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Cultural Proficiency in the Mathematics Classroom

By Kim Marshall

“Practicing Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching” by Emily Bonner in Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK-12, January 2021 (Vol. 114, #1, pp. 6-15); Bonner can be reached at

In this article in Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12, Emily Bonner (University of Texas/San Antonio) suggests five “cornerstones” of culturally responsive mathematics teaching:

Knowledge – In addition to pedagogical content knowledge, says Bonner, culturally responsive teachers make it their business to know students and their families, their culture, the community, its religious organizations, and the way mathematics knowledge and skills might connect to any and all of those – which might include using math to solve a community problem. Teachers gain this kind of knowledge by reading the literature, surveying students, asking students to write “mathographies” in which they tell their personal experiences with the subject, and making math classes a place where students feel comfortable sharing what they know and don’t know. It’s also helpful to acknowledge a student’s unique solution to a problem and then calling it out: “That’s Rose’s solution.”

Communication – The words teachers use to talk about mathematics make a difference, especially for English language learners, for whom abstractions can be a barrier to understanding and appreciating math. Another key, says Bonner, is being a “warm demander” – expecting a lot of students, convincing them of their ability, and helping them reach their potential in an orderly and structured environment. In certain cultures, choral responses may be one of the best forms of communication, echoing the style of a church.

Relationships and trust – Culturally responsive teachers continuously forge connections with students, parents, community members, colleagues, and administrators. That helps to overcome negative feelings about mathematics that many people have – and builds trust. “This type of trust,” says Bonner, “situates the mathematics teacher as a central part of the community and helps make mathematics more accessible to everyone.”

Reflection and revision – Constant fine-tuning of instruction is often based on noticing as students grapple with a math problem and seeing where an instructional approach is not getting through. “This often happens informally,” says Bonner, “on a moment-to-moment basis in the course of instruction, and formally over the course of a day, a year, or a series of years.” Teachers may realize how their own way of learning, the way they were taught, or their cultural background, need to be set aside in favor of an approach that works better for the students in front of them.

Power – “Consider that many students often feel disempowered in the mathematics classroom,” says Bonner, “for reasons related to the culture, content, and other factors.” Culturally responsive teachers find ways of “returning power” to students. This might happen by making connections to students’ interests, to events in the community, or to ways students can take action based on what they know or have learned. Teachers can empower students by:

  • Getting students doing the “sense making” in math classes, actively discussing problems, and presenting solutions that make sense to them.
  • Using “talk moves” such as revoicing, building on, making connections, asking for justification, and extending.
  • Using scaffolding and students’ home languages to make mathematics understandable and accessible to all students – and then gradually releasing those supports to make students increasingly self-sufficient.

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