Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics

Eric Gutstein
Review by: Stephanie McGee

Eric Gutstein’s book, Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics, examines the issue of equity and mathematics from two perspectives. The first, is equity in the classroom – examining access to high quality mathematics education and equitable classroom practices. The second, is equity outside of the classroom, examined through a mathematical lens. Gutstein’s work is centered in the Morningside community, where he teaches high school mathematics to a Latino/a population that largely identifies as Mexican or Mexican American. As visible minorities, Gutstein’s students face a disproportionate drop out rate, 28%, which is higher than any other minority group in the US. At Gutstein’s school, the completion rate is only 48%. The book begins by examining the disparities between the world that traditional mathematics education prepares students for (a largely academic track, aiming to place students in college and university math classes), and the world that awaits most students outside of school. Gutstein identified a gap between the math students were being taught in school and the kinds of mathematics that would be useful to them. He then sets out to design math curriculum to make  students both conscious of social inequities and empowered to change these inequities.

Gutstein centers his work around two main concepts reading and writing the world. According to Gutstein, reading the world is “understanding the sociopolitical, cultural-historical conditions of one’s life, community, society and world” (p. 24). Gutstein positions the act of reading the world as essential to locating social injustices and identifying one’s role in these injustices. Reading the world with mathematics, one of the goals of Gutstein’s mathematics education pedagogy is the use of mathematics “to understand relations of power, resource inequities, and disparate opportunities between different social groups and to understand explicitly discrimination based on class, language and other difference” (pp. 25-26). The act of reading the world with mathematics is what Gutstein argues mathematics education should be preparing students to do. By using real life mathematics problems, such as determining how many full scholarships could be funded by the cost of a B-2 bomber (p.3), Gutstein aims to educate students in a way that posits math as a tool for understanding the world and its politics. Finally, Gutstein examines the practice of writing the world with mathematics. Using mathematics to write the world “means using mathematics to change the world” (p. 27). When students understand mathematics, argues Gutstein, they are empowered to use this knowledge to create change – thus correcting the injustices they have identified in the act of reading the world.

Through his work, Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics, Gutstein has created a rich, empowering text for teachers. Rife with real classroom examples and pedagogical research, the text enables teachers to enact similar practices in their classroom communities. While focused in a high school setting, Gutstein’s values of culturally relevant education and the integration of social justice education across the curriculum can and should be applied to any stage of education.