Rachel Levy, Contributing Editor, Harvey Mudd College
The language we use in our classes extends beyond mathematical content. We communicate subtle (and not so subtle) messages about who belongs in the classroom and in our profession. Signals transmit through our level of enthusiasm, quizzical looks at incorrect or convoluted statements, and focus of our attention through eye contact, time to speak, and personal interactions. To avoid perpetuating our unconscious biases through language, we can recognize them and find ways to reduce their impact on our students.
Even when we are careful, at some point our language will likely cause unintended ouch for one of our students. Hopefully we can create feedback mechanisms and classroom environments where they can let us know. But as long as we give grades and write letters of recommendation, the power dynamic in the classroom is unavoidable. This may make it hard for students to speak up and let us know. We hold the responsibility to create a welcoming environment for all of our students.
Here are five ways you can modify your language to improve your classroom climate:
1. Convey explicitly in your syllabus that you believe that mathematics belongs to everyone and that everyone can be a math doer. Share with your students that making and discussing mistakes are a normal part of learning (and being human). See this tool for surveying your syllabus and course design for examples of inclusive syllabus language.
2. Be intentional about encouraging questions. Pay attention to which students in the class feel empowered to speak and provide a variety of ways for students to communicate with us and with each other. Many of the Teaching Tidbits have concrete suggestions, such as ways to engage your students through reflective writing; your responses to incorrect answers; office hours; and inquiry-based learning.
3. When they suggest an answer to a question, ask students to justify that answer, whether is it right or wrong. For example, let students know if they don’t provide a justification you will ask “And why would you say that?” This is a technique common in Russian pedagogy. It allows you to better see how your students are thinking and where they might have gone awry. Students may also sort out their own errors as they argue their point.
4. Avoid perpetuating mathematical language that fails to acknowledge the challenge of learning, such as "clearly, " "only” and “obviously.” These words tend to cue the audience that the speaker thinks the work is trivial. The problem is that even when ideas are taught well, they may not be at all simple for new learners. They also may carry an underlying assumption that all students have had access to the same prerequisite information. Since students enter with a range of previously acquired knowledge and experience, it can be more welcoming to say “the rest requires algebra” instead of “the rest is *just* algebra.”
5. Aim to use inclusive and unbiased language. For example, privately request students’ preferred pronouns and preferred names and use them. Pay attention to how you use humor, encouragement and analogies while teaching. Small comments can have a big positive impact. For example, “When a mathematician approaches this problem, she…”. or “When you explain it like that, you are really thinking like a mathematician.”
Unintended ‘ouch’ happens. What one person finds funny, another finds offensive. What one person finds welcoming, another finds off putting. We are not perfect and we can’t please everyone all the time. But my hope is that when we establish a constructive classroom climate with opportunities for feedback, students will let us know when they experience an ouch because of some way we communicated.
Karp, Alexander, and Bruce Ramon Vogeli. Russian mathematics education: Programs and practices. Vol. 2. World Scientific, 2011.