What does an anti-racist math class look like?

Ontario recently deleted anti-racist language from its math curriculum. “In math, let’s stick with math,” said Premier Doug Ford — but experts say it’s not that simple
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Aug 09, 2021
Parents of Black Children, a Toronto-based advocacy organization, held a demonstration in Toronto on August 7. (Facebook)

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In July 2020, the provincial government announced a slew of actions with the stated aim of addressing racism and inequality in schools. Changes included eliminating discretionary suspensions for students, strengthening sanctions against teachers who engage in racist behaviour, providing teachers with additional anti-racism and anti-discrimination training, and ending Grade 9 streaming into applied and academic courses — meaning that students would not be separated into different groups based on their perceived academic ability or prior achievements. 

In June 2021, the province revealed a new de-streamed Grade 9 math curriculum containing a preamble that stated, “Mathematics has been used to normalize racism and marginalization of non-Eurocentric mathematical knowledges.” Parents such as Claudette Rutherford lauded the addition. “With respect to anti-racism, anti-colonial language being added to the curriculum, it felt like there was an understanding of our experiences,” says Rutherford, co-founder of Parents of Black Children, a Toronto-based advocacy organization.  

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But others were critical: Toronto Sun columnist Brian Lilley, for example, called such language a a marker of the “leftist political agenda.” On July 13, he reported that the government had deleted the preamble and quoted an anonymous official as saying its language had gone too far. 

A side-by-side comparison of the former and updated curricula indicates that the Ministry of Education made at least eight changes. For example, it removed the statement that “mathematics can be subjective” and took out a reference to “Eurocentric, anti-racist, social justice, critical social and environmental issues”; in one section titled Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy, a sentence encouraging educators to use CRRP to “create anti-racist and anti-oppressive teaching and learning opportunities to engage students” was changed, and educators were instead simply asked to use CRRP to “engage students.” (The ministry did not provide a specific response to TVO.org’s questions about the deletions.)

On July 15, Premier Doug Ford defended the changes, telling reporters, “in math, let’s stick with math. Other social issues, let’s talk about it — there’s no doubt — but let’s not talk about it in math. Talk about it in other courses that the schools offer.” 

Many educators and experts, though, say that the study of math is not so straightforward and that the deletions undermine the ministry’s commitment to anti-racism in education. “Removing the language is counter-intuitive to what the ministry says they want to accomplish,” says Alison Gaymes San Vicente, a superintendent at the Toronto District School Board. 

With the recent announcement of Ontario’s back-to-school plan and the fall return just around the corner, TVO.org examines why, in a manner of speaking, two plus two doesn’t always equal four — and what an anti-racist math class could look like.


Can math be racist?

Jason To, TDSB’s coordinator of secondary mathematics and academic pathways, says that most critics seem to think the new curriculum originally suggested that mathematics, as a subject, is racist. The issue, though, is “really about how mathematics has been used,” To says. 

According to To, the statement about the subjectivity of math that was deleted from the curriculum served to challenge the idea that math was simply about numbers: “They’re trying to keep this perceived objectivity of mathematics as something that should be sacred and untouched, which is why they were so up in arms with the statement of mathematics can be subjective, because all of a sudden, this veil of objectivity is being lifted, and now we can start interrogating some of the dangers of how mathematics has been practised and how it’s used.” 

He cites the example of assessment tools used to determine the level of risk a convicted criminal poses to society. 

closeup of a young man
Jason To is TDSB’s coordinator of secondary
mathematics and academic pathways. (Courtesy
of Jason To)

In the United States, research has found that, because machine-learning programs use historical data to determine the chances a convicted criminal will reoffend, populations that have historically been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement are more likely to be given a higher recidivism score — which can influence how long they are sentenced for and what treatment they receive during incarceration.

Early this year, the Globe and Mail reported that a Custody Rating Scale used by Correctional Service Canada, which researchers found to be biased — partly because it has “weak or no predictive validity” — against Indigenous women and other racialized groups, was still in use. According to the Globe, Black men and Indigenous women were, respectively, roughly 24 per cent and 64 per cent more likely than their white counterparts to receive the highest security classification at admission, after accounting for variables such as age and severity of offence. 

And it shouldn’t be controversial to say that “mathematics has been used to normalize racism and marginalization of non-Eurocentric mathematical knowledges,” suggests Bryan Bellefeuille, an Ojibwe language teacher and Indigenous culture and curriculum support worker in northern Ontario. Historically, he says, Eurocentric mathematical knowledge overshadowed Indigenous mathematical knowledge: “Most people’s understanding of mathematics is based on what we learned in elementary school.”

Something most students don’t learn in school: some Indigenous people, Bellefeuille says,

a man carrying a smiling baby on his back
Bryan Bellefeuille is an Ojibwe language teacher. (Courtesy of Bryan Bellefeuille)

have unique ways of categorizing shapes that inform how math is applied in daily life: “When we understand that Indigenous people have geometry, we understand that the creation of a canoe, the creation of a berry basket, is a very complex procedure that requires the utilization of Indigenous shape categories.” 

Bellefeuille says the absence of such knowledge means that generations of Canadians do not understand how Eurocentric mathematical knowledge overshadowed “the invaluable knowledge that indigenous people have about mathematics” — and allows for the perpetuation of harmful myths about Indigenous people. 


What could an anti-racist math class look like?

Educators say that incorporating anti-racism into math education involves providing students with context about how math has been used to perpetuate racism and giving students an opportunity to apply math in real-life scenarios that encourage equity. 

In To’s class, for example, students examine the issue of police carding through proportional reasoning: students do a probability experiment where coloured blocks — representing the proportion of white, Black, brown, and “other” in the Toronto population 2011 — are placed in a bag. They then pick random blocks from the bag and note the colour. When the class aggregates the data, they review how to convert fractions to decimals and percentages. They then discuss disproportionality by comparing the probability experiment with the actual data showing that Toronto police carded Black Torontonians at three times the expected rate. “The important math that is the key element is central to the activity, but we’re learning about a social issue through the context,” To writes to TVO.org.

Agenda panel, June 15, 2020: Combatting anti-Black racism in schools.

Beverly Caswell, assistant professor in math education at University of Toronto and former director of the Robertson Program for Inquiry-based Teaching in Mathematics and Science, explains how she integrates practical scenarios: “Even holding up a one-litre bottle of water and estimating how many of these would it take to fill a bathtub — students begin learning about volume capacity averages … and then have them think about how much water their household consumes in a week.” She follows up by talking with students about how many First Nations communities have boil-water advisories and encourages them to discuss why. Ultimately, if we want children to see math as a “tool to help us understand the world,” says Caswell, “[teaching] could do that by using math to understand issues of power and privilege.”

Jimmy Pai, a math teacher with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says parts of the current curriculum will support educators already familiar with incorporating topics about race and social justice in their teaching: “For teachers that have been moving towards a healthier direction for mathematics and mathematics education and have been working on reflecting on it continually, recent changes, hopefully, won’t change very much.” And likewise, Pai says, not much will change for teachers who don’t agree with this approach to teaching mathematics. The worry, he says, “is with teachers who are on the fence and can be persuaded.” 

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