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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Traumatizing math students

There's no evidence that "trauma-deformed pedagogy" (oops, "informed") helps students learn more, writes Max Eden, an American Enterprise Institute fellow, on Real Clear Education. Yet it's cited in support of California's controversial new math guidelines, which are full of dubious claims.


"Trauma informed" means educators take into account the fact that some students have led very difficult lives. But how does that affect teaching math?


The framework cites a study titled “Healing-informed Social Justice Mathematics: Promoting Students’ Sociopolitical Consciousness and Well-being in Math Class” by Kari Kokka, a mathematics education professor at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas. In the first study of trauma-informed pedagogy in math class, Kokka observed nine students being taught “Social Justice Mathematics.”


Eden describes a problem that starts with fractions:

“I have US$100. I owe 1/4 of my money to my mom, 2/5 to my grandmother, and 4/10 to my brother. Do I have enough money to pay everyone back? How much money should each person get?”
After students calculate that this woman owes more money than she has, they watch a video of a single mom struggling to make ends meet. They are then asked questions like, “What are some feelings that you are having when watching this video?” and “She works 40 hours a week and still struggles for food. What is your reaction around that?”

Interviewed after the lesson, one student “broke down in tears," while another "sad" and "mad because the government or someone else of her family should help her.”


Several others expressed a commitment to political activism, wrote Kokka with approval. “Taking critical action is part of radical healing and [Social Justice Mathematics] to gain a sense of agency and empowerment, a way of healing from trauma.”


The study includes no evidence students learned any math -- or that they "healed," writes Eden.


Migrant mother, California Photo: Dorothea Lange

The story problem isn't realistic. Nobody says: "Hey, brother, can I borrow 4/10 of $100?"


How much should each person get? The students I've met would be thinking: I've only got $100. My family should understand that I can't pay them back right away. My brother's going to bug me, so I'll have to pay him, but Grandma might forget about it, or turn it into a gift. What about Mom? Do I really have to pay her?


This is a distraction and waste of time.


It's fine to have story problems that deal with real situations. Many teachers ask students to come up with budgets or compare how much they'd earn at different jobs or even fill out an income tax form.


Let's say a job offers a low hourly wage and a share of the tip jar. If the wage is X, you work a four-hour shift, there's typically Y dollars in tips and you have four co-workers ...


Or, you charge $500 on a credit card, but only pay 4/10 of that at the end of the month. How much will you owe in principal and interest in a month?


As for showing a video that makes students cry . . . Why would making already distressed students more distressed be a good thing?


Under the California framework, math teachers are supposed to train students to be change agents, writes Bill Evers of the Independent Institute. "The teacher is supposed to highlight 'connections' between math and 'environmental and social justice,'" perhaps by writing an “opinion piece” or “explanatory text.”


As the previous post explains, research shows that's not an effective way to teach math. We don't want kids to learn math, don't we?


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