Structure Can Change Agency

One great privilege of the work I do are the many opportunities I get to share the things I care about with different groups of people. If you do it enough, you get a chance to clarify your own ideas, learn from others, and notice connections.

This past weekend, I had the honor to give a keynote talk at the Carnegie Math Pathways Forum. If you don’t know about their work, it is worth checking out. Briefly, their work addresses the enormous blockage in the math pipeline as students transition from secondary to post-secondary. A staggering number of students get placed in developmental math classes, and often, these courses become a holding bin students cannot get out of. The Carnegie folks have worked primarily with community college instructors to re-think developmental math curricularly and pedagogically. It’s fascinating and important work.

My talk was about the relationship between structure and agency, how both contribute to inequalities in mathematics education. When we are teaching in a classroom, it is easy to see problems of inequality as they look locally: high enrollments in developmental math, over-representation of students coming from poverty and students of color, a sense of student apathy. To make progress, however, instructors can learn by linking the local to broader social processes: the maldistribution of qualified math teachers, STEM classrooms that are hostile environments to minoritized students, a K-12 curriculum that often reflects the institution of schooling more than what it means to do meaningful mathematics. I argued that if we frame these problems through what we see locally, we give ourselves, as teachers, less leverage to make progress on them. I shared two key concepts for linking these social processes to what we see in our classrooms: social risk and status. I have written about both of these (click the links if you are curious), but briefly, social risk refers to the threats people feel are posed to their status in a community while status describes the perception of students’ academic capability and social desirability. Both of these ideas link the social process explanations for inequality to what teachers see in their classrooms locally.

Teachers can then work to design classrooms that reduce social risk by, in part, attending to status dynamics. In other words, to connect structure and agency, we need ways to think across scale and look at the social origins of problems too often narrated as individual issues. Instead of, for example, blaming students for being apathetic about mathematics learning, we need to recognize what their history has likely been in our current system and accept their apparent apathy as a reasonable response. Our task shifts from finger pointing (“My students just aren’t motivated!“) to having the productive challenge of honoring their experience while trying to change their ideas about math and learning.

In the end, then, structure can help us change agency in two ways. First, by recognizing that it is there, along with the social processes it holds in place, we can arrive at more productive framings of the problems we face locally. Second, we can leverage the structural designs in our classroom to invite students’ agency.

I have written about designing structures to promote agency before. If you don’t feel like reading that (I realize it’s summer!), maybe watch this video instead. It is quite a joy.

And don’t we all need more of that right now?



2 thoughts on “Structure Can Change Agency

  1. Pingback: Structure Can Change Agency – quantgaldotcom

  2. Hi! My name is Allie Bauch. I have commented on quite of few of your blogs now because I just love how relevant they are. This blog specifially caught my attention because it was talking about the inequity in the classroom and different ways we can combat this. This is very important to me as I start my student teaching because I can implement any strategies that can help achieve equity right from the get-go, which can help my rapport with my students. A lot of time, society links inequity in the classroom to over-representation of students coming from poverty and students of color, but it goes deeper than that. You mention how there is bad distribution of qualified math teachers as well as the emphasis on “schooling” over learning meaningful mathematics. I completely agree with you. I was wondering if you had any recommendations that can help with making more qualified math teachers? Throughout the years, teaching in a STEM field is so desired because of both the need for and lack of it. How do we make more people interested in teaching in a STEM field? Do you think this starts with their secondary education and the fact that meaningful mathematics is not emphasized in school? I absolutely LOVE how you talked about how teachers need to stop blaming students for being apathetic about mathematics learning, and instead recognize what their history has likely been in our current system and accept their apparent apathy as a reasonable response. I think this is huge. To me it is easier to change the way someone thinks than how they feel, so instead of teachers trying to make students feel a certain way about Mathematics, promoting mathematical exploration and conceptual understanding can help students change the way they think about mathematics, which can lead to them having changed feelings about it as a whole. This is important to keep in mind as I begin my teaching career because it can be easy to get mad when students come in and say “Math is useless”, but as a teacher, I need to accept this and do my best to make them see the use of math instead of blaming them. Anyways, thank you so much for take the time to read this and for teaching me a lot about mathematics and culture by just reading your posts. You have opened my eyes and have given me some tools to put in my toolbox that will hopefully make my classroom a better place.


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