Why should maths educators care about Black History Month? 13 October 2020

Why should maths educators care about Black History Month?

Written by Susan Okereke and Bobby Seagull, maths teacher co-hosts of the Maths Appeal podcast (available on Spotify, iTunes, Soundcloud).

Susan is a member of the MA and Bobby is a Council trustee member of the MA.

For more than 30 years in October, Black History Month has been celebrated across the UK but why should we, as maths educators, care about Black History Month? Isn’t this the responsibility of teachers of History and Personal, Social, Health and Economics Education?

Even if you are someone who shies away from politics, the global protests sparked by the death of African-American George Floyd in May highlighted the systemic racial inequalities across the globe. It simply isn’t good enough to say you are not racist anymore, to be an ally you have to be anti-racist and as educators, it is our job to spread this message. Even if you teach in a school with limited diversity, your students will go on to live as adults in the wider society, where they will need to acknowledge, accept and hopefully celebrate difference.

In our Maths Appeal podcast, we deliberately sought to interview people from diverse backgrounds with interesting maths stories. We wanted to challenge the idea that mathematics is only for older, white men. Although they make up a sizeable proportion of this maths loving population, they are not the whole story.  We felt, the more people that hear the stories of Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon and Simon Singh, the more people will see that maths is for everyone.

We believe no child should go to a maths lesson and think, “maths is not a subject for people like me”. That’s why events like the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) “Black Heroes of Mathematics” conference that Susan is taking part in later this month are essential. We need educators to celebrate the inspirational contributions black role models have made to the field of mathematics and then this needs to be communicated to students.

https://ima.org.uk/15025/black-heroes-of-mathematics-conference/

The 2016 Oscar nominated film Hidden Figures shows the little-known story of a group of African American women who were recruited by Nasa to work on complex maths task in the 1950s-60s during the Space Race – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. The success of this film shows the important role popular culture has in showcasing the contribution of black mathematicians and scientists and other underrepresented groups. We hope this is a trend that continues to grow so more hidden figures can be acknowledged and celebrated.

We hope that one day, we will live in a world where all children feel that mathematics belongs to them. Until then, as educators, let us continue to showcase the stories of diverse mathematicians so all of our students feel like they could be a mathematician too.

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