when they had something they wanted to say, but meanwhile, they were communicating in the chat. They were communicating with my co-instructor and with me privately making comments, making suggestions, we know they were communicating with one another and they were communicating with the whole class in the chat.

DEBORAH BALL:

Makes me wonder, was this an interesting moment where written literacy skills were actually boosted by being on Zoom because what we saw was something you'd never see in our regular teaching. I teach with my colleague Darrius Robinson and the real time person-to-person kind of teaching. Our kids can't do that during class. They can't be privately chatting with us and chatting with each other and being in a whole group. But these kids were doing that and I thought, "Wow, they do that even better than many of the adults I've been in Zoom meetings with." They really exploited the whole space. They also worked on a really challenging problem with two people they had never met in person.

DEBORAH BALL:

And it made me think again, kids just have an amazing capacity to forks in ways that maybe we don't. So that leads me to just say, I don't think I know nearly enough about what it has felt like to kids or to teachers, but I would say we should always remember that we're not kids and kids may experience and perceive things and may be able to do things that we shouldn't assume from our adult perspectives were their reality. So that just leads me back to say there is a lot for us to be learning and I think teachers know a lot about how to learn about kids and I wish we would support teachers and other educators to have the space to, in a healthy way, learn about their students as they reenter, because I think we probably don't know nearly enough about what kids are bringing with them.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

I would love to have a little conversation with you about where we are in Mathematics education and teaching and learning, the extent to which race and racism and the effects of our racial history are already imbued in the way we have been teaching Mathematics, and what can we be doing about it now?

DEBORAH BALL:

So you asked me about Math. I think the minute we talk about subjects beyond the humanities, then people start pushing back and saying, "Oh, that doesn't really have anything to do with those subjects because those are culturally neutral and racially neutral," which is a huge problem. And I remember that when I was Dean and I was part of groups on campus that were advancing, what at that time was being called diversity equity and inclusion initiatives, the hardest groups to talk to were often the departments that were the science areas. The Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and really in Mathematics. So I'm interested in your question because there is a kind of narrative that those subjects are culturally neutral and they are... Many people would even argue in the spaces that you can enter without cultural capital. That's all dominated by whiteness, but actually the opposite is true.

DEBORAH BALL:

And I think it's been quite difficult to figure out how to surface and unpack the ways in which Mathematics, for example, is a Harbor for whiteness. I think that the minute we say that, we find ourselves back in a pattern of discourse between the Mathematics disciplinary community and educators that we've seen many times before, and it's always been about race, but it hasn't always been called that. And that discussion is not going all that well again right now, which shouldn't surprise many of us. But there too, have we learned anything about how you talk about conflicts between Mathematics as a discipline and how it sees itself, or they see themselves and what educators who want to push for a different way of thinking about what it is to be good at Math, what education is supposed to be doing around Math, who gets to be smart at it? What is being smart at it?

DEBORAH BALL:

Have we learned anything about how to advance the discussion that could push that forward? Because what we see for example in California right now is just a huge amount of agitation because there's a set of really interesting frameworks and tools that have been developed by groups that are not being attacked by other groups. It's easier in the case of Math, for me to tell you examples that people might not immediately attack me for that had more to do with how mathematics gets taught and represented in classrooms and I can give examples of that, but what's also very difficult is to get people to see how the very nature of the knowledge and who's produced it, and what has counted as Mathematics is itself also dominated by whiteness and by racism. And that is where the conversation would have to pause and actually considerately learn and talk and notice.

DEBORAH BALL:

And I worry that we get more flame around the discourse and not enough digging in. So I'm happy to talk more about that, but I do worry about how this is immediately produced like a battleground instead of pausing to say, "This is really important because we do see patterns about who succeeds in Math in this country and it's overwhelmingly white and Asian. It's overwhelmingly still male once you get on with Mathematics." So how about noticing that and being willing to open ourselves up to the question of how racism has permeated Mathematics and the way it's represented in school and take the time to unfold that and to figure out what that would mean for looking at a better way of a curriculum and the pedagogy of Math in school.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

Your AERA presidential speech, and I forgot to mention to our listeners that you were the president of AERA and in your presidential speech, you showed a video of children in a classroom confronting, I think it was a fractions question, but give us a little bit of a flavor of it as an example of where even well-intentioned teachers trying to present something related to something we still consider important, fractions, ends up having these embedded race racialists constraints or deficits in the way it is being taught.

DEBORAH BALL:

I appreciate that pointer to the video and I would like to talk about that. And let me just say before I go to that, that on one hand what you can understand about Mathematics is that at least to the US society, the notion of being good at Math and being intelligent are very tightly related. So that being good at math is seen as being just generally more smart. And if you don't have to go very far to trace that into the racialized history of how we see intelligence and intelligence testing to understand how raced the whole notion of being good at Math becomes. Another is that we in school uphold very narrow constructions of what Math is and that's the way the video will be important, I think, because having those narrow conceptions combined with the racialized narratives about who's good at math means that black and brown children, girls, and the intersectional identities here that we can talk about often don't get seen as smart because we take such a narrow view of what even being good at Math is, or what Math is.

DEBORAH BALL:

So those are intersecting the construction we make of Math in school and the history is around who's seen as capable. But I also want to say to be a little more on the creative side, Math has a role to play in disrupting white supremacy and racism that no other subject and I think that would be worth talking much more about is the possibility of what mathematics offers for the development of flourishing mathematical doers and thinkers in school. One is that Mathematics, despite the way we represent it, is actually something that many cultures and communities have created and there are people, scholars in our country and teachers who have exploited opportunities to broaden kids' views of Mathematics to see how human beings have always been trying to do things that involve measuring, conceptualizing, ordering, categorizing, enumerating, and so on, which we could talk more about, estimating.

DEBORAH BALL:

Another is ironically because Math is seen as a space that is completely conflated with being smart, that when we develop classrooms, in which there's a broader view of what Math is, more people get to be smart at it and more kids get to see themselves as smart. So actually, you can use who's that kind of conception of it is as smartness that my graduate student Charles Wilkes has been doing a dissertation on this. You can actually convert it to be a resource to have kids see themselves as smart. And that could be a disruption in the racialized nature of who gets to be seen as smart. Math is also a great place for doing collective work. Actually Mathematics requires, mathematicians work collectively is a space for disrupting very individualistic conceptions of intelligence and smartness.

DEBORAH BALL:

So it offers some opportunities. Really many problems you can do with kids require the whole group to get solved, so there are a lot of possibilities in what math could offer. So in this video that you're referring to, a lot of those things are going on. So it's a very mundane math problem. It's at a classroom that I was the teacher of one summer just a few years ago. And the class is predominantly black children with a few Latino, Latino, Latin X children, and a very small number of white children. The children are working on a problem involving identifying fractions on the number line, which is actually quite difficult when you're first learning it. And in the course of the video, the first girl... So they're looking at a point that's one-third on the number line. So from zero to one and one-third of the way, and the first girl after the kids work on it on their own, the first girl, a black girl goes to the board and because of the way, the diagram's drawn claims that the number is one-seventh.

DEBORAH BALL:

Now, when you look at the diagram, it makes total sense why she says one-seventh and it represents a credibly competent answer because she's using everything that's conceptually related to defining a fraction to answer the question with just one thing, which is she's thinking the whole is from zero to two and a third rather than the conventional use of the number line, which is from zero to one. So she gives us a great explanation. She's at the board in front of her whole class explaining this.another black girl in the class asks questions and says, "Did you just say one-seventh?" And then a few minutes later asks her again, "How did you get one-seventh?" And lasts a little bit and plays with her hair. So I've showed this video hundreds of times by now, and the most common ways that people interpret the video is they see the first girl is lacking concepts of fractions and worrying a lot that she's like, "Ooh, she really shouldn't be kept up at the board because how embarrassing?" Because she's wrong, and she'll be seen as struggling.

DEBORAH BALL:

And even probably more damaging, the second girl is seen as misbehaving and being disrespectful because she's kind of laughing when she's asking the question, and it takes a lot of work to have people notice the racial and gender biases that they're bringing to watching the girls and the lack of mathematical flexibility that leads them not to notice that both girls are doing important Mathematics that's crucial for the whole class's learning. The first girl is really making clear what it looks like to explain and identifying the key problem, what is the hole on the number line, which is a key concept. And the second girl is asking a question about that, which even further amplifies it. But even when I try to point out how race and the history of the way we see black girls are intervening on the way that we're interpreting the video, people have often have a hard time. And I like this example because it's so concrete. And so what I'm interested in is what would it take to first notice that those are cultural and societal patterns?

DEBORAH BALL:

They're not individuals in fact because one individual happens to think that we've learned that from what we've seen in school before and other patterns. What does it look like to have teachers see that they have discretion and what I call discretionary spaces to just read that whole situation differently, to come to see the first girl is being... Really making the most important first entry to this discussion, and the second girl was asking a serious question. What does it take to realize, "Hey, I can back up. I have the discretion to see this differently. And when I do something really different occurs for both girls and the rest of the kids in the class."

DEBORAH BALL:

So I'm most interested in how those larger patterns of how black girls let's say in this case, typically get seen and positioned as struggling as not good at Math, all of those narratives and how much power teachers actually have to choose to pause and say, "I'm not actually going to read this this way. I'm going to make a different choice about how I'm reading this and what that means for the children in the class when they do that." I'm really interested in how that macro relates to these everyday acts, because the pervasiveness of racism is maintained by the complicity we all exercise when we keep doing things that are habitual, but we can change those. And they are about structural racism. So it's about this mixing of the macro with the micro that is, I think, a really crucial place to start doing the work that each of us has to do individually, but would require much more collective awareness and deliberateness in order to intervene on that.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

There are plenty of schools today where kids could benefit from the kind of more focused attention to these pedagogies that I think you're helping us at least consider. Is that partly what goes on in a teaching works, is that about trying to take experiential and scientific knowledge about teaching and let it loose in ways that can really affect teachers and children, "At scale."

DEBORAH BALL:

I think one thing to say about the example is that the evidence about what teachers using discretion to not fall into patterns of the way they view children and respond to them has affects for everybody in the room, not just for the two girls I mentioned because kids learn in school about other kids and other identities about who's often smart. So I know that my colleague Maisie Gholson has asked young people to draw pictures of someone who's good at Math. And you can predict what that mostly looks like. It looks like things that we actually are promoting by the images we give them about who's good at Math and which kids in class often get called on to give the right answers and such. So in the story I told, everybody in the class benefited from seeing that what happened for both those two girls was very different than the usual thing.

DEBORAH BALL:

And across the next 15 minutes, the class developed a very robust idea about how you identify fractions and every single... All the kids had contributed, including those first two girls who helped to close it out at the end. So it has different outcome. Everybody then learns like, "Oh, black girls are smart at Math." It adds up. And I think what TeachingWorks is about, is about centering practice as a very important force in interrupting these patterns of racism and improving content learning, which we see as hugely interrelated, that we have a lot of research on learning. We have more and more research. I know that's something you're really interested in, so am I. We have a lot of research on things about policy. We have a lot of research about classroom formats, but the work of teaching that whatever, 4 million people do every day, is often left really too implicit.

DEBORAH BALL:

And TeachingWorks is a lot about trying to honor and make much more available what it looks like to both do teaching in ways that are deliberate about disrupting racism, deliberate about what some people call ambitious learning and content and deliberate about classroom communities and cultures in ways that are connected to the broader community. Not only making what that teaching is like, but then thinking about the systems or non systems we have for supporting teachers to learn to do that work. So TeachingWorks is an organization that primarily works in partnerships with organizations all over the country, either school districts or teacher preparation programs to figure out, how do you make the learning of that work much more central to professional development and to teacher education? One can learn a lot of ideas. They're really important. Theory really matters, research, results matter, learning your content matters, but in the end, the way it comes together is like in that video, you have to be able to think, "What is it that I know about the patterns around disproportionate punishment of black children?

DEBORAH BALL:

What does that mean for me today when I'm teaching my Math lesson? What do I do differently? I understand that fractions is a difficult construct. I've studied fractions, but here I have a kid saying something that isn't what I taught. What do I do? Can I hear that? Can I notice it?" The TeachingWorks centers teaching. You can see that in the name of the organization and asserts through its name that teaching works, teaching actually works to make a difference for children, but that what we were founded on was the notion that for way too long, this country has been willing to take that too much for granted with romantic notions that overplay the sense that one learns teaching from experience.

DEBORAH BALL:

Of course, you do. But depending on that as the primary method for learning such a complex practice with so much social weight has been at very high risk even damaging way of working and TeachingWorks as committed to changing that to say teaching is so important that to ignore what it takes to learn to do that, and to take seriously how it's a site for disrupting whiteness at the micro level is just harmful and wrong. And so the larger goals have to do with that in the small sort of details of the work are about centering teaching and what it takes to learn it and supporting those people who are in positions to support teachers to learn to do that work.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

And so here again for our listeners, I would encourage people to find the website for TeachingWorks. So what got you into teaching in the first place?

DEBORAH BALL:

I think to put it point on some of the stories that we've been interacting about in this conversation, teaching has enormous power to do harm to kids. And we started the conversation with that today. And by that, given that I'm a teacher, I hope that anybody listening to this who's a teacher understands what I'm talking about, which is the power that teachers have in even a single moment suddenly to make a child feel incredibly incapable or dumb or excluded, and the converse, which is the incredible power that people so often recount 80 years later of a teacher who made them feel like they could do anything or were really smart. And it's really kind of almost frightening and humbling to see how it can happen even though in the moment. But if you extend that, teaching has big power over time to reproduce racism, to cause harm, and it also very much conversely because of that has huge power to deliberately disrupt that.

DEBORAH BALL:

That is part of what made me over to time grow more and more appreciative that I had landed in this profession. I entered it in many ways at a moment where I was... There are multiple things. I think one of them was my own experience growing up and seeing the differential effect that different kinds of educational opportunities that different people had, and my own both negative and very positive experiences, both with teachers and with schooling, my fascination with children and their thinking, and my regard for small humans as people who are often really underestimated and particularly children of color and children who don't speak English as their first language often treated as though they don't know anything. People just don't have a big regard for children in our society and that's particularly exacerbated when we're talking about children who are not privileged.

DEBORAH BALL:

And I'm just fascinated, all my opportunities to work with children were just like, "They're amazing. I'd rather hang out with them often than a lot of other adults. And they were very smart." And I ended up in teaching at the beginning because I saw that power. I saw it as socially and really important to work to be doing. I thought I would continue to be learning all the time and that has certainly proven to be true, but my interest in my understanding of the power that teaching had grew over a long period of time, because I had opportunities to work with, in settings where the children were really different from me and had very different experiences growing up than I had had. I had a remarkable black principal for the first decade of my teaching career who helped me to see things in my children that I didn't immediately know how to see.

DEBORAH BALL:

And my colleagues were extraordinarily diverse in this school that I taught, taught me that diversity in the teaching profession was vital. I didn't yet understand how much it was lacking at that time when I became a teacher. And I now, looking back, understand that my pathway through a much more... A very unusually diverse set of colleagues and students amplified and made more quick, my ability to see teaching is socially both very reproductive or very disruptive. And my interest in this, which we don't have time to go into over time, just grew, it started with my realizing that I didn't know how to teach math well at all, to my very interesting children. And I thought that it seemed reasonable and I just couldn't make it make sense to them, even though I understood what I was teaching. And then I think I worked with very many children whom English wasn't their first language. And I had my self been multilingual and found it very interesting and fascinating to communicate across languages that I couldn't possibly speak and learn about that.

DEBORAH BALL:

I think that I gradually became curious about, what is it to learn this work? What is it to learn teaching? And so then the rest of it you can say is sort of history is that I began a pathway of trying to think about why don't we take more seriously what it takes to learn to teach? I've been fortunate in that it's a field in which I've been able to keep growing and learning. My ability to articulate the role that white supremacy plays in teaching wouldn't have been evident earlier in my career, although I had a sense for it. So I think it's a space for continuing to understand what I, as an individual and as a member of a profession can contribute to our society, not to make it too grandiose, but what drew me in and what has sustained me in it is its incredible possibilities.

DEBORAH BALL:

And currently, what keeps me in it is also an awareness of how much when we ignore it, it causes damage that reproduces the same patterns of inequality and injustice that we see all around us in the cases of brutal violence against black people and the cases of people being excluded from whole fields of study. So it's just an incredibly potent space. And I feel like I've been very fortunate to have a pathway in it that has enabled me to continue to see it's possibilities and figure out what it looks like to work with other people to take advantage of those and develop them.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

Listening to you, it is the greatest positive reinforcement to be in this profession. I want to thank you so so much, Deborah Ball.

DEBORAH BALL:

Thank you, Michael. I really enjoy always talking to you and appreciate being invited to join your EdFix podcast. So thank you.

MICHAEL J. FEUER:

To our listeners, if you enjoyed this episode, which I know you did, you should subscribe to EdFix wherever you listen to podcasts. For more information, we also have a website, edfixpodcast.com<. All of this is made possible by the exquisitely masterful work of our director of communications Touran Waters. So we thank you, Deborah, and we wish you continued success and maybe a return visit to EdFix.