Harvard Educational Review
  1. Culturally Specific Pedagogy in the Mathematics Classroom

    Strategies for Teachers of Diverse Students

    by Jacqueline Leonard

    New York: Routledge, 2008. 207 pp. $39.95.

    In Culturally Specific Pedagogy in the Mathematics Classroom, Jacqueline Leonard advocates “the use of culturally specific pedagogy to enhance the mathematics instruction of diverse students.” Defining culturally specific pedagogy as “the use of curriculum materials that highlight a distinct ethnic background” and the acknowledgment of “the style, language, behavior, and tradition of the students’ community,” Leonard argues convincingly that such pedagogy promotes social justice by inspiring historically underserved students to learn standards-based mathematics and providing them with insight into social, political, and cultural issues.

    Throughout the first half of the book, Leonard analyzes extant literature suggesting that culturally specific pedagogy can improve student achievement. She discusses work by Vygotsky, Saxe, and other cognitive theorists, as well as prior studies on culturally based education and teachers’ beliefs about the relationship between culture and mathematics pedagogy. Although Leonard notes that some of the quantitative research she analyzes is nonexperimental, her discussion is grounded in sound theoretical reasoning and certainly justifies her subsequent elaboration of how teachers implement culturally specific mathematics pedagogy. Along the way, Leonard provides readers with a thorough yet accessible introduction to critical race theory as a framework for culturally based education and clarifies subtle differences between various types, such as “culturally relevant,” “culturally responsive,” and “culturally specific” teaching. Leonard’s discussion of these important concepts and her analysis of related literature make the book useful for researchers wishing for a thorough yet reasonably succinct introduction to the field of cultural pedagogy.

    Leonard addresses the learning styles of particular groups of learners and considers the sociopolitical factors that have historically prevented educators from meeting the pedagogic needs of all students. Leonard also shares case studies of beginning teachers implementing culturally specific curriculum, transcribed vignettes depicting classroom interactions between teachers and students, and conversations between herself and beginning teachers, which collectively depict the potential benefits and challenges of culturally specific instruction for beginning teachers and make the book particularly useful to teacher educators. The book also includes basic lesson plans that provide additional detail and demonstrate how teachers of science, social studies, and language arts can also utilize the curricula.

    Geared toward African American, female, and English-language learners (ELLs), respectively, Leonard discusses several examples of culturally specific mathematics curricula, drawing from her career as a classroom teacher and professor of mathematics education. The examples place the history and culture of these students at the center of classroom instruction and include a limited number of specific mathematics problems for students to solve. Because ELLs are a highly diverse group, the recommendations in this chapter remain fairly general. However, noting the growing Latino/a population in the United States, she summarizes an example of culturally specific curricula that is designed for these students.

    In one example of culturally specific mathematics curricula for African American learners, Leonard summarizes a unit on the Underground Railroad in which a teacher used Deborah Hopkinson’s 1993 book, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, to teach perimeter and area. Leonard also suggests additional classroom activities that would enable students to make explicit connections to social justice. These include solving mathematics problems that apply to survival skills as students pretend to be fugitive slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad, thereby helping them to identify with important historical figures like Harriet Tubman and to engage with mathematics on a more emotional level.

    Two potential shortcomings of the book are that Leonard focuses primarily on upper elementary grades and does not provide much guidance on using culturally specific pedagogy beyond the curricula covered in the book. However, because the activities are discussed clearly and with specificity, it is fair to say that even secondary school mathematics teachers working with substantially different curricula could apply similar ideas to their classrooms if they were willing to spend the time necessary to tailor them appropriately. Because Leonard does not make recommendations on how to teach mathematical procedures and calculations within the context of culturally specific curricula, readers interested in these topics would have to consult additional texts.

    Easy reading, sound in its recommendations, and useful for teacher educators, researchers, and practitioners, Culturally Specific Pedagogy in the Mathematics Classroom offers compelling insight into the importance of mathematics and cultural education and provides convincing examples of how to teach both subjects effectively and simultaneously.

    — C.W.
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    Book Notes