Part 2: Learning from Bob Moses
To celebrate Black History Month this year, we’re featuring two transformative Black educators who passed in 2021. Last week, we shared teaching advice from author, teacher, scholar, and activist bell hooks, and this week we’re featuring Bob Moses, who was a teacher, civil rights leader, and founder and president of the Algebra Project.
Robert Parris Moses was a towering figure in the civil rights movement, taking leading roles in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, as well as many other projects. In the 1970s he turned his attention from registering voters to emancipatory education, and in the 1980s used his MacArthur Fellowship to start the Algebra Project. Moses insisted that quantitative and scientific literacy were indispensable to economic and social mobility, and that equity could not be achieved while less privileged students lacked access to sound learning opportunities and inspiring instruction. The Algebra Project was supported by the NSF, and focused on middle and high school students who scored in the lowest quartile on mathematics in standardized exams, with the aim of ensuring they would graduate from high school ready to take on college math. Like bell hooks, he conceived of education as empowerment, and advocated learner-centered approaches to teaching that help students develop their own reasoning and their confidence as learners. Usually beginning with a real-life trip, on a bus or train, or on foot, his strategies for teaching math allow learners to do the reasoning first, thinking in images and explaining in their own language, and finally to see math as the symbolic representation of relationships amongst quantities (in this first instance, distances). He sought to make the work relatable and meaningful for his students.
We’re delighted to share the following excerpts from his work with you, and we hope you find inspiration in his words. All of the quotes are from his book Radical Equations unless otherwise marked:
Elite private schools and elite public schools prepared their students to become America’s leaders, but all other schools belonged to an era in which work and preparation for work were defined by factories and assembly lines. Factories and the cities they helped create became the models for schools and their school systems, and the work in factories became the model for schooling. Because the new technologies give rise to computers and an ever-widening use of symbol systems and quantitative data, we concluded that the schools and curricula we had to struggle to design must put mathematical and scientific literacy on a par with reading and writing literacy (116).
Education is still basically Jim Crow as far as the kids who are in the bottom economic strata of the country…No one knows about them, no one cares about them (from this interview on NPR).
The Algebra Project is founded on the idea that the ongoing struggle for citizenship and equality for minority people is now linked to an issue of math and science literacy. This idea determines strategies and choices made about organization, dissemination, and content of the curriculum. It’s important to make it clear that even the development of some sterling new curriculum—a real breakthrough—would not make us happy if it did not deeply and seriously address the issue of access to literacy for everyone. That is what is driving the project. The Algebra Project is not simply about transferring a body of knowledge to children. It’s about using that knowledge as a tool to a much larger end (14-15).
There are a lot of well-trained curriculum experts and others who know a great deal about math, but, I began to tell myself, what is missing from their work is insight into the minds of the young people they are trying to reach. We do not have enough people with a solid enough mastery of math who are so guided by their insights into the students’ ways of thinking they can reconceptualize the math in terms that allow their students to connect (102).
In the Algebra Project we are using a version of experiential learning; it starts where children are, experiences they share. We get them to reflect on these drawing on their common culture, then to form abstract conceptualizations out of their reflection, and then to apply the abstraction back on their experience. You can think of it as a circle or a clock: at twelve noon they have an experience; quarter past they are thinking about it; half past they are doing some conceptual work around their reflections; and at quarter to they are doing applications based on their conceptual work. In the Algebra project this movement from experience to abstraction takes the form of a five-step process that introduces students to the idea that many important concepts of elementary algebra can be accessed through ordinary experiences. Each step is designed to help students bridge the transition from real life to mathematical language and operations. Because of this connection with real life, the transition curriculum is not only experiential but culturally based. The experiences must be meaningful in terms of daily life and the culture of students (119-120).
In academic language, this process can be described as the “social construction of mathematics.” Students learn that math is the creation of people—people working together and depending on one another. Interaction, cooperation, and group communication, therefore, are key components of this process. Students also help generate part of the content of instruction as well. They participate in the physical event that will generate data which becomes the vehicle for introducing mathematical concepts. Cooperation and participation in group activities, as well as personal responsibility for individual work, become important not only for the successful functioning of the learning group, but for the generation of instructional materials and various representations of the data as well (120).
Teachers, of course, are another part of this equation. It should be clear by now that underlying our curriculum and pedagogy is the expectation that teachers will make fundamental changes in the way they teach. They cannot simply be lecturers attempting to pour knowledge into the heads of students who sit passively like inanimate vessels (122).
In my geometry course I ask the students to write in paragraph form and think about how they are going to incorporate their symbols into their sentences. They have to learn how to write expository English that incorporates symbolic representations about quantitative data. They must write whole sentences. The standard way of writing math—just numbers and equations—will not do. They need to come out being able to talk about these numbers. Computers like the graphing calculators are going to give them numbers and the ability to manipulate them, but what do they mean? Who is going to interpret them? My students are proud of their interpretations. They hold on to them, show them around, to their parents, to their friends, as representing something important they have learned (128).
Math literacy is a civil right. Just as Black people in Mississippi saw the vote as a tool to elevate them into the first class politically, math is the tool to elevate the young into the first class economically (quoted in this obituary in The Washington Post).
Just being able to read and write will no longer be enough to make it in this fast-paced knowledge economy. Math literacy will be a liberation tool for people trying to get out of poverty and the best hope for people trying not to get left behind” (from this interview in The Washington Post).
If you’d like to learn more about Bob Moses and The Algebra Project, we encourage you to read Radical Equations, which is available as an ebook through FSU’s libraries. You and your students may also enjoy the interviews with Moses we linked above after two of the quotes. And of course, our colleagues and students right here at FSU research and write about Bob Moses and his work. For example, Davis Houk, Fannie Lou Hamer Professor of Rhetorical Studies, co-authored an essay with two FSU undergraduates, Dean Delp and Erika LeFlouria, on a speech Bob Moses delivered at Stanford in 1964. You can access it, as well as several learning resources and a transcription of the address, on the Voice of Democracy website. If you’d like to share your work on bell hooks or Bob Moses with us, we would be delighted to hear from you. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.