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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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12 Comments


Guest
Aug 02, 2023

There are two categories of people who work that hard: The very poor but honest, and the very rich. In the first tranche you have people tending jobs where there are literally not enough employees to go around. Or people working what amounts to forced overtime. In the other tranche, you have the people who work long hours to become (or stay) rich. BigLaw lawyers. Wall Street honchos. Top doctors.

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Guest
Jul 29, 2023

"We don't want kids to learn math, don't we?"


Of course not! If we wanted kids to learn math we'd put skilled math teachers with records of student success on the job, not State bureaucrats and politicians.

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Guest
Aug 02, 2023
Replying to

Hmmm. I came from a lower-middle-class neighborhood, with schools to match, but I concede that I do have educated parents. Oddly enough, I don't remember my math teachers particularly, but I was in Math Club and on the DUSO math team (Duchess, Ulster, Sullivan, and Orange counties) that -- no, didn't win the NYS math competition that year (no one ever does that but NYC's A team), but came in second, a ridiculous feat. I'd say those schools had decent math education. And we weren't "affluent" by any means. Rockland and Westchester, sure.

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Guest
Jul 29, 2023

But, other Guest, that isn't it. The protagonist has only $100, to be divided 25/40/40. Therefore the problem -- the <I>only</I> problem -- is how to divide $100 on 25/40/40 proportions. Therefore all you need to do is multiply each fraction by 100/105 = 20/21. So Mom gets $23.8 and Grandma and Bro each get $38.1. The proportions are right, and the numbers add up to $100. (OK, there are further decimals, but that is the gist.)


If you are thinking of this as a low-grade middle-school problem, <I>that</I> is the answer you ought to be expecting, not "OMG I don't have enough money!" You get that bloody confusion only by conflating $100 with 100%.

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Guest
Aug 02, 2023
Replying to

If what you say is true, we're basically doomed. There is *no reason* that proportions and decimals should be withheld from middle school students. Dammit, I had them in third grade, and not at a fancy-schmancy private elementary school either. You're telling me that whatever problem is set, the answer must automatically come out in whole numbers? That's . . . just bizarre.

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Guest
Jul 28, 2023

Seems to be worded in pass-the-test format. “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?”


Draw self with a $100 bill

Next sentence, stop at first comma, draw mom with her purse and show your work by writing 1/4 * $100 = $25 . Draw $25 on mom's purse and write and underline ' mom should get $25'.

stop at next comma. draw grandma and her apron w/pocket and show your work by writing 2/5*$100= $ 40. Draw 2 $20s in the apron pocket. write and underline 'grandma should get $40'.


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Guest
Jul 28, 2023

This is silly, and the students are getting/being given the wrong answer from the get-go.


Here is how to do it: 25% to Mom, 40% to Grandma, 40% to Bro. That adds up to 105%, yes? So to divvy up the $100, you just multiply those fractions by 100/105 (=20/21). Mom gets a little under $25, and Grandma and Bro get a little under $40 apiece. Everything turns out exactly as it ought to.


But the kids are hoodwinked by the problem into thinking that the difficulty is that "there's not enough money" to fulfill the conditions of the problem. It isn't so.

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