re: let’s retire #MTBoS

If you’re unfamiliar with the #MTBoS, the first thing you’ll be encouraged to do is watch what I think is the MTBoS sanctioned welcome video – The #MTBoS and You. After watching the video, here was my response.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what it would take to have an inclusive online learning community for Chicago Public School teachers, which led me to read this paper by Judy Larsen and Peter Liljedahl. I found so many intersections between the paper and the conversation around diversity in the MTBoS that I want to reframe my wondering, and dive deeper into the following two questions: Why is the MTBoS so white and what can be done to make it more racially diverse?

First up – authority. Out of the firestorm that was Dan Meyer’s post “Let’s retire the #MTBoS”, one of the most interesting discussions was on whether or not MTBoS had leaders (authorities) or not. I believe the general sentiment of the MTBoS contributors is echoed in this response:

And that seems to align with Larsen and Liljedahl’s observations. They note, “Further, because of decentralized control, no agent is ever in a position of final authority, and knowledge is always tentative.” And this seems to be true. Dan Meyer, as an example of a reputable MTBoS contributor, doesn’t go around declaring the final say on discussions happening in the MTBoS. So the “decentralized control” structure allows authority and authorship to flow and cycle through many users of the MTBoS.

But what struck me most about Larsen and Liljedahl’s research is that they were able to identify how people hold, be it transient, the position of authority. They write the following,

Holding authority within a complex system means to have the capacity to use a prevailing discourse, or to act within the consensual domain of the system, with the overall aim of occasioning ‘collective-knowing’ (Davis & Sumara, 2006).

If you’re like me, the term “consensual domain” is not in your everyday vernacular (and it makes you feel funny on the inside), so you need it defined. Fortunately the authors do that for us, they write this,

This investigation shows that the consensual domain of the MTBoS includes patterns of interaction such as thinking like a learner, generating examples, invoking shared language, and using instructional routines, as well as being guided by pedagogical values related to teaching without telling and guiding students towards mathematical generalization.

Larsen and Liljedahl observed that to hold authority in the MTBoS, you have to participate in the invisibly-agreed-upon (or consensual) culture of the MTBoS. In the section above, they describe the elements of consensual domain as the pedagogical topics that participants discuss. It’s what you talk about, not how you talk about it that determines the ability to hold authority.

But that doesn’t explain why the MTBoS is so white. I think that is because there also exists an invisibly-agreed-upon (or consensual) how you talk about pedagogy that is missing from the definition of consensual domain. My hunch is that Larsen and Liljedahl are looking too closely at what is being discussed, and if we were to step back and focus on how they are being discussed, then we see that to join in the prevailing discourse, one has to speak using a certain communication style.

The MTBoS is so white because it functions like most other white-dominated community in the United States. If participants of the MTBoS think that the communication style, or the cultural language, of the MTBoS is neutral, what is really happening is white people are functioning in their usual way while people of color are conforming to white cultural values. It’s not a hostile atmosphere, but it is a subliminal one. And in atmospheres like these, you can expect to see fewer non-white people participating (you should see the dog park in my neighborhood).

What can be done to make the MTBoS a more racially diverse place? If you even feel like this discussion is worth taking up space on the MTBoS, then the responses boil down to four possible buckets:

  1. White people change their authentic voice to try to sound like the voices of underrepresented groups as a way of making others feel welcome. No, seriously, I LIKE your whiteness. Subtract supremacy from the equation and there is nothing wrong with white culture, especially when that’s who you are.
  2. White people invite people of color as token-authorities as a way of making others feel welcome. Often sounds like, “Let’s be intentional about pushing people of color owned blogs to the top?” I think cultural shifts are more complicated than that and no one wants to be a token.
  3. MTBoS is not white, it’s post-racial. Fish don’t know they’re in water. For more clarity around that idea, as a Korean-American who grew up in the United States, you go to school and learn that sandwiches for lunch is normal while kimchi, seaweed, and rice is foreign.
  4. MTBoS is white, own it. This is the response I’d advocate for. If more people in the MTBoS were acknowledging the whiteness of the MTBoS, it would make non-white people more comfortable. And I mean acknowledge it not in a 1000-word blog post kind of way, but in a I can laugh at Dave Chapelle sketches with with my non-white friends kind of way.

So to wrap up, let’s reflect. How in your non-digital life do you participate in racially diverse communities? How are you drawing on your experiences of being the only non-white person in the room (small caveat: room full of black and brown students doesn’t count if most of the teachers are white) to create a more inclusive community? And if none of that is happening in your non-digital life, why would you expect it to happen here?


1 thought on “re: let’s retire #MTBoS”

  1. Thank you for writing about this. Option 4 (MTBoS is white, own it) feels the most intellectually authentic, but I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say that this would actually make non-white math teachers feel more welcome. Do you mind elaborating?

    I also worry about this option being interpreted by some as “there is no problem so therefore we can continue on as before and not try to make ourselves more inclusive”. I’ve been thinking about why the MTBoS is so white, particularly when there are so many educators of color on twitter (there’s even the #educolor hashtag!).

    A first guess I had is that maybe this is part of the larger systemic issue of STEM diversity (i.e. maybe more TOC teach English/Social Studies and not math), but I when I think about all the teachers I know, I don’t actually think this explanation is true.


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