Social Identity within the Math Wars

“I cannot tell which side you are on.” -Anon

When looking at the members of an ethnic group other than your own have you ever found yourself thinking “they all look the same to me.” This example illustrates the cognitive bias of out-group homogeneity, or the perception of individuals who do not fit into our identified in-group as less variable than they are. This way of thinking is particularly damaging in the context of the math wars for a couple reasons:

(1) Favorability within the in-group comes at the expense of individuals in the out-group.

One’s in-group may defined around a particular trait or dimension. In order to develop positive ties to the other group members, one must show that they too share the same trait or dimension. One way to accomplish this is to criticize an individual of comparable status within the out-group. The act of criticizing a member of the out-group reinforces one’s connection to the in-group, boosts a positive sense of self-esteem, and displays to other members that ideals are shared.

In the context of the math wars, let’s say we have two groups: a ‘traditional’ group and a ‘constructivist’ group. Whether or not these groups exist is the context of another discussion. For now, I will assume these rough boundaries, as I have certainly felt a divide in individuals over the past few years. As I entered my career in the math-education sphere, I recall (sadly) picking on individuals I deemed to be in the ‘constructivist’ group. At the time, I have to say it felt great. I was defining myself within my in-group at their expense. I remember I even tried calling out Boaler on one occasion (I was just as ambitious then apparently!). These call-outs did boost my favorability within my group. However, I failed to understand that those on the receiving end likely felt stupid, hurt and angry. And the main problem about arguing this way, is that both sides psychologically end up feeling stronger about the original differences, strengthening the divide between the two groups. I would like to take the time to own my previous interactions, and apologize for creating a space that was uncomfortable, unwarranted and unfair.

(2) Group-think. 

It becomes very easy to call-out an individual from the out-group when we perceive him or her to believe an ideal that our in-group disagrees with. As the divide between the groups grows stronger, we begin to define ourselves by believing “I am not like them.” For example, when I discuss students being fluent with math facts, I am often misunderstood to mean rote memorization. Note that ‘constructivists’ labeling me this way promote out-group homogeneity, and define themselves by not being one who believes in rote memorization. Continuous reinforcement within one’s in-group may lead to that moment when you are looking around the room and everyone is blindly nodding while the presenter admonishes the ‘traditional’ group for believing in rote memorization.

The honest truth is that I certainly do not believe that math facts require rote memorization (perhaps early coding of numbers, but this is a topic for another time). By definition, rote memorization means any comprehension of the meaning is removed. When I say fluency with math facts, I mean that comprehension and recall must work hand-in-hand. I do, however, believe that more recall of facts needs to be implemented in early grades – I want high storage and retrieval strength of these facts for later use! The act of labeling me as one who believes in rote memorization removes the possibility of bringing forth a more diverse conversation from a more diverse individual belonging to a more diverse group.

(3) Intergroup contact is prevented.

One possible way to dispel our own bias of out-group homogeneity is to spend time within the out-group (called intergroup contact). By speaking with individuals in the other group, we begin to understand their points of view, and they ours. That is, we begin to see them as a more diverse group than we had originally gave them credit for. Healthy conversation and movement forward is then possible. However, recall that individuals in a group tend to want to boost their self-esteem by looking more favorable within the group. Since these actions come at the expense of the out-group, the divide deepens and a cycle forms which may prevent intergroup contact.

I remember “scheduling issues” at my last place of employment. During my first year, my colleagues were very happy to allow me to volunteer my time in a classroom that we all would have labeled as more ‘traditional’. However, during the next school year when I was spending more time with an individual they deemed as ‘constructivist’ my timetable for the winter semester changed so that I was unable to volunteer any longer. The worst part was that I had developed a rapport with the local teachers, and we were all genuinely excited to be able to work together during the winter semester. I felt as though I had let them down – despite all of this being out of my control. In a similar vein, there were a few times within the past year in which members of the ‘traditional’ group nagged to determine my status within the group:

“I cannot tell which side you are on.”

“If you pursue a PhD, ensure you work on a question that will help our cause.”

These were probably some of the lowest lows I encountered. There is nothing quite like the feeling of your in-group consuming you whole, stripping you of your self-esteem, and leaving you to rot (yes, this is a fairly accurate description of how I felt at the time and sometimes still do). Psychologically I think this created a divide between me and those who identify as ‘traditional’, which caused me to look for social acceptance elsewhere (and also prompted a change in locale).

It has been challenging to build some of the rapport back with individuals whom I deem to be ‘traditional’ since psychologically I worry that all of this will happen again. However, it has been a worthwhile trip since I now feel the intergroup connectivity I have created. It turns out that the more time I spend with those who I had originally labeled ‘constructivist’ the more I see that this group is a largely diverse group. Sure, there are individuals that carry ideals that I disagree with – I don’t think this will change (and I don’t necessarily want it to). But the important lesson that I have learned is not to walk in with labels. Those individuals who would call themselves ‘constructivist’ are as diverse as those who would label themselves ‘traditional’. In fact, if we are able to look past our own out-group homogeneity biases, we may come to realize that our out-groups are more diverse than we think.

2 Comments on “Social Identity within the Math Wars

  1. Pingback: Against Public Debate – Teaching With Problems

  2. Pingback: Tribalism | Filling the pail

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