African-American Kids Need MORE than Role Models in Math


Caution: Rant ahead

If you’re looking for a post saying role models aren’t important, this isn’t it

There are two things on which I believe we can all agree:

  1. It’s good for kids to have positive role models. They are also more likely to imitate role models with which they can identify. (Read up on Albert Bandura’s research and all the rest of social learning theory for evidence of this.)
  2. Students seldom learn about African-American mathematicians.

Until I watched the movie, Hidden Figures (GREAT MOVIE!) I had no idea who Katherine Johnson was. Closer to home, I had learned about the Rao-Blackwell theorem in graduate school, as does anyone who studies statistics, and I had no idea that David Blackwell was African-American.

African-American teen for new levels in Forgotten Trail
New African-American character for Forgotten Trail

What difference does it make if they are African-American or not?

I’m just going to come out and say it, I have noticed that this question is only asked by white people. I am going to take it as a good faith inquiry and answer the question. There are two reasons that I, personally, think it makes a difference. Feel free to add more or argue with me if you disagree.

  1. Their stories are fascinating (although not always in a good way) and anything that makes students more interested in math is a good thing. For example, Dr. Blackwell earned his Ph.D. at age 22 and Princeton University STILL wouldn’t allow him to attend lectures, even though he was doing his post-doctoral research at one of their institutes. His initial offer to be a professor at the University of California, Berkeley was withdrawn because the department chair’s wife refused to allow any African-Americans to the social events, which were held at their house. That’s the story given out, but the fact that the mathematics faculty didn’t push back speaks volumes. Despite lack of access to the resources many others had, he went on to publish over 20 research articles while a professor and administrator at Howard University. By the way, he did eventually end up as a professor at UC Berkeley years later. Similarly, Dorothy Vaughn, Gladys Mae West (mathematician who wrote the equations on which the GPS is based) and others have histories that are extremely inspirational, to anyone. The message you get is that there will be racist and sexist jerks in the world. It’s NOT fair but you can still succeed despite them.
  2. It is valuable for students to see people who look like them. I have taught statistics at all levels from middle school to doctoral students. I can tell you that no matter how smart or how good at math a person is there will come a point where they just don’t understand something. It may be time, rate and distance problems in middle school, integrals in first year Calculus or structural equation models in graduate school. Whatever programming problem they are trying to solve just seems unsolvable. Their program crashes, their game is no fun and no one wants to play it .

There will come a time, if you study mathematics long enough, that you doubt your ability, when that time comes.

When you are sitting there and you just don’t get it (whatever the it happens to be), when you are doubting yourself, it makes it all that much harder when you don’t see anyone who looks like you who has succeeded. Conversely, when you see a Katherine Johnson or Gladys Mae West and you read about their successes, it’s easier to think to yourself that they powered through and succeeded and you can, too.

Where’s the rant? Oh, don’t worry, it’s coming

All of the above is good but my HUGE problem with the way math is taught in elementary school is that it isn’t. If you are teaching about Dorothy Vaughn, David Blackwell and others during your math period, you are not teaching math, you’re teaching history. If you are having them draw pictures of famous African-American mathematicians, that’s art. If they are writing a biography of an African-American mathematician, that’s combining history and English/ language arts. All of those things are fine, but these are not math.

Use math class to teach math.

That seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? I’ve been teaching since the 1980s and nothing has ever convinced me that students don’t need to learn multiplication. Yes, it’s a very good idea to understand that multiplication is repeated addition. It’s important to learn that 45 x 4 is the same as (40 x 4) + (5 x 4) .

In the beginning, though, students need to learn that 4 x 5 = 20.

No, don’t skip multiplication, addition, subtraction and division because “They can always use a calculator”

First of all, having to drag out a calculator to solve the simplest math problems is a waste of time. It’s a lot quicker for me to say, “20” than for you to find your phone, unlock it, find the calculator app and type in 4 x 5. Take me, for example, who currently has no idea where my phone is.

Secondly, playing around with numbers, using numbers, exposure to numbers is a way to begin to understand mathematics. If you see that even numbers multiplied by any number always give you an even number, you’re getting the basis of the idea of factors. Now, you may not get to factors for a couple of years, but you’re laying the foundation. I’ve almost always found when people say, “I don’t have a math brain” or “I’m not good at math” that they almost always lack that foundation. If you don’t understand multiplication, you are going to struggle with division. If you don’t understand division, you are never going to get fractions or decimals.

I could go on about teaching math forever, and probably will at some point. What I want to emphasize today is simply this – yes, it is important that kids have role models of successful people in STEM who look like them. That’s not math, or science, though.

We need to make sure we aren’t shortchanging our students by giving them aspirations without the tools to reach them.

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