NCTM President's Message

Dr. Matt Larson
Dr. Matt Larson

By Matt Larson, NCTM President
March 21, 2017

By now most of us with an interest in mathematics or mathematics education have seen the powerful movie "Hidden Figures" — many of us likely more than once. The inspiring film focuses on the critical role of three African American women and their significant contributions to the mathematical and engineering work necessary to the initial success of the U.S. space program in the 1960s.

The movie also uncovers for many of us the significant mathematical contributions many African American women made, beginning in 1943, to aeronautical research as part of the West Computing Group at Langley, where they manually carried out complex computations for flight and space research as “human computers.”

The movie is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" (2016). As is often the case for me, while I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I preferred the book. If you have not read the book, I encourage you to do so. I have been privileged to hear Ms. Shetterly in person discuss the book and the professional and personal challenges and triumphs of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.

The book delves more deeply into the central figures’ early lives, their families, their education, and the community in which they lived and worked. Most important, the book more fully addresses the racism, sexism, and other challenges they faced in both their professional and personal lives—issues that in many ways are unfortunately still present in our society today.

The story’s potential to inspire and be used educationally is considerable. It has been heartening to see the number of stories in the media of school districts around the country that are taking students to see the movie and then reflect on its messages. Several NCTM members have blogged about the effect the movie had on their own practice, for example see Max Ray-Riek or Raymond Johnson, who have put together lessons and resources connected to the movie.

As I read the book and watched the movie, I was reminded of two famous statements:

1. Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not (many attributions).

2. Mathematics needs people as much as people need mathematics (Rochelle Gutiérrez).

While the women in "Hidden Figures" were hidden, it clearly illustrates the postulate that mathematical talent is distributed across race, gender, and socio-economic status. At the same time, it painfully reminds us of the many educational, social, and professional opportunities denied African American women (and men) in the 1960s. Mary Jackson, a few years after Brown vs. Board of Education, still had to petition the court simply to attend night classes in engineering at the local high school because it was a segregated school.

We might like to think that access to upper-level mathematics courses is no longer an issue, but it is. Students from marginalized groups have less access to highly qualified mathematics teachers and less access to college preparatory pathways in mathematics (Nasir 2016). Similarly, a recent report by the OECD (2016) found that more than 70 percent of students attend schools where the principal reports that students are grouped by “ability” for mathematics instruction. “Who teaches whom what?” remains a serious concern in K–12 mathematics in the United States.

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were able to overcome the racism, sexism, and low expectations they faced because they each had a strong mathematics identity and sense of agency that allowed them to persist in the face of the obstacles confronting them. Access and opportunity are insufficient without attention to identity and agency, which is one of the reasons NCTM expanded its focus on equity beyond access to include identity, agency, and teaching mathematics for social justice.

We often argue that students need mathematics for their futures, and I have been guilty of emphasizing this narrative. But as Rochelle Gutiérrez has eloquently stated, mathematics needs people, and the story of "Hidden Figures" makes this abundantly clear. "Hidden Figures" raises the question as to whether John Glenn would have orbited the earth sooner if the United States hadn’t systematically denied itself of the mathematical and scientific talents of an entire race and gender of its citizens.

Because structural obstacles remain in place in too many of our schools, we are still denying our society solutions to the many problems we face when we systematically ignore vast human potential. This is not to argue that the value of mathematics exists only to promote economic, defense, or scientific advancement, but its connection to each is clear. Francis Su, past president of the Mathematical Association of America, has argued that mathematics is ultimately for human flourishing—that it helps each and every one of us experience a well-lived life—whether or not we become professional mathematicians.

"Hidden Figures" also reminds us that education should instructionally emphasize collaboration, creativity, communication, problem solving, and innovation when it dramatically illustrates how the human computing groups were replaced by one of the first IBM mainframe computers. Yes, students need procedural fluency and conceptual understanding, but Dorothy Vaughan’s group would have lost their jobs had they not adapted, learned new skills, and been effective problem solvers—in the 1960s. The premium on continual learning and adaptation in the workplace has continued through the beginning of 21st century and is likely only to accelerate.

The movie reminds me that as teachers of mathematics, we need to constantly keep Francis Su’s admonition in mind with respect to our students: “There is no good reason to tell a student she doesn’t belong in math [your class] … you see a snapshot of her progress, but you don’t see her trajectory. You can’t know how she will grow and flourish in the future. But you can help get her there.” It is our job as teachers of mathematics to help each and every one of our students “get there.” As several mathematics education researchers, including Robert Berry III, Rochelle Gutiérrez, and Anna Sfard, have stated, as teachers we are all identity builders.

For me one of the ways we can honor the pioneering work and contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and the entire West Computing Group is to not let the lessons of their life story fade from our consciousness. I encourage each of you to reflect on and discuss the following in your collaborative teams:

Do you see mathematical potential in all your students, no matter their race, gender, or socio-economic status?
Do you help build in each and every one of your students a positive mathematics identity and a high sense of agency?
Do you emphasize and honor creative problem solving in your classroom alongside procedural fluency and conceptual understanding?
Are you working to dismantle structural obstacles in your school or district that might be denying certain students access to upper-level mathematics courses?

If we continually ask ourselves these questions and act on them, then we increase the likelihood we will find, encourage, and support the “hidden figures” in each of our classrooms.