Response to Reading and Writing the world with Mathematics by Eric Gutstein

reading_writing_mathIn this short, 200 page read, Gutstein captures both an integrated theory of teaching and a snapshot of his own convictions that finds audience with both the activist and pedagog. I found the passion of the author to be magnetic and the constant interruption of student reflections gave the text an honest feeling. This is not a theoretical book, it is the story of a real teacher who wanted to do something profound.

The first chapter contained a definition of functional mathematic literacy and its contrast with critical literacy, an idea I can tell will influence my thinking for some time to come. According to Gutstein, functional literacies have traditionally been seen as the set of skills or competencies required to function within a particular society. The particular set of these skills may vary based on the individual’s position in society.

Critical literacy, on the other hand, is the ability to analyze, deconstruct and see the relationships within a body of knowledge. Gutstein even goes as far as to say that this could all be done in context of a particular social-cultural-historical setting, asking the question, “who’s interests are being served by this view?”

The understanding of literacies, however, was only a detail along the way to the primary theme of the book: mathematics can provide a unique language to understand the world, and a set of tools to interact with it. I believe it would be safe to say that Gutstien would not object to this idea being extended to all subjects of study, not mathematics alone. This is a proposition I hope is true. If he is correct, then he has indirectly given value to the endeavor of studying mathematics, provided a framework of contextual learning and defined a rubric for assessing a student of the field.

Unfortunately, I fear that the direct application of simple arithmetic (I don’t remember seeing any examples of more advanced maths) to complex social issues may be like trying to study atoms with a magnifying glass. I thoroughly respect Gutstein’s desire to design projects that utilize math to understand the issues that are part of his student’s world, but he often mentioned asking his students questions like, “Was there racism here?” with only a few numbers to draw conclusions from. In addition, the curation of the particular set of numbers, done by Gutstein himself, lends itself to have biased conclusions ‘discovered.’

That said, the process in which he led these projects allows room to correct for the mis-application of math to politics if the teacher has enough critical mathematic literacy to draw from while leading the activity. For example, statistics are easily constructed which misrepresent reality, but an expert statistician should be able to identify bad statistics and have their students start over. Numerous times through the text Gutstien mentions doing just that, but never did he thoroughly explain his process.

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