Inquiry and Equity

Education is, at its heart, about justice. It is the institution that empowers individuals to improve the conditions around them, to be intentional and involved citizens, to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. Or at least it should.

Cultural institutions like education can also be the mechanisms through which individuals are indoctrinated into a system that has power over them, in other words, school can be a tool of oppression. We, the community of mathematicians and mathematics educators, have been complicit in this oppression for years. We have taught students that experts are the source of mathematical knowledge/understanding/skill and that their mathematical thinking is valid only to the extent that it mimics our own. Our classrooms teach them that mathematical competence is rare, that this competence is a good proxy for intelligence, that this intelligence is determined at birth (and rarer by demographics), and that general power in our society comes from this intelligence and the financial compensation it can command. Our culture validates this rarity by suggesting that power should be concentrated in the hands of a few, that abdicating this power is normal and happier than the alternative.

In short, our discipline has denied almost every member of our society access to mathematical inquiry. In the words of Paulo Freire, “any situation in which some [people] prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). I design my courses from a perspective of inquiry-based learning (IBL) because I think it offers a chance for students to take back this power, to stop and reverse some of this violence (see AMS T&LM and DAoM). Friends and colleagues, including Aditya Adiredja, Jess Ellis, and Christine Andrews-Larson, have articulated important critiques and qualifications on this sweeping claim that I will think, read, and write about soon.

Instead, I would like to turn the lens of equity onto the community of educators who teach with inquiry. There are many paths to this work. Some of us developed our approach to teaching in relative isolation , as was the case for me. Some learned from and with local colleagues. Some come from the long and rich K-12 tradition that uses a different language to express very similar values. Some read about Socrates, Dewey, and Freire. Some come from mathematics education research. Others had heard about teaching with inquiry and sought out professional development experiences and supports. Regardless of our paths, I think all of us are happy and relieved to know that there are others like us.

I think of the IBL community as the union of the people in the threads represented by these various paths. This community has mapped itself partially onto various formal organizations, including the Academy of Inquiry-Based Learning, the Educational Advancement Foundation, a special interest group of the MAA called IBL SIGMAA, and many others. Having multiple organizations that meet diverse needs should be positive, in theory, but that is not what has happened historically.

One approach to teaching with inquiry is attributed to Robert Lee Moore; the thread associated with Moore is highly visible partially because of the position that Moore and his students held in the national mathematical societies and partially because of  generous financial contributions given in support of community building. As a result, sometimes this thread in the community is equated with the entire community in some parts of our discipline. However, Moore’s courses were explicitly unwelcoming to some students because he advocated racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic views about who belongs in mathematics in general and his classrooms in particular.

Combining the two previous paragraphs, this means that educators who found ways to offer their students experiences with mathematical inquiry either had to deal with joining a (large sub-)community that was named after a bigot or forego many of the resources offered by this community. Certainly some people participated in this community without being aware of the bigotry, as was the case with me for several years. Others participated with knowledge because they wanted to spread parts of Moore’s “legacy” while rejecting the bigotry. However, it is an extraordinary privilege to go through the world unaware of structural inequality or participating in institutions selectively like this.

Unsurprisingly then, the attachment of Moore’s name to an educational movement/community has erected a barrier that keeps people without that privilege from benefiting from this community’s resources, further expanding the privilege gap. The nature of this privilege has the impact of nearly silencing the voices that are repelled from this community by Moore’s name, but awareness of this privilege has been growing. In a talk at JMM 2017, Sandra Laursen laid out a powerful case, based on recent research, that Moore’s name is a barrier to the spread of inquiry in our classrooms, even as this community has increasingly emphasized equity issues for our students and a “big tent” interpretation of inquiry for educators.

I encourage you to read the paper on which this talk is based as well as several response pieces from various positions in relation to this community, all of which are hosted here.

I am a person who has benefited from these privileges and the resources of this community, so I would like to finish by talking about my plans for responding to this inequity. I will, of course, write about this responsibility from my own perspective; I do so publicly in order to make myself more accountable to this plan and to open myself to critique and feedback. I’ve organized these thoughts in increasing complexity, from symbolic gestures to deep and sustained change of the IBL community.

I make these plans as an individual, but I plan to make use of my privileges and positions to accomplish the work. In particular, I am currently the chair of the recently-formed IBL SIGMAA (special interest group of the MAA), which is a mapping of the IBL community onto the MAA.

(1) Rejecting our inequitable past (and present).

  • I wrote one of the responses to Sandra’s paper with Zach Haberler and Chuck Hayward, linked above. I have tried to make the need for the rejection of Moore’s legacy of bigotry personal by comparing it to my more contemporary experiences of homophobia.
  • The IBL SIGMAA is working on a resolution that formally rejects the bigotry connected to some of the threads of the evolving IBL community that it seeks to represent. Furthermore, the IBL SIGMAA charter makes equity a guiding principle rather than a peripheral outcome.
  • I want to reject Moore’s legacy of bigotry and remove his name, but I agree that without his name, it is easier for those of us with privilege to forget about this history (as discussed here). I don’t think I understand what it will take to reject this past without forgetting it.
  • A more subtle mechanism of inequity comes from the narratives that frame the strand within this community associated with Moore as the canonical, central, real, or major form of teaching with inquiry and thereby making the experiences and expertise of other educators invisible or less valid. I certainly need to work to learn about inquiry that has been happening outside my field of vision so far. I thank Debra Borkovitz and others for pushing me on this aspect.

While writing statements and passing resolutions is important, we could just be shouting these words into the void of the internet.

(2) Removing barriers to accessing the resources of (my segment of) the IBL community.

  • For years, there has been an annual conference named after Moore and his legacy that helped build community among IBL practitioners. I think it is essential that there be such a conference, but attending it must not require educators to contend with a symbol of bigotry. I am happy to announce that the IBL SIGMAA and the Educational Advancement Foundation, in collaboration with the MAA, are hosting a mini-conference inside MathFest this summer entitled “Constructing the Future of IBL”. My hope is that the IBL SIGMAA will soon host a stand-alone, sustainable, annual conference that is easily accessible to all who are interested.
  • Participating in conferences and workshops related to IBL often involves additional barriers such as time and money. Travel can be particularly hard on some people, including parents and people who are differently able. I commit to engaging these barriers to participation as part of my reform agenda. Two efforts that are underway: (i) making sure that funding sources are reserved to help support people who are less able to pay for the costs of travel and registration and (ii) making sure that IBL workshops and community networks are seeded in various locations so that interested instructors don’t need to travel to participate.
  • There are currently many resources to support instructors who wish to teach with inquiry that are freely available. However, many of these are invisible or inaccessible unless you are already plugged into this community. One of the main functions of the IBL SIGMAA will be to build and maintain a list of these resources and how to access them. Moving away from Moore’s name is important for this effort because it removes the barrier of having to already know this name to find these resources.
  • I also think that research about IBL practices and outcomes are important. Many instructors face institutional pressures that resist their efforts to teach with inquiry. As a member of a community that has coalesced to engage these pressures, I feel responsible for helping others with their efforts. This is especially true if some of the pressure comes from an awareness of the history of bigotry that has been connected to these efforts.

Of course, removing Moore’s name from this conference is, at best, opening a door, but it does nothing to critique or change the community it named. Without this critique, the ideas above become a form of colonialism powered by (white) saviorism and (white) guilt.

(3) Supporting the evolution of the IBL community into something more equitable.

  • When I first attended events about teaching with inquiry, there was a focus on lineage (how the speaker was descended from Moore, intellectually) and purity (how closely aligned they were with Moore’s approach, and how rigorous/strict were their expectations). I found these foci off-putting to say the least; had I been aware of the connection to racism, discussions of lineage and purity would probably have driven me away immediately. I am happy to report that more recently, the focus has shifted to evidence-based practices and decision-making and the goals have shifted towards equitable outcomes. My personal sense is that this community will continue to evolve as discussions of the “definition” of IBL connects us more deeply with RUME (research on undergraduate mathematics education), especially in terms of theoretical perspectives and grounding. The 2017 RUME conference contained a large amount of discussion of IBL, especially its connection to equity for students. Moreover, these shifts away from lineage mean that anyone who does the work has access to IBL expertise through these perspectives. I would also like to facilitate further connections between IBL SIGMAA and RUME SIGMAA members, possibly by scheduling adjacent or concurrent conferences for the SIGMAAs to encourage cross-over.
  • I am excited about the recent creation of IBL SIGMAA. Unlike the other institutions related to IBL teaching, the IBL SIGMAA is organized around a Charter document that lays out its operations, has open membership (though it requires one to be a paying member of the MAA), and makes decisions and elects officers with votes of the membership. I see this as a powerful way to give voice to anyone who wants to be part of the IBL community. This kind of democracy is certainly not guaranteed to lift up diverse perspectives, so I think that the executive board of the IBL SIGMAA has a responsibility to implement structures that help us realize this goal. I am working to make this happen, in part by expanding the executive board to include more diverse voices and more person-power to do this work; I worry about tokenism in this effort, and I am striving to make sure members have real power. We have also recently surveyed the IBL SIGMAA membership to understand the priorities they have for the organization in the short-term.
  • I think it is important to make space for different voices at IBL events, and that space must be safe and supportive for them to share experiences and critiques that can lead to structural change in the community. In addition to diversifying the collection of voices in terms of race and identity, we need to make space for experiences like those of faculty at community colleges. I am helping to organize a panel for this summer’s mini-conference about diversity in IBL that I hope will make some of this space there. The IBL SIGMAA has also proposed a paper session at JMM 2018 to further these discussions. I worry that these efforts ask people who have felt marginalized to take a risk to educate more privileged people, which could become exploitative, but I hope they will be affirming.

It is important to help my community evolve. This evolution will involve changing. It will also involve learning, because there is definitely expertise outside of the IBL community as it appears to me from the inside.

(4) Building trust.

  • Real change will need to go beyond symbolic gestures and one-time efforts. It will require focus and commitment spread over many years. I don’t think I can prescribe actions that will lead to trust because it must be negotiated jointly and responsively. However, I do think that one way to make this sustained effort is to ground it in shared values. Hence, I plan to organize discussions in which the IBL community articulates these values and recommits to them in an ongoing fashion.
  • My final thought is to emphasize that I must do more than write and plan, I must listen. Not to respond but under the assumption that I have things to learn.

I see injustice and inequity; returning to the words of Paulo Freire: “the educator has the duty of not being neutral” (We Make the Road by Walking).

There are too many people who have helped me evolve my thinking about my responsibilities to thank them all individually, but recent conversations with Edray Goins, Sandra Laursen, Aditya Adiredja, and Dave Kung shine brightly in recent memory.

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