Living Lab: Embedding Justice in Critical Maths Education

‘If we’re going to solve these world problems, we do need to have these conversations with our children from a very young age’

Manjinder K. Jagdev, Senior Lecturer in Education, discusses Critical Maths Education, decolonising the curriculum, and the importance of teaching social justice issues to all ages.

Welcome to Decolonising York St John

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Manjinder K. Jagdev is a Senior Lecturer in Education who specialises in mathematics. Her academic research focusses on anti-racism in schools, decolonial praxis, and how maths and justice issues can and should be taught together in tandem. The research she, and other members of the university, is doing on decolonisation overlaps with the Living Lab  as both pedagogies aim to make the curriculum better reflect the students and the issues they may face in the world.

Over the past few weeks, core members of the Ecological Justice Research Group, Vicki Pugh and Cath Heinemeyer, have been visiting classes to help introduce the Living Lab pedagogy. When I asked Jagdev about her session, she replied, ‘[they] inspired the students’. She tells me that she had asked her student-teachers to go into small groups and create lesson plans based on the Living Lab pedagogy and combine in maths education. ‘It was wonderful’, she says, ‘because in the end they got to share with each other […] They were feeding off each other, and they had come up with some really innovative ideas that primary school children could engage with’. Enthusiastically, she tells me she was pleased with the initial reactions of her student-teachers who wanted to make the children into ‘ecowarriors’, and hearing that some of them already are environmental advocates.

Jagdev explains that she has always tried to integrate justice into her teaching approach, for all different ages and levels. Prior to the Living Lab session, she had done a lecture on Critical Maths Education, which ‘looks at how we can use mathematics to address world issues, like health inequality, like climate justice, like racial inequalities.’ I found the idea exciting; it was such a different approach to maths than what I was used to. According to Jagdev, Critical Maths Education has been used for a long time but was never integrated into the curriculum. She says, ‘I’ve been in education for 25 years, I trained to be a maths teacher in 1995, and when I was learning my tutors at university told me about it. It’s been around for 30-40 years but because the national curriculum is dictated by government, those areas are not prioritised.’ She goes on to say that when she entered higher education, she always made sure her student-teachers knew about the histories of math across the world, and how maths is diverse. She makes a point of saying that ‘it’s really important that student-teachers do that work in schools as well. That’s the only way we can open up and break barriers, and not be frightened of “the other” as it were.’ I agree with her when she says it is important work, as she says, ‘we have to have these conversations if we’re going to make the world a better place.’

Jagdev tells me students are far more interested in doing learning about how maths can be socially beneficial than the ‘drill of mathematics.’ To interest the children, she teaches about how there are ‘mathematicians from Africa, from Asia, from South America— when we look at the Mayan civilisations— all over the world.’ She found that ‘children got really excited and wanted to know more about the maths from Arabia. When we talk about algebra—you know algebra is an Arabian word— and because they got so interested it opened up so many conversations.’

I bring up that many people argue that children don’t understand justice issues, and I ask what the significance is of teaching justice to all ages and levels. Jagdev responds, ‘I would argue that they do have insights, and they are very articulate, and they understand more than we as adults think they might.’ She tells me one of her students had told her that children ‘just say it how it is’, children can see things happening but do not have the agendas of adults. She argues that children already have an understanding and awareness of equality because ‘they understand fairness, which is what we’re talking about is fairness isn’t it? They know what’s fair and what’s not fair, they can put it in terms of that.’ She uses the example of the public reactions to the death of George Floyd in 2020, saying that through social media and the news, children do become aware of injustices, ‘they’re not ignorant to it.’ Though, in these moments, we should be having conversations with children about why or how people are treated differently. She goes on to say ‘many non-white people do have these conversations with their own children, when the children are very young, because they grow up with very overt racism, so parents do have to have these conversations. We should all be having these conversations, really, I think. I don’t think any age is too young at all.’

Regarding ecological justice, we find that environmental issues are being taught, but there is not enough focus on how it intersects with social issues. Jagdev mentions how forest schools and outdoor education can benefit a child’s education but says there needs to be a push for more than this, giving the example of GCSE natural history as a step in the right direction. When I asked what she would hope for in a future curriculum, Jagdev makes the case that education needs to better reflect the lives and histories of the students. She says, ‘I would hope, as you asked me, that we can have more on children looking at climate issues, but also in terms of decolonial praxis as well. Looking at global histories, looking at histories from marginalised groups of people we don’t often hear of […] All the work that we’re trying to do on anti-racism in the school education, it does need to be [put in the] forefront in the national curriculum. It does need to be prioritised because […] if we’re going to solve these world problems, we do need to have these conversations with our children from a very young early age.’

Jagdev, along with others in the School of Education, Language and Psychology – Linda Mason, Ian Wilson, and Dr Andy Atkins- have been working with the library to create reading lists that student-teachers can use to integrate sustainability and justice issues into the curriculum at all levels. She has said it is critical that student-teachers help children see versions of themselves in books, and help them to understand issues that they may see around them.

Click here to read more about Manjinder K. Jagdev’s research.