» My New Learning Journey: Why Culture Matters in Mathematics Education

» Blog

My New Learning Journey: Why Culture Matters in Mathematics Education

As I’ve been working through my post graduate certificate in ethnomathematics, I’ve been deep diving into all sorts of new learning, especially how culture impacts not only mathematics but also the teaching and learning of mathematics. I still have so much to learn but I’d like to share my learning journey so far in the hopes that it may help you to meet more of your students’ needs. I’ll be writing some blogs over the next few months that will highlight some of my most relevant learning. Please also keep in mind that I feel like a fledgling at this point- still grappling with many BIG ideas and concepts that will take time for me to really absorb, make sense of and share in meaningful ways. I’m also making mistakes as I learn. It’s important to act anyways.

Before I jump in, I’m going to share a story, as I’ll be using it as an analogy for this post. Before we started our ethnomathematics immersion week in Hawaii in July we were required to learn 2 Olis (the above picture is our practice round). An Oli is a song (in Hawaiian). I spent a crazy amount of time trying to learn the Olis because I struggle to memorize song lyrics, in English, and don’t speak Hawaiian. I wasn’t sure what Olis were or why I was learning them or if I’d have to perform them alone or in a group. The thought of doing it alone left me in cold sweats of anxiety. Once I arrived in Hawaii, I learned what the purpose and meaning of the Olis were and why they were important for us to learn and do. Essentially, they are a form of oral tradition – they share important information. In our case, one of our teachers, Kaipo Tam, created an Oli that represents the values and vision of the ethnomathematics program and seeks permission to learn with those we were singing to. During my very first official Oli to the crew of the Hokulea and their Oli back to us, I was moved to tears by the surprisingly powerful experience. Throughout the week we performed the Olis and I came to genuinely love performing them because it made me feel connected to my classmates and the program of ethnomathematics, which was a far cry from where I started. When I learned the importance of and actually performed the Olis (rather than just learning to sing them alone), I understood their purpose and power. I think this is true for most learning. We need to do more than just learn about different worldviews and value systems but also implement strategies that help us to better understand them in our practice of teaching. In case you are interested, this is the Mahalo Oli (the easier of the two), which is well known throughout Hawaii:

I’m going to start by discussing some differences in worldviews and value systems that different cultures hold. For context I’ll share a little bit about myself and my culture. I was born in Syilx/Okanagan territories, also known as Kelowna. We moved to the unceded territories of Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw, also known as Squamish where we lived from ages 6-11. I remember learning very little of their culture and ceremony through school. Then my family moved to the unceded territories of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ, also known as Victoria. I grew up in Gordon Head and learned almost nothing about Lekwungen or W̱SÁNEĆ cultures. I didn’t have any Indigenous friends and my schools were predominantly white. This pattern continued throughout my university experience. Due to this, I recognize now that I had a very limited worldview and it wasn’t until this program that I started to understand how important worldviews are when it comes to teaching and learning.

This was a major blind spot in my teaching practice. Different cultures hold very different values about learning and this impacts our students in ways that I was completely ignorant of. I’d love to share all my new learning with you but that would be a book, not a blog, so I’m going to pull out the pieces that I hope will help you as you grapple with these really big and important ideas.
Let’s start by considering this chart from a book called ‘Why Culture Counts’:

Look at the second and third rows and think about what you/we value as teachers. Do we value collaboration and interdependence or do we value and promote individual achievement? Look at the last row – how would you define the main purpose of our education system? Academics or social intelligence or an even balance? As a person who comes from an ‘Individualist’ family and community, this rocked my world and made me see my students and the way they approach their learning in a whole new way. Are we providing opportunities for both of these value systems in our daily lessons? How do we do this?

I’ve also been learning a lot about the benefits of supporting each of our learners in feeling proud and grounded in their cultural roots as well as celebrating the diversity of cultures within our classrooms as a way to promote equity. Because I am of the dominant culture, this was another blind spot for me. How often do I refer to values and history that are Euro-centric? How often to I refer to values and history that are not?

Just like me learning the Olis, knowing that there are different cultural values and that I need to try to incorporate this into my teaching feels immediately overwhelming and brings about thoughts like “how am I supposed to teach other cultures when I don’t know anything (or very little) about their cultures?” So, here are some practical ways that you can engage in learning more about and honouring different cultures and their values in your classrooms without spending a ton of time. I’ve experienced these first hand and just like singing our Olis together, I only understood their importance and power once I’d implemented them:

1) Build strong relationships with your students and their families. Some teachers might think that they don’t have time to do this, or maybe that their job is to teach math, not get to know their students better but in order to teach your students the math, building a strong relationship is key, especially for students who come from collectivist value systems.
a) Ask students to share their culture/ancestry in a sharing circle. Keep track of the different cultures so that you can look for future opportunities to incorporate them into math lessons. Some students won’t know their ancestry or culture but will find out once they are asked (it seems to spark their curiosity) and so you can continue to ask if anyone has learned anything new about their ancestry that they’d like to share throughout the year. Connect with your school’s Aboriginal education teacher if your Aboriginal students are not sure of their nation.

b) Invite students and family members to share about their culture. This can be in the form of story, song, sharing or making food, artifact sharing, etc. You can collaborate with your guests to ensure that they are sharing in a way that works for them and for your students. This puts the onus on them, not you, to teach about culture.

c) Ask students to bring in an artifact or share about a mathematical contribution from their culture. This can be: a game, ways in which math concepts are used in art, building, weaving, etc., a mathematician, a historical fact, anything math related! You could even do a project where students explored math in a cultural context that is their own or one that they’re interested in learning more about. They could create a poster and/or an interactive display that others can explore.

2) Provide opportunities for students to work collaboratively, especially when learning a new concept or skill. Even students who come from an Individualist value system need to be able to work in a team as it’s the top employability skill.
a) Use Complex Instruction (see collaborative math teams on Educating Now) to construct roles and norms for working in groups during math class. Here are some links for more on this:
b) Use ‘Thinking Classrooms’ to ensure students are working with different students each class. Here are some links for more on this:

c) Use ‘Think-Pair-Share’ often to allow for students to think quietly on their own as this is important for introverted students. Students then share, and have the opportunity to rehearse with a partner before sharing out whole class
d) Consider how much you value students’ ability to work well with others – are you explicitly teaching what this looks like and co-creating criteria for group work?
e) Allow for choice – your students will likely differ greatly and so allow choice for working together or alone at times as well
f) Consider how you are assessing and how much of it must come from individual versus group work. Are you using group assessments?

I invite you to consider the idea of the differing value systems and how your own life experiences colour the way you teach, including what you value and what you think the purpose of education is. Do we teach our students how to be strong community members? We often see what we want to see and so I encourage you to take another look at our curriculum and see all of core and curricular competencies that include collectivist value systems and those which include individualist value systems. Like my Olis – if you don’t jump in and try new approaches and ways of thinking, the learning likely won’t be meaningful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *