Beliefs and Attitudes About Math Instruction
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Central to culturally responsive teaching and learning is the eradication of deficit-based thinking. Deficit thinking frequently serves as a major obstacle to academic success for students, particularly those from culturally diverse and low income backgrounds. R.R. Valencia (1997) describes deficit-based thinking as a “person-centered explanation of school failure among individuals as linked to group membership.” In other words, the deficit thinking framework holds that poor schooling performance is rooted in the students’ alleged cognitive and motivational deficits” (p.9).
Consistent with the thinking of eugenics proponents, individuals subscribing to deficit thinking frequently contend low-income students and students of color are not “fit” for academic success and social uplift (J.E. King, 1991; Pine & Hilliard, 1990). Similarly, early examinations of the academic performance of students of color and of students from low income backgrounds based many recommendations on deficit-based frameworks and suggested that these groups suffered because they: came from a culture of poverty; lacked motivation for high achievement; did not value education; possessed a poor command of Standard English; were intellectually deficient; and/ or were lacking in their language development, so their overall academic proficiency lagged (Bernstein, 1961; Glazer & Moynihan, 1963; Hall & Moats, 1999; Riessman, 1962).
There are some disturbing implications of a deficit-based construction of educational underachievement, most notably the belief that mainstream European culture and ways of being, thinking, and communicating are considered “normal”. Consequently, deviations from mainstream forms of verbal and cognitive processing are viewed as dysfunctional, pathological, or inferior. As a result, students who struggle academically are frequently viewed as cognitively, culturally, or linguistically deficient. Teachers who subscribe to deficit-based paradigms typically seek to ‘rid” students of their cultural knowledge and ways of communicating, and to replace–rather than supplement–their ways of knowing and doing with more standard forms of English and mainstream cultural norms (Valenzuela, 1999).
Deficit thinking speaks to the heart of what many teachers believe about the academic potential of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds (R.R. Valencia 1997). A plethora of research has uncovered the damaging effects low expectations can have on students’ academic performance (Avery & Walker, 1993; Irvine & York, 1993; Tettegah, 1996). Ladson-
Billings (1994) suggests one of the central tenets of culturally relevant pedagogy is an authentic belief that students from culturally diverse and low income backgrounds are capable learners. She maintains if students are treated as if they are competent, they ultimately will demonstrate high degrees of competence. Unquestionably, attitudes, values, and beliefs shape teachers’ instructional and learning behaviors. This is a well established fact in research and classroom observations of teacher attitudes towards students, and students’ attitudes toward the different subjects taught in school (Good & Brophy, 2003; Oakes, 2005; Oakes & Lipton 2007). A less known (or readily acknowledged) reality among educators is how the values and beliefs assigned to different subjects (and aspects within them) affect student and teacher attitudes toward them. These ascriptions go beyond the typical designations of “college prep” and “noncollege prep” (or “regular” classes as they are often called), and required number of elective courses. Some subjects have the reputation of being “hard” or intellectually rigorous while others have come to be known as “easy” or “no brainers”. Some are associated with developing future, stellar leaders, but others are reserved for individuals who will come to be a part of the common masses. These beliefs towards school subjects and the caste system they generate are transmitted to students, such that those enrolled in high status classes receive better quality learning opportunities than those taking low status subjects.
In this hierarchy mathematics holds a position of status, power, and privilege – its advanced versions are even referred to as “gateways” and “gatekeepers”. The discipline is perceived as being of high class and high status especially in secondary schools and colleges. As such, it is presumed to be learnable by only a select group of students. A distinguished African-American mathematician, Abdulalim Shabazz, described his professional community to Gilmer (1991) as “very elitist.” He explained further that its members view mathematics as pure thought and largely take the position that any mathematics dealing with applications or practicality is not “real mathematics”. Furthermore, there is little or no acknowledgement of the contributions to the field made in Africa or in South and Central America where there exist monuments to the mathematical and technological genius of these peoples. Mr. Shabazz argues that “this must change since there is nothing anyone can do with abstract or pure thought in and of itself.”
This “positive bias” attached to mathematics privileges some students and disadvantages others. It causes a large number of students of color and those who live in economic poverty to be excluded from access to mathematics learning beyond the most rudimentary basics. If we are to provide more equitable learning opportunities for diverse students, we must revise this “socially constructed identity of mathematics” by embracing culturally responsive teaching as a requirement of quality education, and creating instructional actions that exemplify it. If we are to reverse the process of underachievement, we must then take on the challenge of internalizing the belief that students from diverse and/or low-income backgrounds are capable learners (Gay, 2000; Valenzuela, 1999). Scholars contend while there is a myriad of reasons for the achievement gap, one of the most important factors in this perennial underachievement is that the teachers do not expect all the students to succeed, believing instead that poverty, among many other variables, makes some students incapable of high academic achievements (Foster, 1997;Ladson-Billings, 1994).
Avery, P.G., & Walker, C. (1993). Prospective teachers’ perceptions of ethnic and gender differences in academic achievement. Journal of Teacher Education, 44(1), 27-37
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Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. New York: State University New York Press.