Image source:  fir0002|flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
To be frank, when provided with three choices for the focus of my EMA300 ‘Presentation on mathematics as a cultural construct’ assignment, Ethnomathematics was at the bottom of my list. It’s not that I don’t think it is important to recognise the backgrounds of our students, I do.  But, after 4 years of my degree I have learnt that all teachers should consider their students’ cultural backgrounds when planning for teaching and learning  (ACARA, 2015a).  Consequently; I could not fathom why there is a mathematics field specifically for this purpose! I was, and still am intrigued, so: here we are…

Why do I think Ethnomathematics is about the culture of our students?
It’s in the two parts of the name: Ethno – which appears to relate to ethnic or ethnicity – relating to race, or culture; and of course mathematics – which is self explanatory.
Or is it? What exactly do we mean when we talk about mathematics?
Some might say mathematics is what do at school – adding and taking away, symbols and statistics – that sort of thing.  Yet others might say it is what we use in our day to day activities, like shopping, cooking, and banking. Others say there was no mathematics before there was writing.

Let’s think about that for a minute. 

While mathematics is very much a part of our day to day lives, it has also been a part of people’s lives for many thousands of years … well before alphabetic writing!

Let’s think about about maths in cultures which have been around for a very long time. Cultures have been involved in trade, tool creations (spear that is too heavy just will not fly, and the shape of a boomerang depends on its purpose!), seasons, sustainability, kinship, building (look at the pyramids!) – and traditional artworks are full of symbols and spacial awareness.

These cultures have survived many thousands of years, therefore, it would seem, mathematics is about problem solving – using knowledge, skills and concepts in different ways, and in different situations, for a purpose. This is supported by the Australian Curriculum’s key ideas and proficiency strands in the mathematics learning area (ACARA, 2015b): understanding, fluency, problem-solving, and reasoning. This is further supported by learning I have done throughout my degree, through readers such as Fleer and Jane’s ‘Design and technology for children’ (2011), and Neil Harrison’s ‘Teaching and learning in Aboriginal Education (2011).

It cannot be assumed that all aboriginal cultures (intentional use of small ‘a’ to represent first peoples generally), and individuals have the same background, however, in order to demonstrate my thinking I have included a blog comment repsonse I posted recently.

‘Hi Emma,
… I do, however, also think it would be an interesting exercise to consider the mathematics used in a cultural context, which might not have been labelled mathematics. For example, shape, size, [patterns] all used in Aboriginal daily lives (boomerangs – aerodynamics, weight, shape, symmetry, planes, length), (baskets – measurement, size, shape, patterns), (building – material requirements, number of huts required, height, distance apart) etcetera. In fact, that could be an interesting mathematics lesson in itself!’ (http://donna-raymond.wix.com/assignment2#!blog/ltibn in reply to a comment by Emma Harris, 2016)

Interestingly; Tyson Yunkaporta suggests his 8 Ways Learning pedagogy (2014) allows teachers to embrace Aboriginal perspectives and ways of doing things, rather than teaching through the inclusion of token content.  I have also read, though I am unsure where, that some scholars have suggested that all students, regardless of their origins, could benefit from the teaching styles which benefit Aboriginal students. This paragraph, which supports processes, rather than content and context, supports my current thoughts on what I believe Ethnomathematics might represent.


ACARA. (2015). F-10 Curriculum Cross-curriculum priorities. v8.1. Retrieved 30 April, 2016, Retreived from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/crosscurriculumpriorities/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-histories-and-cultures/overview

ACARA. (2015). Mathematics learning area: key ideas. Retrieved 30 April, 2016, Retreived from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/mathematics/key-ideas

Fleer, M., & Jane, B. (2011). Design and technology for children (J. Tylman Ed. 3rd ed.). Frenchs Forest, NSW, 2086: Pearson Australia.

Harrison, N. (2011). Teaching and learning in Aboriginal education (J. Anderson Ed. 2nd ed.). 253 Normanby Road, South Melbourne, Victoria 3205, Australia: Oxford University Press

8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning. (2014). Retrieved 21 April, Retreived from http://8ways.wikispaces.com/