Culturally Responsive Teaching versus Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice

From over at my mathissippi blog.

The idea of “teaching for social justice” holds a long history of discourse in the educational world, and as such holds a myriad of terms and (sometimes conflicting) ideas which describe it. When considering the idea of “teaching mathematics for social justice” (TMSJ), it is important to understand the distinctions in the choice of this wording and its relation to other related fields of study. TMSJ holds many common threads with critical pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy, but it is not sufficient to use all of these terms interchangeably.

An immediate consideration of TMSJ is that it is framed as teaching for, not teaching about or teaching with social justice. As Stinson and Wager (2012) summarize of Paulo Freire’s work –

[teaching] mathematics about social justice refers to the context of lessons that explore critical (and oftentimes controversial) social issues using mathematics. Teaching mathematics with social justice refers to the pedagogical practices that encourage a co-created classroom and provides a classroom culture that encourages opportunities for equal participation and status. And teaching mathematics for social justice is the underlying belief that mathematics can and should be taught in a way that supports students in using mathematics to challenge the injustices of the status quo as they learn to read and rewrite their world.” (p. 6, emphasis in original)

Paulo Friere from

As such, TMSJ is not composed of a collection of instructional resources and strategies, but is rather based on the disposition of the teacher and the student. A teacher cannot merely conduct a social justice-themed lesson and consider themselves as teaching for social justice; a teacher must in all their actions be working to challenge dominant and oppressive structures which hold back the full potential of their students. In the words of Gutstein and Peterson (2006) “social justice math is not something to sneak into the cracks of the curriculum” (p. 5).

In this regard, TMSJ holds many similarities with critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy, which is grounded in “[driving] teachers and students to acknowledge and understand the interconnecting relationships among ideology, power, and culture and the social structures and practices that produce and reproduce knowledge” (Stinson & Wager, 2012, p. 8), also demands a unique disposition amongst educators. Although works of earlier educators such as John Dewey or W.E.B. Du Bois are thought to be grounded in critical pedagogy (Eubanks, Parish, & Smith, 1997, p. 151; Stinson & Wagner, 2012, p. 8), it is the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Friere that might best be said to have originated the movement around critical pedagogy in the United States (Stinson & Wagner, 2012, p. 8). Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed clearly shows its relevance even to this day, as “nearly every contributing author to [the Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice compilation book] acknowledges Freire as having a significant influence on her or his work” (Stinson & Wager, 2012, p. 9). Because of this evolution from critical pedagogy to TMSJ, it is useful to consider the relationship between a more critical pedagogical approach and other related approaches such as culturally relevant or responsive pedagogy.

Culturally relevant pedagogy, which has also been labeled “culturally appropriate,” “culturally responsive,” and “culturally compatible” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 159) shares some fundamental similarities with the more critical approach to TMSJ. As Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) explains, culturally relevant pedagogy can be thought of as comprising of three categories: academic success, cultural competence, and critical consciousness (p. 160-162). At first glance, these categories might seem well aligned to TMSJ: Ladson-Billings frames meaningful academic success around student culture and identity, she notes cultural competence as “utilizing students’ culture as a vehicle for learning,” and she explains critical consciousness as “a broader sociopolitical consciousness that allows [students] to critique…cultural norms” (p. 160-162). Ladson-Billings even cites Friere in her defense of culturally relevant pedagogy, stating that approaches that achieved academic success for African Americans during the civil rights movement in-spite of were “similar to that advocated by noted critical pedagogue Paulo Freire” (p. 160). Friere and critical pedagogy are clearly an influence on Ladson-Billings.

propagandaHowever, there are some fundamental differences between Ladson-Billings’ culturally responsive pedagogy and Friere’s critical pedagogy, and it is these differences that separate (and at times muddle) the idea of TMSJ. In critical pedagogy, the school system is seen as “a major part of society’s institutional processes for maintaining a relatively stable system of inequality,” or the “hegemony” of a small group of elites over a broader society (Eubanks, Parish, & Smith, 1997, p. 151). This hegemony is counter to TMSJ and strikes out in a myriad of ways. Educational standards frame the purpose of schooling as “merely preparing for professional success,” while standardized tests are both held up as valid measures of success and used as “gatekeepers” which help determine the “intellectual elites” of our society (D’Ambrosio, 2012, p. 202-207). It is not just that students are failing academically; it is that the academic system is set up to sustain hegemony. This idea of hegemony creates inherent issues with the culturally relevant approach to education. While Ladson-Billings (1995) frames culturally responsive teaching  as “[getting] students to ‘choose’ academic excellence” (p. 160), critical pedagogy states that we need to rethink our society’s entire idea of academic excellence (Eubanks, Parish, & Smith, 1997, p. 152). If we consider our educational system to be a structurally unsound house,  culturally relevant pedagogy would have us work to repair and remodel the house, while critical pedagogy would have us demolish the house and start anew. Even though Ladson-Billings (1995) speaks to the importance of infusing cultural competency and critical consciousness in tandem with creating academic success for students, Friere (1970) counters this approach of seeking social justice within the context of the current system, saying –

Unfortunately, those who espouse the cause of liberation are themselves surrounded and influenced by the climate which generates the banking concept [a system of oppressive education], and often do not perceive its true significance or its dehumanizing power. Paradoxically, then, they utilize this same instrument of alienation in what they consider an effort to liberate…[One] does not liberate people by alienating them. Authentic liberation – the process of humanization – is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it. Those truly committed to the cause of liberation can accept neither the mechanistic concept of consciousness as an empty vessel to be filled, nor the use of banking methods of domination…in the name of liberation.” (p. 79)

If the definition of TMSJ is to retain the element of “using mathematics to challenge the injustices of the status quo” (Stinson & Wager, 2012, p. 6), it requires more than a culturally relevant pedagogy. While TMSJ incorporates elements of culturally relevant pedagogy (cultural responsiveness, critical consciousness), it aligns much more with critical pedagogy in its determination to not simply work within the current, unjust educational system, but to rebuild it in a democratic way.


D’Ambrosio, U. (2012). A Broader Concept of Social Justice. In Teaching mathematics for social justice: Conversations with educators (p. 201-213). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Eubanks, E., Parish, R., & Smith, D. (1997) Changing the Discourse in Schools. In P. M. Hall (Ed.), Race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism: Policy and practice (p. 151-168). Taylor & Francis.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Gutstein, E., & Peterson, R. (2005) Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools.

Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice34(3), 159-165.

Stinson, D. W., & Wager, A. (2012). A sojourn into the empowering uncertainties of teaching and learning mathematics for social change. In Teaching mathematics for social justice: Conversations with educators (p. 3-18). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.


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