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Ethnomathematics – What It Is and Why It’s Important


I want to share some of what I’m learning through my ethnomathematics courses – we are currently focusing on how to teach culturally sustaining (this is the new term that replaces culturally relevant or culturally responsive pedagogy). To be honest, I’ve realized that I have had a huge blind spot in my own practice with this regard. It has been through my experiences in Hawaii that I realized that part of the problem was I didn’t necessarily feel a part of any culture and so it wasn’t on my radar. Now, I’m understanding culture in SO MANY different ways and am understanding how important it is to education. I’ll be sharing more about this as the year progresses and am planning some professional development opportunities in Victoria as well. This blog gives you a quick overview and how it is connected to our BC math curriculum (and all curricular areas) and some activities that would be a great way to start building a positive, inclusive math culture within your classroom.

Day 1 in Hawaii we went to Diamond Head Beach to learn about intertidal species and marine debris

Brief History:

Ethnomathematics is far more complex than I originally thought and I’m still learning about it so certainly don’t feel like an expert in it yet, although I certainly feel a whole lot more confident creating ethnomathematics lessons now that I’ve been to Hawaii to actually experience lessons for 7 days and from all my readings and discussions with my classmates and professors.
Ethnomathematics is a fairly new field of study – the term was coined in the late 70’s by Brazilian Educator Ubitarian D’Ambrosio (he was our guest lecturer last week! So inspirational). It is not yet been adopted by the Oxford Dictionary and is unknown to many, however, it also has its own global conference that occurs every 4 years around the world and there have been many scholars who have been studying it and many teachers who have been utilizing it, even before it was called ethnomathematics.

What Is Ethnomathematics and Its Importance

Ethnomathematics is the study of how cultures mathematize. Math was created by human need to solve problems. Unfortunately, most of our school math has been stripped of it’s story, context and history, leaving it meaningless for many. We tend to focus our math on the Greeks and other European cultures, while ignoring indigenous knowledge and contributions. The idea is to create holistic, integrated units of study that are relevant to students. This sounds like a very lofty goal (it is!) but we can start more simply, in our classrooms, by getting to know our students and their cultures. When I think about how ethnomathematics can be implemented into classes, I would say that in a nutshell, ethnomathematics focuses on culturally based math (this can include popular culture as it can be relevant to students) with the aim of social justice, land-based math, and environmental stewardship. I cannot honestly think of two more pressing issues in our world right now than the lack of respect for cultural diversity (this has been worsening in many respects, not improving, in the past couple of years) and the state of our environment. Living in a province that is on fire really makes this problem more relevant and immediate. There are several dimensions to ethnomathematics that I won’t go into detail here for the sake of brevity.

How it Connects to BC Math Curriculum:

Our curricular competencies include these:

•The positive personal and cultural identity competency involves the awareness, understanding, and appreciation of all the facets that contribute to a healthy sense of oneself. It includes awareness and understanding of one’s family background, heritage(s), language(s), beliefs, and perspectives in a pluralistic society.

• Engage in problem-solving experiences that are connected to place, story, cultural practices, and perspectives relevant to local First Peoples communities, the local community, and other cultures

• Incorporate First Peoples worldviews and perspectives to make connections to mathematical concepts

I’ve spent the last two years trying to do this authentically and certainly made some headway but ethnomathematics helped me to understand how to construct lessons for these competencies. If you are wondering how to incorporate these into your math program, ethnomathematics is the answer!

Ethnomathematics seeks to make every student in the classroom feel valued and to feel connected to their roots so that they are more resistant to harassment and domination. The ultimate goal is to create and sustain world peace by imbedding into our education system the valuing and celebration of cultural diversity. Considering the vast diversity of students in each of our classrooms, this seems like a daunting task: to include the cultures of every student in my math class. So, here are a couple of ways that you can begin this journey with your class right away:

1) Start each lesson by standing in circle each morning. Sharing in circle is common to many indigenous cultures and it really does do magic as far as I’m concerned. It removes any hierarchy – we are all equal in circle and it does a wonderful job of building a solid learning community as students are all looking at each other and sharing. I used this every morning of my math camp and it worked really well to build a very respectful, inclusive learning community (and my camp was only 5 days!). We also did this every day in my program in Hawaii. When standing in circle you can have students do some or all of the following (I like to share with students WHY we are doing this so that they will be more motivated to participate fully):

Say your name

We stood in circle many times a day throughout my course

2) Artifact Sharing: We did this in our first day of my program and it was a fantastic way to get to know each other and our values/cultures. You can do this in any way you want but here are some ideas:

• Ask students to bring in 2 objects that are important to them – one personal and one that represents where they are from (this can mean their family, ancestry, location, etc.)

• Ask students to bring in a mathematical object from their home – this can be connected to their family, ancestry, childhood, etc.

• Ask students to bring in 2-3 objects that represent who they are (their values, their beliefs, their family, their ancestry, their hopes and dreams etc.)
Students have 4-5 minutes (keep time to honour the time of all students) to share these with the class over the first few weeks of school (I wouldn’t do them for a whole class but rather 4-5 students a day).

3) Math Biography: I’ve shared this before but it can be found here. I’ve been using this for years. In order to be able to better meet the needs of our students, we need to get to know their: likes, dislikes, attitudes and goals towards math.

4) Diagnostic Assessments: See my last blog post! Too often we have a binder or a program for teaching math to our students and we do the same things year after year despite the fact that our students change each year. If we use diagnostics and interviews to better understand what our students know and don’t know, we can build a responsive education program that will challenge them at the right level and fill in the gaps of missing knowledge. Someone once said that teachers are often over teaching or under teaching because we’re essentially flying blind if don’t find ways of knowing where our students are at and what strategies they have and use.

5) Go on math nature walk. September is often beautiful and math really is all around us…let’s encourage students to see this as well. You can do a number of things with this but here are some ideas:

• Students can use some form of technology to take pictures of the math they see outside (you can use your school grounds or local community for this). They will present one of their pictures with a quick description of the math they noticed.

• In groups, students hunt for things that have the following quantities and take pictures of them along with their reasoning (why they think what they chose fits). Things we’d count by 1’s, 10’s, 100’s, 1000’s, 10 000’s, etc. For older grades go all the way to 1 million. This will pull in estimating quantities, which is actually really challenging for most students but is really important for developing number sense. This could lead to some great debates and the use of math talk stems like:
“I agree with ___________ because ______________”
“I disagree with ___________ because _______________”
“I’d like to add onto what ________________ said __________________”

• Find items that are different shapes and take pictures: circles, rectangles, triangles, curved edges, all straight edges, quadrilaterals, etc. Once this is done as a class or in groups you can sort all the images into categories and define each category.

• As you are on your nature walk or community walk, students brainstorm and write down ideas for problems that could be solved. For example: how long does it take to mow the lawn of the front school grounds? How fast is the lawn mower going? How big is the area? How many customers come to ________ store each day? Some of their questions might be good for further investigation (solving problems related to place) and so they are doing the work for you! AND how engaged would your students be knowing that THEY created the questions…..in general I’d love to see a lot more this in math classrooms.

My mission is for teachers to feel great about their impact on student learning. I make it easy for teachers to prepare and deliver lessons that will change lives.

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