Best Practices for African American learning styles- How Representation Matters
One of the premises of restorative learning is that educational practices should be
gauged not only by the skills and knowledge they impart for present use, but also by what they do to children’s beliefs about their capabilities, which affects how they approach learning.
One of the ways we aim to improve this is by making representation in textbooks
more diverse. An inclusive world view is not only crucial when teaching history and the
arts, but when teaching math and science as well. A recent evaluation of a random chapter in a standard math textbook (Prentice Hall Middle Grade Math- An Interactive approach. Copyright 1995) reveals the following:
Of the 6 photographs included in the chapter, one photo is of ethnically ambiguous
students measuring pulse rate, one photo is of Franklin Roosevelt next to a white child
describing that he was president longer than any other person, there is a photo of an
African (presumably American) girl reading with her mother describing her book
collection, one photo of a (white) woman admiral describing her contribution to computer science, one photo of 2 (white) guys playing/listening to the guitar, and one photo of group of 5 teens running on the beach (3 white, one AA and one Asian). The chapter misses the opportunity to present and reinforce the important roles that people of African heritage hold in math in contemporary society as well as historically. The imagery maintains the false ideal that the most important contributions and impacts are made by non-African peoples.
The proper names mentioned in the math problems include: Mr. Mon E. Bags,
Michael, Yasmine, Fiona, Carmen, Mr. Odina (Scandinavian), Chen, Thelma, Otis,
Leotie, Jackson family, Zahur, Tamara working at Rad Sounds music store, Ms Houston,
Mr Humphrey, Justin, Elizabeth, Naomi, Sumi (Japanese) and Elena. Although many
generic “American” names can be given to African American children, not many stand
out as obviously including African American sounding names in particular. African
American students learn best when problems are personalized, and being included
culturally and seeing themselves in the problems may help to assist in achieving that
Others represented in the math text include: Japanese government, Wampum belts
for trade with “American settlers”, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Jordan, US,
Frances, St. Louis, Denmark, Chinese, New England, Iriquois (Ohio’s name being of this
origin), Vietnam (medals of honor in the war), Albany NY, Boston MA, Juneau AK,
Omaha NE. Non-US examples used in the text excluded any African, Caribbean or other
African diasporic locations, thus essentially making those cultures invisible and
undervalued in the discourse about mathematics. European, Asian and US countries (and one Arab country) are implied to be the most important peoples in this subject.
Other Examples used in math problems or explanations include:
Surveyors on Mt. Everest, Angel falls in Venezuela (height of waterfall)
Town in Wales, Story of Emelia Earhart, NASA, birth states of US Presidents, printers,
buses, carnival, baseball, movies, science fiction and comedy writing, rock music,
snowfall in Michigan, fruit, sports, spreadsheets, money, neighborhood recycling,
mountain bike accidents, olympic medals, Albuquerque Balloon festival, restaurant menu prices, home prices, endangered animals, US population, sailboats, highest buildings in NY city, Seattle, Ohio (Cleveland and Columbus), cost of college education, monthly cable cost, American Tour de Sol (pollution free car race), car sales, self directed student surveys*, telethon fundraiser, colonial population, reading frequency of Americans, boom boxes, number of students buying hot lunch.
Although it is quite possible for African American students to travel anywhere in
the world, the likelihood that the majority of them have or will travel to Mt. Everest,
Angel Falls or Wales is not certain. Other pastimes often enjoyed by middle to upper
middle class white children including mountain biking, attending the Albuquerque
Balloon festival or the American Tour de Sol are not universally enjoyed by all
Americans. Highlighting the one of the many African Americans in NASA, highest
buildings in one of the African countries or number of students who know another
language could have been more inclusive examples used in math word problems.
At the Academy of Restorative Education (AFRE) we are committed to evaluating
ways textbook makers can create better, more inclusive texts that teach to the specific and unique learning styles and cultures of African American students. We look forward to the next group of entrepreneurs who want to rise to the challenge!
Dr. Lasha Pierce
Executive Director AFRE
Co-Founder SILE school