Queer Studies, Special Education, and Mathematics

I recently read educator James Sheldon’s paper Erasing Queer Subjects, Constructing Disabled Subjects: Toward a Queering of Mathematics Disabilities, which questions the relative absence of mathematics in the field of queer studies, discusses ways in which special education mathematics curricula fails to serve the students for which it is intended, and proposes that viewing differences in performance through the lens of queerness rather than deficiency could help provide all students with the resources to succeed in math. Sheldon also questions current means of measuring student performance, such as the Woodcock-Johnson assessment. Students who show a discrepancy between ability and achievement are diagnosed with learning disorders, but the Woodcock-Johnson assessment tests mathematical ability in terms of “rote arithmetic computation, calculation speed, word problems, and some very basic factual questions about mathematics.” As Sheldon points out, these are not always true indicators of mathematical competency—it is possible to be a successful professional mathematician and yet regularly make arithmetic errors. Thus, students may be unfairly diagnosed as deficient in mathematical skill and placed in special education classes that may not serve their actual needs. Furthermore, Sheldon suggests that special education curricula emphasizes problem-solving through recognition of problem types and rote application of pre-determined algorithms. While this approach may work for arithmetic and basic algebra problems, it ignores the multiplicity of approaches to even simple problems, forcing students to use the system preferred by the teacher rather than one that works for them. Additionally, it fails to prepare them for more advanced mathematics, in which the “correct” approach to a problem may not be defined. I confess I don’t know much about the field of special education, but I found Sheldon’s paper interesting and many of the general points made resonated with my experience as a math student. Even in my standard-curriculum high school math classes, coursework was mainly focused on problem recognition and rote application of algorithms, in contrast to the argument construction and unknown-type problem solving required in college and graduate math classes. I would recommend giving the paper a look even if queer studies or special education are subjects you don’t usually read about.

About Maya Sharma

Maya Sharma is studying for her MS in mathematics at Loyola University Chicago.
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