Gutiérrez (2018)

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Political Conocimiento for Teaching Mathematics: Why Teachers Need It and How to Develop It

Outline of Headings

  • Politics of Teaching Mathematics
    • All Teaching is Political
    • All Mathematics Teaching is Political
    • All Mathematics Teachers Need Political Knowledge to Be Successful
  • Political Conocimiento for Teaching
    • Creative Insubordination
    • Teacher Education Programs Can Develop Political Knowledge
      • Conceptual Framework
      • The Mirror Test
      • In My Shoes
    • Teachers Learning Political Conocimiento
  • Conclusion


In this chapter, Rochelle Gutiérrez argues that teachers' knowledge of the politics of teaching is lacking compared to their knowledge of content and pedagogy. Because of this, teachers are more likely to carry on the practices and traditions of their schools and are less likely to challenge assumptions or advocate for the needs of students, particularly those who have been historically underserved. She begins the chapter:

Contrary to popular belief and research, addressing equity in mathematics education will not simply come once teachers understand the content they are to teach; when they find accessible, quality, or motivating activities and instructional strategies to use with students; or even when they develop meaningful relationships with students. Many teachers find their biggest struggle lies in understanding and negotiating the politics in their everyday practice. This is particularly true in mathematics, where teachers may expect their work to be straightforward—universal and culture free (Martin, 1997, Powell & Frankenstein, 1997). (p. 11)

To support her claim, Gutiérrez first argues that all teaching is political. Teachers are under pressure both locally and nationally from factors like charter schools and big-money philanthropic efforts. Efforts like the Common Core State Standards are little more than revisions to previous works, says Gutiérrez, like the National Research Council's Adding it Up and NCTM's Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, except with the equity arguments removed. Teachers are also affected by the edTPA, a $300 credentialing assessment administered by Pearson — the same contractor that develops the PARCC assessment, one of two large-scale testing consortium that followed Common Core. Gutiérrez argues that these and other factors influence the educational system in important ways, and it is difficult for prospective teachers to make sense of it all on their own.

Next, Gutiérrez argues that all mathematics teaching is political. Schools with successful track records with underserved students, such as the heavily researched Railside in Northern California (Boaler, 2006; Boaler & Staples, 2008; Horn, 2004; Jilk, 2010; Nasir, Cabana, Shreve, Woodbury, & Louie, 2014) and Union in Chicago (Gutiérrez, 1999, 2002, 2014) have struggled as political back-to-basics and teach-to-the-test movements took a toll on teachers who either succumbed to the pressures or left their schools. Gutiérrez argues that these political struggles are not just about teaching, and that "knowledge, power, and identity are interwoven with mathematics" itself (p. 17). Referring to this perspective as the "sociopolitical turn" (Gutiérrez, 2010/2013; Stinson & Bullock, 2015), this particularly reflects the intertwinement of mathematical issues of identity and power (Chronaki, 1999; Valero & Zevenbergen, 2004; Walkerdine, 1988; Walshaw, 2001). In school mathematics, says Gutiérrez, too often "who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as White" (p. 17). People treat math as if it is a pure extraction from nature and the universe, without values or agendas, instead of a human activity that is used to promote and perpetuate the values and agendas of the humans who use it.

Third, Gutiérrez argues that all mathematics teachers need political knowledge to be successful. It is not enough to have pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986) or mathematical knowledge for teaching (Hill, Blunk, Charalambous, Lewis, Phelps, Sleep, & Ball, 2008). It is also shortsighted to attribute student success to reform movements like "growth mindset" and "grit," both which situate the problems of learning in individuals and ignore systemic inequities.

Gutiérrez argues that teachers need a "political knowledge for teaching," which she calls political conocimiento (Gutiérrez 2012, 2013). In using conocimiento, Gutiérrez takes the perspective that all knowledge is relational (Anzaldúa, 1987) and that what makes knowledge important are the ways we relate our knowledge to others. Political conocimiento helps teachers understand how to navigate high-stakes testing systems, how to relate mathematics reforms to parents and the community, and how to "reinvent or reinterpret systems" (p. 20) to advocate for students. It is not knowledge of or for students and communities, but knowledge with students and communities that develops as teachers work alongside them. With this knowledge, teachers can engage in what Gutiérrez calls creative insubordination (Gutiérrez 2013, 2015, 2015; Gutiérrez & Gregson, 2013; Gutiérrez, Irving, & Gerardo, 2013). Teachers who are creatively insubordinate are able to work in the best interests of students and protect themselves from harm while pushing back against unwanted reforms or unreasonable demands and requests from positions of authority.

Gutiérrez believes that prospective teachers can develop political knowledge. To do this, she suggests viewing things along four dimensions of equity/learning: a mainstream/dominant perspective along the dimensions of access and achievement, and a critical (as in critical of the status quo) perspective along the dimensions of power and identity (Gutiérrez 2007, 2009). At the center, Gutiérrez places the concept of Nepantla, "a kind of cosmological perspective ... that recognizes opposing forces and values and maintains those tensions rather than trying to shut them down" (p. 24; Anzaldúa, 1987; Anazaldúa & Keating, 2002). By examining messages about such things as achievement gaps, growth mindset, teacher quality, equal opportunities to learn, etc., prospective teachers can identify how conversations align with either a dominant or critical perspective (Gutiérrez, 2006), and whose interests are served in doing so. Preservice teachers can align themselves with a more critical perspective in the classroom by using social justice curricular materials (Esmonde, 2014; Gregson, 2013; Gutstein 2003, 2006; Turner & Strawhun, 2005), by integrating the students' community into mathematics projects (Aguirre, Zavala, & Katanyoutant, 2012; Turner, Gutierrez, & Diez-Palomar, 2011), or by changing the way they relate to mathematics and their students. These strategies and the development of political conocimiento can help teachers "play the game" of the dominant perspective while they simultaneously work to "change the game" and support students' identities and power.

Gutiérrez's model for working with prospective teachers includes seminars, teacher partnerships, critical professional development, an after-school mathematics club, and mentoring (Gutiérrez, 2015; Gutiérrez, Irving, & Gerardo, 2013). Each activity supports four concepts: broadening and challenging knowledge, developing an advocacy stance, noticing multiple interpretations, and rehearsing for creative insubordination. Gutiérrez asks prospective teachers to examine why they wish to teach and to think about their own "ethical compass" (p. 26) rather than one directed by a corporate influence or the traditions of their profession. Gutiérrez also uses case studies and role-playing to develop empathy by putting prospective teachers into difficult situations and having them consider other perspectives. As prospective teachers develop in their political conocimiento, they interact with instructors and each other like professionals well-versed in their field, and not like novices trying to supply the correct answers.


On October 23, 2017, the site Campus Reform published an article focused on Gutiérrez's claims that mathematics is political and that it perpetuates white privilege. Although Campus Reform and the article's author did minimal editorializing or critiquing of Gutiérrez's work, the site's status as a politically right-leaning source of reporting on "liberal bias and abuse" brought the attention of other conservative and right-wing news sites, notably Fox News, and their audiences. Online harassment of Gutiérrez followed, which was soon after met with support from the mathematics education community and Gutiérrez's institution, the University of Illinois, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.


Gutiérrez, R. (2018). Political conocimiento for teaching mathematics: Why teachers need it and how to develop it. In S. E. Kastberg, A. M. Tyminski, A. E. Lischka, & W. B. Sanchez (Eds.), Building support for scholarly practices in mathematics methods (pp. 11–37). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Retrieved from
address = {Charlotte, NC},
author = {Guti{\'{e}}rrez, Rochelle},
booktitle = {Building support for scholarly practices in mathematics methods},
chapter = {2},
editor = {Kastberg, Signe E. and Tyminski, Andrew M. and Lischka, Alyson E. and Sanchez, Wendy B.},
isbn = {978-1-64113-025-7},
pages = {11--37},
publisher = {Information Age Publishing},
title = {{Political conocimiento for teaching mathematics: Why teachers need it and how to develop it}},
url = {},
year = {2018}