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Community Based Mathematics Project of Philadelphia


CBMP GoalsWe use the term locally relevant to refer to curriculum and pedagogy that take into account the contexts of students’ lives, what they know and are interested in, and the social realities and issues that matter to and for them. Informed by Ladson-Billing’s (1995) concept of culturally relevant pedagogy, and critical pedagogies inspired by Freire (1994), our goal is to simultaneously attend to three interrelated points of access for students:

  • Access to mathematics that matters for their lives, in the classroom and schools;
  • Access to institutions that structure educational and employment opportunities; and
  • Access to critical ways of understanding and analyzing social institutions, structures, and practices.

Access to Mathematics that Matters

What kind of mathematics matters for middle school youth? First, it must be mathematics that they can use to understand and apply to situations in their lives, or as Freire (1994) says, to "read the world." Yet we believe it is equally important for students to gain access to the ways of representing mathematics that are valued and assessed in school, and to knowledge that lays the groundwork for further study of mathematics. A primary goal of our work is to provide students with both greater understanding of mathematics and an increased level of success in school. Locally relevant contexts help us achieve this goal by building on the knowledge students already have and increasing their engagement in learning new concepts.

Access to Institutions

Even when students from marginalized communities have access to mathematics that is valued, they still operate on an unequal playing field when it comes to schooling. Gaining fluency and proficiency in mathematics is often not enough for students to gain access to new opportunities; many lack access to opportunities simply because they do not understand the ways in which social structures and institutions in mainstream society operate. We learned from our work that strategically selecting contexts was not only a way to help youth gain access to mathematics that mattered, but could also help them gain critical knowledge of systems and how to navigate them. For this reason, we argue that curricula and pedagogies that take into account the real contexts of students’ lives and the social realities that matter for them must include access to institutions.

Although we use students’ social and cultural experiences as a starting place, we are intentional about making explicit connections to mathematics as defined in school. Mathematics has often been described as a gatekeeper, because it is the subject that most often keeps students from progressing in higher education (Moses & Cobb 2001). It is therefore critical for youth to understand how success in mathematics can open institutional doors. Locally relevant contexts play a dual role in granting students access to institutions: they facilitate students’ acquisition of mathematics knowledge that is valued by society, and also create an opportunity to both teach students about societal institutions and provide them with the tools that they need to navigate them successfully.

Access to Critical Ways of Thinking

In addition to increasing access to mathematics and institutions, using contexts from students’ lives can also help them learn to use mathematics as a tool for creating change. We have found that locally relevant contexts can be used to encourage students to analyze forms of injustice in their everyday lives and think critically about situations they might typically take for granted. Following others who have championed the notion of culturally relevant mathematics (Gutstein 2006; Ladson-Billings 1995; Tate 1995), we extend the idea of locally relevant curricula beyond contexts that are merely familiar and interesting. We begin with issues that are meaningful to students’ lives, but provide opportunities and scaffolding to encourage them to critically analyze and question aspects of the broader world around them.

As we highlight situations and in­stitutions in their lives, our goal is for students to begin to look at their experiences through a critical lens. We provide students with data and information, and then prompt them to discuss, analyze, and question their world and the choices they make. By bringing to light poten­tially controversial issues and unfair practices, we create the space for stu­dents to use mathematics as a tool to understand and challenge their world, engaging them in important mathematical practices, such as using mathematics to "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others" (CCSSI 2010, p. 6).

Lesson Structure

  • Introducing the context
  • Introducing the mathematical ideas
  • Group and partner work
  • Problem solving and productive struggle
  • Whole group sharing
  • Connections and consolidation

Lessons have an inquiry focus and follow a common structure designed to engage students in productive struggle with core mathematical ideas, drawn from Jackson et al. (2012) and Van de Walle et al. (2010).

  1. Introducing the context: Eliciting students’ prior knowledge, discussing key contextual features, and generating a question that can be explored with mathematics.
  2. Introducing the mathematical ideas: Introducing students to the mathematical concepts and strategies they will need to solve the task without directing them towards a specific strategy or solution method.
  3. Exploration:  Opportunities for students to work in pairs or small groups to engage in problem solving and application.
  4. Discussion: Whole class sharing of strategies, making connections and consolidating of important mathematical ideas. 

Many lessons also include additional practice and optional extensions. 


  • Common Core State Standards Initiative. 2010. Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.
  • Freire, Paulo. 1994. Pedagogy of hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (R. R. Barr, Trans.) New York: Continuum.
  • Gutstein, Eric. 2006. “The Real World As We Have Seen It": Latino/a Parents' Voices On Teaching Mathematics For Social Justice." Mathematical Thinking and Learning 8: 331-358.
  • Jackson, K., Shahan, E., Gibbons, L., & Cobb, P. (2012). Launching complex tasks. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 18(1), 24-29.
  • Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 1995. "Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy." American Educational Research Journal 32: 465-491.
  • Moses, Robert P., and Cobb, Charles E., Jr. 2001. Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Tate, William F. 1995. "Returning to the Root: A Culturally Relevant Approach to Mathematics Pedagogy." Theory Into Practice 34: 166-173.
  • Van de Walle, J.A., Karp, K.S., & Bay-Williams, J. M. (2016). Planning in the problem-based classroom. Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally, Ninth Edition, Chapter 4, pp. 57-83. Boston: Pearson.