Rethinking Maths for Black History Month and beyond – with Susan Okereke
If you were asked to quickly picture a mathematician in your mind, what would that person look like? How old would they be? What gender? And what about the colour of their skin?
To mark this year’s Black History Month, we consider how to best achieve Maths diversity, with the wisdom of Susan Okereke.
As Okereke described it in her recent interview for Pearson’s The Right Angle podcast, “A lot of people don’t see these people working in those industries, and so they don’t believe they can do it themselves.” As a result, they may miss out on harnessing the power of maths – a concern that Pearson is striving to address throughout the UK – and feel deterred from engaging with their full potential.
Maths Educator Susan Okereke is eager to help build a world in which most people think past the stereotype of the white older male in the lecture hall whenever they contemplate Maths. And that means showcasing a diverse range of role models, encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.
Through initiatives like the annual Black Heroes of Mathematics Conference – at which Okereke spoke in both 2020 and 2021 – or STEM-themed events hosted during Black History Month – teachers can make room to highlight a multitude of role models, giving students from every background a chance to think: “Oh actually, they look like me. I could find space here.” It’s about finding people who’ve changed the world, but may have been overlooked.
Recent research from Pearson’s Power of Maths campaign1 found that many educators agreed, with 41% of primary and secondary Maths teachers believing that more diverse role models would help inspire students in Maths.
Shining a spotlight on role models is only a small fraction of what we can do to encourage greater inclusion in Maths – in fact, popular culture also has a significant part to play.
Okereke has expressed her deep frustration at the negative portrayal of Maths in the media, and how this affects young learners. Similarly, 75% of teachers think more positivity in the media around Maths would help inspire their students.
As Okereke puts it, “Popular culture is so powerful” – a medium with the potential to launch aspirations and great careers and send young people in new directions.
How many Black girls will have been motivated to study Maths by the story of Hidden Figures, for example? NASA’s recruitment statistics will tell us in time…
Meanwhile, how many hidden stories are still waiting to be told?
More immediately, teachers can ask themselves: are the questions their students are being set representative of their environment? Are any real-world scenarios reflective of the breadth of pupil experience? Whether featuring examples that chime with life in the Welsh Valleys, or introducing pupils to scenes based around inner-city London, every scenario is an opportunity to achieve better diversity, improve understanding, and help all pupils feel seen and valued while studying.
Given that recent research shows that only 20% of teaching staff feel BAME communities are “very represented” in school content, there is work to be done.2
With support from specialist events this term, including Pearson’s free Broadening the Curriculum webinar, educators can learn to bring race into class for every subject with greater confidence and understanding.
We can all look out for new influences, and tap in to hidden achievements, for young learners.
Ultimately, as Okereke puts it, “If you’re good at what you do, if you’re a good problem-solver, and you’ve got good ideas, there’s a space for you in Maths.” This is the message that teachers must help to convey, making the subject inviting for every learner. “STEM is a booming area,” says Okereke. “We need more people in there.” People who can harness the power of Maths, and defy the stereotypes. People like you, and your students – the mathematicians of the future.