Why am I learning this? + Criticality

When am I ever going to use this in the real world?
Why am I learning this?

Four years ago, I was interviewing for a new school and was asked how I respond when students present me with the above questions. Like all math teachers, I get these types of questions from students a lot. (Now, in Zoomland, I don’t get many questions at all — but that’s another story.) But up to that point in my career I hadn’t thought enough about how I respond to students when they ask them. Put on the spot, the interview provided me a space to process my thoughts in the moment, which I really appreciated. The answer I gave during the interview even turned into a blog post. (Interestingly, it was my current colleague Stephanie Murdock who was interviewing me.)

Back then, I viewed the very presence of such questions as indicators that my teaching lacked engagement. Students wouldn’t be asking me about the usefulness of math if my pedagogy and curriculum already established that, right? In other words, I didn’t seek out to answer these questions for students as much as I used them to reflect on my practice. The existence of the questions themselves was enough.

While this is still true, and the emergence of such questions still says a lot about the state of my teaching and how my instruction renders mathematics, I’m thinking differently about them nowadays. I think if a kid were to ask me tomorrow why they’re learning whatever it is they’re learning, first I would be thrilled that they decided to unmute themselves and say anything at all. That’s a huge win. But after my excitement dampened, I would probably respond with something like, I don’t know. Why do you think we are? Let’s find out.

This precarious response is the result of a conversation I had with my close friend and colleague Shane Coleman this summer. He mentioned that, for him, being vulnerable with students was key to addressing their need to know why they’re learning something. The genius of it, I think, was how it uses students’ uncertainty and frustration with the system (and me) as a vehicle for empowerment. Instead of rushing to silence my students with a math elevator pitch that “answers” their questions and allows me to move on with my lesson, it’s a stance that invites my students to question everything and find meaning for themselves. Whatever meaning they discover may be rooted in the value of our Algebra 2 curriculum, yes, but it may also be rooted in purposelessness of it all.

To be sure, this makes a mess of things. By encouraging students to question the purpose of the Common Core — about the unit circle, about rewriting exponential functions, about factoring trinomials — it gives them permission to question everything and it’s source. Who “discovered” the roots of polynomials? Who wrote this curriculum? Do they look like me? What are the alternatives?

What I’m learning is that encouraging these types of questions and perspectives from students helps to normalize criticality in my classroom. Criticality was not a idea I knew about before I recently read Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad. She defines it as “the capacity to read, write, and think in ways of understanding power, privilege, social justice, and oppression, particularly for populations who have been historically marginalized in the world.” In her book, Muhammad does a great job outlining the role criticality can play in the classroom and its value for teachers, especially when they teach Black and Brown students. She states:

In short, teaching criticality helps students assume responsibility for the ways in which they process information — to avoid being passive consumers of knowledge and information. Criticality helps students read the world with a critical eye, refusing to accept unexamined information as factual or true….Criticality pushes questioning of information and the source of information — and this source may include the teachers. Therefore, criticality (like culturally relevant/responsive pedagogies) does not believe in hierarchies in teaching and learning. Instead, the knowledge and perspectives students bring is honored and valued, and the classroom becomes a community of teachers and learners. (p. 122)

While responding with “I don’t know, let’s find out” is but one relatively small instance of nurturing criticality in my math class, I think it’s an important one. Maybe my response will trigger something more substantial from my students and I. Maybe my students will help me learn a little something about why I’m teaching what I am. Or maybe nothing will come from it. Maybe it’ll be one of those many moments in class that come and go which never get remembered. Either way, at it’s best it’s a move that cedes authority and asks my students to be critical of the system — a burdensome system that feeds us all. At it’s worst, I hope that it can be a model for vulnerability.

Now, if only I could get them to unmute themselves.


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