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I recently attended a discussion about interviewing for math jobs, and apparently a question that is coming up frequently is something like this:

"We have a culturally diverse student body. How does having a diverse classroom affect your teaching?"

The advice was not to say, "It doesn't affect me," but instead offer some positive anecdote about diversity and multiculturalism or something. However, this is how I truly feel. I am a teaching assistant at a diverse school, and I feel that mathematical thought is universal and cultural differences should not affect the content of my teaching in any way. It seems that this is not viewed as a PC opinion.

So the question is, what is the appropriate answer to this question, and why?

Of course I want what you think is really the right answer about pedagogy, not just what you think people want to hear in a job interview.

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For example, you could inform yourself on things like stereotype threat and then answer truthfully that you are aware of these problems and take care not to evoke them. Or take an Implicit Association Test and then tell them truthfully that you know that one can have unconscious biases and has to monitor oneself. I don't think that it is appropriate or practical to answer that you are aware of stereotype threats, if, in fact, you are not aware. Yes, it shouldn't affect your teaching in some sense, but what makes you think it doesn't? –  Phira Dec 10 '11 at 19:52
Even if I have hidden biases, I am always courteous to students and try my best to answer their questions until they say they understand. The interaction with a particular student on a particular problem is the place where the teaching gets tailored, but it is not based on culture or race, it is based on that individual's questions and approach. It seems that biases are mostly washed out in the process, overwhelmed by a flow of data. When you teach in a diverse place, you see most common stereotypes disproved anyway. As for grading, one can have very objective standards for math work. –  mbsq Dec 10 '11 at 20:17

3 Answers 3

Culture affects the student's learning style, classroom expectations, attitude toward learning, and is even correlated with their mathematical background. Teaching a classroom full of poor, mostly black or hispanic kids who are first-generation college students is very different from teaching a classroom full of upper-middle class, mostly suburban white kids! If you're a good teacher, the cultures in your classroom will provide information that you can use to tailor your presentation, anecdotes, attitude, and examples to maximize the knowledge they get out of the class. It will also affect how you treat each individual student.

Mathematical principles are timeless, raceless, classless, and culture-less. The people who learn them are not!

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Can you give a specific example of tailoring things to the class? –  mbsq Dec 10 '11 at 19:58

With a completely eclectic sense of culture within a school, there's a question that can be brought up, being, "What is the purpose of this course for each and every student that walks into my classroom?" Many answers will arise, whether it is a pure fascination of the subject or because it can be seen as a small stepping stone towards a much larger goal (college, a decent job, etc.) With all of these different responses a teacher becomes much more open-minded, seeing and appreciating the different viewpoints on life each student has. A teacher should feel a sense of urgency; ultimately taking that appreciation and channeling that into the passion and determination required to make sure that every student has the opportunity to succeed in mathematics as well as life.

You can use the different types of culture seen throughout a classroom to your advantage. Analogies between mathematics and their lifestyle is a phenomenal way to attract students into your teaching, for it is referencing something they are already comfortable with. And by constantly making connections to the material as well as their lifestyles and where they come from, you are also implicitly making the students more open minded, for they are also listening about the other cultures throughout the room.

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Mathematics may be universal, but learning styles are not. The relationship between teacher and student vary vastly between (and even within) cultures. Your job is to get knowledge from your brain to theirs. If this were a one size fits all problem, you would be replaced by a You-tube video.

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The interaction and feedback between teacher and student is something that cannot be replaced by youtube, regardless of cultural issues. –  mbsq Dec 10 '11 at 20:01
At least not for a few more years... –  Austin Mohr Dec 10 '11 at 20:06
@mbsq But the interaction will vary drastically with the culture of the students. Surely you already realize this. –  deinst Dec 10 '11 at 20:11
Are you saying we could have AI math teachers? I find that unbelievable. If you are saying that we could have teachers that teach through video chat, then we still have jobs for teachers. –  mbsq Dec 10 '11 at 20:11
@mbsq It is not an influence on reasoning ability, but it does interaction. Some cultures are much less prone to admit when they do not understand something (or sometimes even when they do). Some will tend to present long digressive answers to questions that they do not understand (throwing spaghetti at the wall and hope something sticks), while others will say nothing unless they are certain, while others still will say nothing unless they are convinced that all of their peers understand completely. If you are not aware of this, you are going to be teaching only some of your stuents well. –  deinst Dec 10 '11 at 20:29

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