This module focuses on content areas related to mathematics. We explore ways to expand lessons to include 2SLGBTQ+ content, to challenge ideas about what mathematics is and is not, and who should study mathematics. The principles may be adapted to any mathematics course taught at the primary or secondary level. The limitations of standardized exams, overworked teachers and underwhelmed students are also considered.
Queering mathematics courses means challenging assumptions about who is best at math—and best suited to study math. Because math is often seen as a discipline for men, women/girls and trans/non-binary people are underrepresented in math-related professions and their work is not regarded with the same respect as colleagues who are men/boys. More broadly, 2SLGBTQ+ people may not see themselves represented in math curricula or math-related employment—often because 2SLGBTQ+ topics and identities are not considered “relevant” material in studying math. Similarly, women, girls, trans, and non-binary people may be subtly and overtly discouraged from studying and excelling at mathematics. Math at the primary and secondary levels tends to be conceptualized and taught with a narrow scope that focuses on particular kinds of problem solving that do not reflect the myriad ways that math is employed in real life, and perpetuates the idea that only certain kinds of people think about and use math. Queering math education is about queering the way we define math, thinking creatively about the examples we use, and signalling to students that math is for everyone. Even in courses that are strongly constrained by curricular necessities such as preparing students for university-level mathematics, teachers can enact pedagogical principles that make math more inclusive and relevant.
- Women/girls and 2SLGBTQ+ people’s underrepresentation in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is perpetuated because women/girls and trans/non-binary children are not encouraged to study these disciplines—in fact, they may be actively or passively discouraged by teachers and peers who mistakenly believe the trope that these fields are best suited for men/boys, or that men/boys have a greater “natural” aptitude for them. For many 2SLGBTQ+ people, discourses about gender inflect sexual identities For many 2SLGBTQ+ people, discourses about gender inflect sexual identities (e.g., Butler’s gender matrix of intelligibility) and similarly discourage or exclude them based on their perceived aptitude.
- Mathematics education is an opportunity to practice social justice by challenging the notion that math is separate from culture. Teachers can challenge conventional math education instead as reifying dominant discourses about gender, sexuality, capitalism, and patriarchy (Rands, 2019). Far from being a culture-free subject, math is intensely gendered and by extension necessarily sexed, just as it is intensely racialized (where Asian and to a lesser extent white (men) are assumed to be better at math than Black or Indigenous people) and classed. Mathematics teachers can expand teaching methods and 2SLGBTQ+ examples to challenge these assumptions in order to ensure that 2SLGBTQ+ people see themselves represented in the curriculum and in the discipline.
- The notion that math is a “male” discipline is rooted in the myths that math is completely objective, and that men are more capable of rational thought than women. These gendered notions of capability and who uses math need to be challenged in math curricula. Theories of mathematics dating back to ancient Greece emphasize a “pure math” notion of the subject, devaluing applied or practical uses; for instance, the image of (white male) mathematicians working out problems on wall-to-wall chalk boards are privileged over images of women (of colour) working in factories figuring out how to make neckties from reams of fabric while keeping stripes aligned and not wasting material (Harris, 1995).
- At the core of this separation of applied and theoretical mathematics is a Eurocentric, ethnocentric, colonial view of mathematics as an intellectual, rationalized project that is separate from the ways that non-Western and/or working class people may apply mathematics skills in their work and lives in different ways. In the teaching of mathematics, there continues to be a separation between those who use functional skills (e.g., vocational or trades schools) versus those who reach a higher level of study/achievement and contemplate theories of mathematics abstractly (Davison, 2002; Gerdes, 1988; Harris, 1995).
- The colonial project in North America over the past 400 years has also assured that Indigenous ways of knowing and millennia of mathematics knowledge are not part of mathematics curricula (Davison 2002). Similarly, ways of knowing that are not rooted in white, Western, European ways of knowing are devalued. There is a belief that mathematics is “culture-free” (Davison, 2002; Gerdes, 1988) but often that really means mathematics is free of culture that is not Eurocentric.
- The colonialism and sexism that shape the way mathematics is conceptualized and taught is no accident. Mathematician and textiles scholar Mary Harris discusses the classist “legacy of liberal mathematics (which of course contained Euclid) for the upper classes of society, and utilitarian mathematics for the lower classes, can still be witnessed today” (Harris, 1995, p. 83). She argues that the way we define and teach math continues to limit who we think can do it.
- As long as our imagery of mathematics privileges the former as a pursuit of mathematical inquiry and not the latter, we will continue to limit the possibilities for girls and gender-minoritized students. If we can expand out imaginary to include all the ways that people think about and employ math and value them all as worthwhile pursuits, we will immediately begin to expand the range of possibilities for all of our students. The key here is conscious intentionality about how we understand mathematics, the methods we use to teach it, and who gets to learn and benefit from it.
- Harris (1995) calls for a re-framing of math as not simply learning skills to be applied in the workforce, but looking at skills used in the workforce (that might not be seen as math, even by the workers themselves) and learning them. In her study of textiles workers in the UK, she notes that “the assumption was that by placing the skill in context, the pupil would see the necessity of learning it, as well as come to understand its use. The educational reality, however, was the presentation of a distorted, limited and limiting view of mathematics to a group of already disenchanted pupils” (p. 82). The beauty of changing the way we teach math as something 2SLGBTQ+ students are already doing—not a daunting, highly abstracted, disconnected set of steps they must follow—is that all students may be more enthusiastic and less discouraged from the start.
- Teachers can include examples of 2SLGBTQ+ and Black, Indigenous and people of colour and situations in their problem-solving. They can encourage students to think critically about who is missing from their textbooks, and why. They can reflect on and challenge their own biases related to who does math and aim to unsettle biases in their students about what math is and is not.
- Teaching financial literacy and numeracy related to finances is an opportunity to introduce 2SLGBTQ+ people and experiences into math problems because, typically, the stories told in math problems normalize white, heterosexual, gendered, middle-class narratives and exclude other realities (Rands, 2019, p. 68). In “Mathematical Inqueery: Queering the Theory, Praxis, and Politics of Mathematics Pedagogy,” Rands (2019) argues that “mathematical inqueery presses us to question the assumptions undergirding financial literacy and ultimately to invent new formulas and new ways of relating to one another in the world” (p. 70). Rands describes a math problem about Josh, who appears to be a white child in a suburban middle-class family. He has received a birthday gift from a neighbour. Throughout the story, he calculates how much money he can spend on various items and how much will remain. He goes to the grocery store with his mother, who is buying groceries to make dinner, discusses over dinner with his father, and finally makes a decision. Rands notes the opportunity to queer not only the financial literacy lesson to better reflect classroom and cultural realities but also to encourage students to read critically for hegemonic representations that shape our understanding. Changing the story changes what is possible.
- Change the way we teach, assess, and evaluate math (including contextualized assessment for a diversity of learners and learning styles). A meaningful way to introduce 2SLGBTQ+ expansive teaching of math is to involve students in the development of lessons and exercises (see exercises below).
- Incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and millennia of mathematics knowledge into math lessons. In “Teaching mathematics to American Indian students: A cultural approach,” Davison (2002) argues that mathematics lessons must reflect the cultures represented in the classroom. This is possible, for example, by including Indigenous star quilting and beadwork in lessons about geometry and symmetry. He suggests that a mathematics curriculum that does not reflect the experiences of all learners will disadvantage some students; the teaching of mathematics is not separate from culture. Feature land-based assignments in addition to exams to show students that there are different ways of learning about math, just as there are different kinds of learners in the class, and all are valued.
- Proposing a change to the way that math is taught is a tall order. With standardized exams, overworked teachers and underwhelmed students, it may not be easy to supplement required lessons. What teachers can do is to challenge their own thinking about the definition and teaching of math and aim to find moments where lessons may be expanded to reflect a broader range of people and experiences.
- It is important for pre- and in-service teachers to discuss the challenges they encounter with expanding already packed curriculum (Caswell et al., 2011, p. 70). Creating opportunities to discuss the expected discomfort that teachers may have about teaching 2SLGBTQ+ expansive lessons is also useful. The challenges that teachers face are likely surmountable if they develop peer groups with whom they can share concerns and devise strategies
Textbook audit: What messages about gender roles, race, gender, religion, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc., do math lessons and problems typically reinforce? Are mathematics really neutral? (See discussion of Rands’s, 2019, “Mathematical Inqueery: Queering the Theory, Praxis, and Politics of Mathematics Pedagogy” above.) Rewrite math problems for different grade levels—or write new ones—that better reflect the diverse realities of the classroom. Using non-Western names and gender-neutral pronouns in math problems can be a simple way to introduce diversity into the math classroom.
Analyze popular culture representations of mathematics: For example, compare the films The Imitation Game and Hidden Figures. Think about stereotypes related to who does math (and what qualifies as math). How does that perpetuate or provide a counter-narrative for the lack of representation of women, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, and 2SLGBTQ+ people in STEM fields? In math texts and teaching?
Reflection: Ask pre-service teachers to write what worries them about introducing 2SLGBTQ+ content into math lessons. Help unpack what myths and misinformation underlie these concerns. What strategies can they devise to work through potential issues and the discomfort they may feel teaching math in 2SLGBTQ+-expansive ways? Have teacher candidates work in groups to discuss concerns and find solutions.
Have pre-service teachers develop a lesson plan that accounts for the importance of representing many different experiences, including how the lesson will be taught, what exercises or examples could be useful, etc. Have teacher candidates think about how to engage 2SLGBTQ+, BIPOC, and other minoritized students in the classroom to consider how they are represented and how they might help ensure students see themselves reflected in curricula.
Counting, addition, and subtraction problems for elementary students: Math exercises can help students practice critical thinking while also learning math skills. Using popular culture films or television shows may be useful for these exercises, as you can have students engage with shows they may have seen before or watch regularly and challenge the representations or assumptions these shows depict. For example, elementary students can count the characters in a Disney film, noting how many are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour and how many are 2SLGBTQ+, as compared to the number of white and heterosexual, cisgender characters. Have conversations with students about representation of BIPOC characters and in what films they appear; ask students about how they know some characters are heterosexual or 2SLGBTQ+.
Develop math problems that reflect a variety of experiences and identities in schools. Introduce people into math problems who are not implicitly white and cisgender. Include family dynamics that are not implicitly heterosexual or cisgender. Get creative with the situations. While this may seem small, representation matters. For students who are used to not seeing their lives reflected in lessons, a math problem that includes a non-binary person, or parents who are not heterosexual, goes a long way in helping 2SLGBTQ+ students to feel that they have a place in the classroom. It also signals to all students that the teacher is a 2SLGBTQ+ ally and is actively creating a 2SLGBTQ+-expansive space.
Permutations and combinations: Ask students to calculate the possible gender-identity combinations of a 6-person family. Students might initially assume there are a mother and father, and then base their calculations on the four children to determine possible number of male-female combinations there are within the family. However, this is an opportunity to examine assumptions about gender/sex and parentage, including: intersex, trans, and non-binary identities (i.e., assuming only male-female combinations may be in err); families with one, three, or four parents (e.g., blended families, poly families); families with intergenerational living situations or unconventional families (e.g., what boundaries/limitations students have in imagining “family,” including whether a family is a “nuclear” family, whether it includes aunts and uncles and cousins, whether they think about kinship or chosen families); and so on. This provides an opportunity to have critical conversations about assumptions in solving math problems while also providing a complex math problem to solve.
Statistics: Teach students to think critically about statistics, how they are collected, and how they are understood. For example, look at the most recent census data about sex and gender minorities. You might note that the number of people who identify as sex and gender minorities or those in a same-sex relationship in census data and other large scale government surveys is much lower than data collected by researchers who work with 2SLGBTQ+ communities; discuss why the data may be different when collected by the government (e.g., people might not feel safe disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to a federal census employee who comes to their home, might have concerns about privacy, might not identify with the terms used, etc.). Look at the social, political and economic impact of having 2SLGBTQ+ people underrepresented in census data (e.g., less public funds allocated to 2SLGBTQ+ initiatives, public misconception about the number of 2SLGBTQ+ people). You could also look at the differences in the number of 2SLGBTQ+ people based on age categories and discuss why younger ages may have higher numbers of individuals who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ (e.g., more accepting social context for people now; consider HIV/AIDS epidemic and its population impacts for gay men). This lesson highlights the data collection obstacles and encourages students to think critically about interpreting statistical data (Guyan, 2022; Waite & Denier, 2019). It’s often been said, “What gets counted, counts!
Other variations may include:
Conducting a critical analysis of statistical reporting of violent crime against 2SLGBTQ+ people
Examining the proportion of 2SLGBTQ+ people in positions of authority in educational institutions or governmental bodies
Study survey data nationally, provincially, and locally. Analyze the way questions are asked. Consider who is asking the questions and what is being asked, what happens to the data afterwards, and what gets measured (e.g., consider when and how are sexual orientation and gender identity included in self-identifying categories). Consider why race and binary gender categories are treated as innate demographic features of the population and routinely included in data collection/analysis, while sexual orientation and non-binary gender identities are often not factored into analyses (e.g., collection of COVID-19 data on infections, deaths, vaccination rates). How does this affect our understanding of where 2SLGBTQ+ people are, how many there are, what they experience, and what needs to be changed in order for 2SLGBTQ+ people to be treated equitably?
Teachers can queer math lessons by challenging notions of what math is and who does it. While not specifically 2SLGBTQ+, an exercise borrowed from Mary Harris’s (1995) textiles discussion in “Common Threads: Perceptions of Mathematics Education and the Traditional Work of Women” would demonstrate to students that math happens in many ways and show that we tend to value some applications over others. Have students make a pattern for a sock made out of paper and identify the geometric measurements and calculations involved in knitting it. In order to broaden students’ understandings of math, ask them to think about why math problems do not usually involve what have been historically considered to be “women’s” skills, or why these skills are not commonly recognized as math. What does this tell us about what we commonly think of as mathematics as being abstract or an “objective” discipline?
In the blog Notes from a Queer Engineer on the Autostraddle website, author Laura Mandanas (2016) has written a terrific set of queer word problems that teachers can borrow and/or adapt (see https://www.autostraddle.com/queer-math-word-problems-for-all-your-alternative-lifestyle-needs-343134/). Here is one example from Mandanas’s list:
Shortly after moving in together, Marisol and Casey came to the realization that they both went way overboard on the feminist votive candle trend last year. When they counted them up, they came to a total of 93 candles. In their bedroom, they have 7 display shelves, which can fit 7 candles each. If Marisol and Casey cut down their collection to keep only what can fit on the shelves, how many feminist votive candles will they need to throw out, donate to charity, or give to friends?
References & Suggested Readings
- Caswell, B., Esmonde, I., & Takeuchi, M. (2011). Towards culturally relevant and responsive teaching of mathematics. In C. Rolheiser, M. Evans, & M. Gambhir (Eds.), Inquiry into practice: Reaching every student through inclusive curriculum (pp. 64–71). Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.
- D’Ambrosio, U. (1999). Ethnomathematics: The art or technique of explaining and knowing & history of mathematics in the periphery: The basin metaphor. Preprint 116. Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte.
- Davison, D. M. (2002). Teaching mathematics to American Indian students: A cultural approach. In J. E. Hankes & G. R. Fast (Eds.), Perspectives on Indigenous people of North America. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
- Davison, D. M. (2007). In what sense is it true to claim that mathematics is culture-free. Mathematics in a global community (pp. 139–143).
- Gerdes, P. (1988). On culture, geometrical thinking and mathematics education. Educational studies in mathematics, 19(2), 137–162
- Gerdes, P. (2010). Exploration of technologies, emerging from African cultural practices, in mathematics (teacher) education. ZDM: The International Journal on Mathematics Education, 42(1), 11–17.
- Guyan, K. (2022). Queer data: Using gender, sex and sexuality data for action. Bloomsbury.
- Harris, M. (1995). Common threads: Perceptions of mathematics education and the traditional work of women. In G. Kaiser & P. Rogers (Eds.), Equity in mathematics education: Influences of feminism and culture (pp. 78–88). Routledge.
- Harris, M. (1997). An example of traditional women's work as a mathematics resource. In A. B. Powell & M. Frankenstein (Eds.), Ethnomathematics: Challenging Eurocentrism in mathematics education (pp. 215–222). SUNY Press.
- Kellermeier, J. (2016). Saving mathematical lives: Teaching math as if race, class, and gender mattered. Transformations, 26(1), 21–23.
- Mandanas, L. (2016, June 29). Queer word problems for all your alternative lifestyle needs. Autostraddle.com.
- Rands, K. (2013). Supporting transgender and gender-nonconforming youth through teaching mathematics for social justice. Journal of LGBT Youth, 10(1–2), 106–126.
- Rands, K. (2019). Mathematical inqueery: Queering the theory, praxis, and politics of mathematics pedagogy. In C. Mayo & N. Rodriguez (Eds.), Queer pedagogies: Theory, Praxis, Politics (pp. 59–74). Springer.
- Stone, J., & Hamann, E. (2012). Improving elementary American Indian students' math achievement with inquiry-based mathematics and games. Journal of American Indian Education, 51(1), 45–66.
- Waite, S., & Denier, N. (2019). A Research note on Canada's LGBT data landscape: Where we are and what the future holds. Canadian Review of Sociology / Revue canadienne de sociologie, 56(1), 93–117.
- Walter, M., & Andersen, C. (2013). Indigenous statistics: A quantitative research methodology. Left Coast Press.
- Yeh, C., & Rubel, L. (2020). Queering mathematics: Disrupting binary oppositions in mathematics pre-service teacher education. In N. Radakovic & L. Jao (Eds.), Borders in mathematics pre-service teacher education (pp. 227–243). Springer.