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Jennifer Crump’s students got fired up to study math by researching the question, “Are human beings proportional?”

Volume 29, Number 3
May/Jun 2013

Changing the Face of Math

Student perceptions may hold the key to mastering a “cold” subject

Changing the Face of Math, continued

What if our national problems with math—from poor school and test performance to the dearth of STEM grads—are more about fuzzy-sounding stuff like relationships, emotion, and identity than, well, actual math?

Don’t laugh. Math education experts say we’re in crisis and that traditional approaches of treating math like a cold-blooded subject amid the warm and engaging world of K–12 schooling are a big part of the problem. Narrow cultural beliefs about what math success looks like, who can be good at it, and what it’s used for are driving students to approach the subject with timidity—or not at all.

“We have all these rules about how you are allowed to participate in math,” says Rochelle Gutiérrez, professor of math education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They are driven by, ‘Can you replicate the procedure the people before you have come up with?’”

This is an expert from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article Click here to become a subscriber.


J. M. Aguirre, K. Mayfield-Ingram, and D. B. Martin. The Impact of Identity in K–8 Mathematics: Rethinking Equity-Based Practices. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, ­forthcoming.

J. Boaler. What’s Math Got to Do with It? How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject. New York: Penguin, 2009.

R. Gutiérrez and S. E. Irving. Latino/a and Black Students and Mathematics. Boston: Jobs for the Future, 2012.

G. Harel. “Common Core State Standards for Geometry: An Alternative Interpretation.”

Math for America

E. Tan, A. Calabrese Barton, E. Turner, and M. Varley Gutiérrez. Mathematics Education in Urban Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.