February 2005: Putting "Pizza Party" Math to Rest

Using social justice issues to teach math engages, stimulates students
February 1, 2005

A snail is climbing a tree 10 m high. Every day, the snail climbs 3 m. Each night, it slides back 2 m. How many days will it take the snail to reach the top of the tree?

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That’s one committed snail. The only problem is, nobody in my Grade 7 and 8 math classes cares one bit how fast that snail makes it to the top of the tree. I don’t blame them.

Open any of the math textbooks or glance through the professional magazines and you’ll find that middle school is a wasteland of “pizza party” math. Objects in students’ lives (pizzas, coins, bikes, and yes, even snails) are used to “do math upon.” This is misleadingly called “real-life math” and the reason it’s so common is that real-life material is concrete and relevant and so supposedly makes learning easier.

Surely, however, there is more to real life than rummaging around in kitchen closets to find the volume of the Twinkies box or the can of ravioli. A distinction must be made between using things in the world around us to do math upon, and using math to understand the world around us. One is deceitfully artificial; the other is dangerous, for it encourages people to think, and perhaps to intervene, in their reality.

Is youth crime on the rise? Why do some of the wealthiest countries of the world have infant mortality rates similar to developing countries? Will privatization make our hospitals work better? What do marketing claims actually mean? Do IMF and World Bank policies create poverty? Why is buying something cheap at the local sup-r store problematic? Are minimum-wage McJobs a natural rite of passage into the working world? What do people mean when they say “peace is everyone’s business, war is just business?” These are all questions that will not be adequately answered without the ability to do statistical analysis, to use very large numbers confidently, to identify patterns and relationships and distinguish between correlation and causation, to point out where ideology and measurement converge, and to convey complicated ideas in comprehensible ways. In other words, these are all mathematical questions.

Outside of the classroom, the idea of using social justice content to teach math is usually met with bemused that’s-kind-of-a-stretch smiles and polite small talk. It’s no wonder, though, that the crucial connections between justice issues and math are invisible: they have not been taught. Local community issues having to do with everything from race to class, sexuality to immigration, and employment to social services are divorced from a global political and economic context. Author and educator Alfie Kohn is fond of asking the question “Cui bono?”: who benefits?

Inside the classroom, the discussion crackles. What do you mean that famines can be human-made? How many times greater is corporate welfare in Canada than social assistance spending? The workers in China who made my shoes earn what percentage of the price I paid for them? Who gets the remainder? Disbelief. Outrage. Further questions. Where can I learn more? What can be done? How will we change this?

Although it’s not usually a popular idea, what you do in the classroom is always political. There’s no avoiding the selection of some materials over others, and what you don’t teach speaks just as much or more than what you do. “Pizza party” math is not a neutral use of class time, because it uses up opportunities for students to engage with their real worlds, to discuss change and possibilities. The good news is that real-life material does make learning easier, even learning about the expectations laid out carefully in the curriculum documents. The challenge is to put the pizza party math to rest, and to replace it with something worth doing.

(David Stocker teaches at City View Alternative School in downtown Toronto. His book math that matters, a middle school teaching resource with 50 social-justice-oriented math lessons, will be available later this year. He can be reached at [email protected])