Putting meaning into our lives through maths

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Nike Folayan explores STEM perceptions for schools, teachers and students from ethnic minority communities. 

I have always loved maths. To me it makes sense: 1 + 1 will always be 2 (that’s not going to change) - and in that way, maths gives us stability. It’s a powerful, fundamental philosophy that we can count on!

Life without maths is meaningless. It determines so many things we take for granted: the shape of the toothbrushes we use to clean our teeth, the time we set for our alarm clocks, the proportions involved in making a bowl of cereal for our breakfast.

But the ways in which many learners currently experience maths – especially learners from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds – isn’t encompassing this power and relevancy. I refer to “experience” and not “learn” or “are taught” maths for an important reason. 

For me, maths in schools needs to be about the experience of maths, about how maths impacts everything we do in real life, rather than something students only perceive themselves accessing through teaching, learning and studying.

Challenging maths “realities” for communities

The “reality” of maths in many ethnic minority communities, as well as across the UK more widely, shows a disconnect from what I see as the true reality of the subject. This is an issue of perception. 

Firstly, there’s a societal assumption that maths is a difficult subject, not something everyone uses on a daily basis; an assumption regularly strengthened by media and public statements. (See Education Minister Robert Halfon, who talked about his relationship to maths in terms of a struggle.)

There’s also the common perception that maths is not creative, which couldn’t be further from the truth – just look at all the shapes, colours and proportions artists use to make a masterpiece! Still, for communities that take pride in being immersed in creativity, this misperception can mean certain groups don’t see themselves in maths.

On the flip side, there are some people within ethnic minority groups who think the only way to make it in life is through work as a doctor, lawyer and so on. These groups do not see maths in the equation; don’t realise that the subject is something anyone needs for success. 

It is hugely important to communicate this, especially to people in socially deprived areas: maths can be the solution to uplift or empower them to live better lives in the future.

Creating belonging for students in STEM subjects

All of this needs to change, by working on the links between communities and maths. We can start by challenging the stereotypes. 

In schools, there is too often a real push for ethnic students towards certain subjects over others – leading to, for example, an overrepresentation of Black people in sports, and an underrepresentation of Black people in STEM careers more generally.

That’s one of the reasons why, in 2007, my brother Dr Ollie Folayan and I set up the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers: to combat stereotypes; especially those which link Black culture to crime. That’s not what we wanted to be known for, or what we’re about – if it was, we’d have been gangsters! These stereotypes are unrealistic and they need to change.

I’m grateful for people like Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon, the mathematician, technologist and creative, who is working to break that barrier for students from global majorities in the UK, telling them: “You can be mathematicians, you can excel in maths, you can empower yourself.”

Creating a sense of belonging for ethnic people in STEM professions is so important. Schools need to be tapping into this with local and national role models as much as possible, championing the power of the subject, as well as addressing their expectations for students. 

After all, when society doesn’t expect certain learners to be good at certain things, that changes the way learners see themselves and their own limitations. It creates barriers.

Are your learners being held back by expectations?

I have a friend who is a mechanical engineer today who, at school, was told she should be a nurse. There’s nothing wrong with being a nurse, but she was really good at maths, really good at physics, and could obviously do engineering! However, because of her background, and because a lot of people from her particular ethnic community were in nursing at the time, that’s the job which was expected of her by default.

It's easy to see how stereotyping people in this way can create limiting characteristics, which start to affect whole communities. This has a ripple effect on the future, too. Imagine the ethnic learner who enjoys STEM and wants to pursue it, then looks around her and thinks “There’s no one in my community studying this. Why should I be the exception?”

Teachers not only have a real impact on how students see themselves but also on how their parents and carers see them. When a teacher says “Your young person is good at such and such,” the parents are far more likely to want to support that and encourage learners forward in the direction teachers are suggesting.

Another key thing teachers – and policy-makers – must do is make maths more exciting! Get young people engaged by showing them why things happen the way they do in the world around them, whether that relates to money, building impressive structures, sustainability initiatives, coding, baking -  anything!  

Bring that experience element into the classroom, and in to the subject more widely. More fun, less hard work!

Maths students don’t need to be “special” to be successful

Society also needs to shift to help teachers spread these messages more effectively. Think of the ways mathematicians and engineers are portrayed on television, for example. At best, we and our students have shows like The Big Bang Theory. While these may be funny and interesting, they also convey this false sense that people have to be extra special to be in STEM and that’s simply not true.

Schools and settings can help by looking for examples of real mathematicians; mathematicians who are down-to-earth and relatable. Individuals who love chips as much as everyone, who eat kebabs, who hang out with their friends.

On the whole, these people aren’t super clever, and they don’t have an unusual brain. I can also assure you that, while I’m an engineer – and a good one at that! – I’ve never been one of those stereotypes who frantically writes numbers on a board like a crazy person. I don’t do that. I’ve never done that! Sometimes I’ll go down to the shops and can’t work out how much money I need to pay!

Another way to say this is: we need to cut people a bit of slack. Keep sharing the message that your students don’t need special brains. That, in fact, the STEM industry wouldn’t function if everyone had the same abilities. 

Educators can educate themselves, and others, by holding on to a few key truths:

  • Making assumptions about learners will only hold them back

  • We don’t need the “best people” in society, we need the “best teams;” meaning teams made up of different people, with different abilities

  • Maths is not an abstract thing: it is fundamental to all our lives and as such should be taught as a practical subject for learners

  • All of us, whatever our backgrounds, need to be mathematicians every day.

The better mathematicians we are, the better the world will be. Because we can calculate our spending and plans – for today and the future. Because we can create things and conserve things, in sustainable ways. Because we can think about how we’re taking care of the environment, ourselves, and each other. The world and its communities can be better when maths enables everyone. 

Nike Folayan

Dr Nike Folayan MBE is the Co-Founder of the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes higher achievements in education and engineering, particularly among people from Black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Formed in 2007, AFBE-UK has over 20,000 beneficiaries, a UK-wide membership of over 2500, and over 75 corporate members from a wide range of engineering organisations.  

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