Math in Social Networking: New Research

Two Black girls work on a science experiment, removing liquid from a vial and transferring it to a beaker.

When Maisie Gholson was working as a graduate assistant collecting data for the Content Learning and Identity Construction research project at the College of Education, she witnessed something interesting.

In the math classroom she was observing, students arrived directly from their recess period.  And while students shed their coats and running shoes, Gholson started to notice the students never quite shed their playground personas. Cliques that developed on the playground stayed cohesive in the classroom.  Kids who were close friends continued their play and support in the classroom.  Students who assiduously avoided one another on the playground continued the boycott during math lessons.

Those innocuous observations of the hierarchies established by children have become the crux of a major research study pioneered by Gholson.  Her doctoral thesis is examining how African American children’s social networks in a third grade classroom impact their opportunities to learn mathematics, with financial support from the National Science Foundation, the Abraham Lincoln Fellowship program and National Academy of Education Spencer Dissertation Fellowship.

“When we talk about race and gender, it is often very abstract, so we need to operationalize this—how do we see this happening in classrooms?” Gholson said.  “Racial characteristics and social interactions are impacting the relationships kids are able to build and maintain, and these relationships are having an effect on how kids learn.”

Preliminary analysis completed by Gholson, with Danny Martin, PhD, professor of curriculum and instruction, found students with stronger social ties and a broader social networks tend to participate more in classroom discussions and activities.  Gholson’s early results suggest girls with more relational ties and membership in higher status cliques seem to be at a particular advantage during learning.

Two girls studied in particular serve as a guide to explaining Gholson’s findings.  Both girls entered third grade as highly competent math students with similar test scores, but highly varying levels of participation.  One girl was perceived as the classroom bully and was generally shunned by other social groups.  Her participation level reflected her social ties in the classroom, with the opposite occurring for the second girl who occupied a more hyper-feminine role.

Gholson’s findings indicate distinct crossover with stereotypical racial and gender roles.  The “classroom bully” was heavier-set with darker skin; the more popular student was positioned as the model student and racially as the “pretty black girl.”  These subtle differences were also reflected in how the girls were treated by their peers, but also seems to impact how these two girls discussed race.  The “pretty black girl” discussed her racial background from a historical perspective:  “I’m black because my mom told me that white people were mean to black people” while the “classroom bully” conceptualized race more literally:  “I’m black because my skin is dark.” Gholson believes how these young girls talk about race indicates different ways in which their understandings of race begin, which may have consequences for the girls’ future and currently affects how the girls perceive different themselves and others academically. The model student was more inclined to talk about Black people as being smart, while the bully was more ambivalent and unsure.

For Gholson, the implications of these social networking differences extend beyond test scores and classroom grades.  With African American students lagging in the pursuit of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, Gholson sees  students’ positions within these social networks critical in the socialization as STEM students and, eventually, professionals.

“If you can’t develop relationships and don’t feel free to participate, that negatively impacts how you engage with material,” Gholson said. “If people don’t see you as an engineer or mathematician, you are constantly taking tools away from learners.”

Gholson says her own experiences as an engineering undergraduate student confirm the effects of these shared experiences.  She says as the lone Black student, let alone the lone female student in her classroom, the professor ignored her, classmates dismissed her comments, the professor constantly using the phrases “guys” and “fellas,” she had to assert herself in the space.

“I need to be seen as someone who can not only be in this space and be successful, but that there are expectations of Black students that they will be able to be great engineers or mathematicians,” Gholson said.  “When you don’t feel free to participate, that negatively impacts not only how people see you but your competence in engaging with the practices of a mathematician or engineer.”

As Gholson continues her analysis, she hopes to explore what learning looks like for children on the social periphery, identifying the meaning of math learning when popularity or expanding their social ties is not accessible. She also aims to examine how bullying looks within the context of math learning, such as  how the polarizing experience of “being right or wrong” in so many math classrooms can be used by some children to coerce others during group work.