There is no formula: Teaching maths for social justice

I started reading Paulo Freire as an undergraduate student in Spain in the early nineties. At the time, a combination of Silvio Rodriguez and Rage Against the Machine filled the airwaves and our hearts. We, students of mathematics and physics for the most part, read Freire on Friday evenings and gained a sense of change being possible. Freire made me want to teach, and made me believe that education was the key to the liberation of ‘the oppressed’. At the time, I wasn’t sure who the oppressed were, but I was sure I wasn’t one, and being 19 and a fan of Rage Against the Machine, I became convinced that it was my duty to free them.

I tried, and I didn’t. Much has changed since, my view of the world has become less polarised, and I doubt I am in a position to liberate myself, let alone anyone else. I dedicated many years to learning and creating mathematical theories, and only relatively recently I have started teaching teachers-to-be and become involved in educational research. As a teacher educator, I have become an advocate of problem-based learning in teaching mathematics. It is my view that professional mathematicians are never given a formula and told to apply it. As Freire said “knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Freire, 1970). There is no formula.

I am not the first person to propose this, obviously. There is growing evidence that problem-based learning is one means of breaking subject boundaries in order to prepare students for the complex problems that they will face post school, as well as increasing their creativity, collaboration and engagement with mathematics (Boaler, 1999). Others have also linked Freire’s ideas to the teaching of mathematics, and I found reading Eric Gutstein’s experiences in schools in Chicago particularly compelling (Gutstein, 2006). His approach to teaching is called Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice (TMfSJ) and I thought I would try to see how it could be implemented in Australia.

When I decided to study how problem-based learning could be used to teach young people mathematics, I wasn’t too sure where to start. I had not much experience teaching young children and felt ill-equipped to enter a classroom and start telling teachers what to do. Interestingly, Freire came to the rescue again. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed he wrote about “reflective participation” and it seemed obvious that doing research about teachers without including teachers in the process was not the way to go.

And so my journey into action research (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1982) began. I tried to reach high school mathematics teachers to participate by posting an ad in the Teachers’ Federation newsletter but nobody contacted me. Eventually a principal from a disadvantaged school, interested in the trendy ideas of STEM problem-based learning, asked me to run a workshop at the school. I asked the teachers involved (eleven in total) if they didn’t mind talking to me about their views and use of problem-based learning and their thoughts towards social justice in mathematics classrooms and they accepted. The purpose of my research was to link TMfSJ with problem-based learning by supporting teachers in the design of activities and the process involved in testing and refining them.

After a brief chat, we moved into looking into problem-based learning activities linking mathematics and social justice using a book called Math that Matters (Stocker, 2007). While the teachers seemed interested in problem-based learning, their understanding of ‘social justice’ was dramatically different to mine. They mostly understood it as giving students access to knowledge and existing opportunities. They saw students’ disengagement as a consequence of their parents’ disregard for education rather than a more complex issue to do with our entire society. None of them questioned the status quo and they found Math that Matters “a bit radical”.

A few months passed and they contacted me to have a look at the results. I was excited to hear that they had chosen the GST as the topic of their activity, but disappointed when the task was based solely on learning to apply percentages to shopping items, and not problematizing GST or investigating the effects of regressive taxation. Mathematically, these concepts are easy to explore. Maybe it was not the right audience, but maybe I am asking too much. Is it possible that there is no room in our syllabus to ask children to investigate social justice using mathematics?

If you are interested in talking about these issues or being part of research that looks into how to teach students about social justice using mathematics, please contact me:



Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Gutstein, E. (2006). Reading and writing the world with mathematics: Toward a pedagogy for social justice: Falmer Press.

Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (1982). The action research planner. Victoria, Australia: Deakin University Press.

Stocker, D. (2007). Math that matters. A teacher resource for linking math and social justice: Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.


About the Author(s): 

Dr Elena Prieto has been lecturing in mathematics education at the University of Newcastle since 2012. Having worked as a computer scientist for many years, she is particularly interested in how coding can help maths learning. She finds inspiration in Paulo Freire and his powerful ideas about achieving social justice through education.

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