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Read the article here
From: The Australian

Further to my previous post, in which I mentioned the inclusion of token cultural content, this post is about one Aboriginal man’s article, in which he claims Teaching children Aboriginal kinship in maths does not add up.

Mundine recognises the rich mathematical history of Aboriginal culture, but believes there is no such thing as indigenous mathematics.  Rather; maths, like science, was used to solve problems, using imagination, skills and methods people understood; relevant to those times.  These methods, and knowledges, as with language and other maths and science has changed over time.  He cites Galileo as an example of an Italian science knowledge which changed, or was proven incorrect over time, as an example of how society changes.  He believes that mathematics is one of those knowledges which should be taught ‘according to the universal norms of that discipline’. As you can imagine – that has upset a few people!

Noteably, Mundine is not saying the cultural mathematical history should be ignored – just that it should not be included in maths lessons. He believes that including culture, just to tick curriculum boxes, actually diminishes the importance of culture, does not do justice to the depth in and about Aboriginal knowledge and culture. (He compares the depth of knowledge gained here as the same as asking Grandma to come and talk about Australian history!). His kinship example suggests that Kinship is an intricate and complicated relationship system, and teaching it as geometry (or algebra) in mathematics neither does justice to the kinship system, or the mathematics learning area.  Another example refers to a fraction question about sustainability, which Mundine claims is an insulting reduction of culture to fractions.

Linda Burney, NSW’s Deputy Opposition Leader, explains that the curriculum includes Aboriginal Perspectives, in order to demonstrate that Australian Aboriginal people are more than a race of primitive people. Mundine thinks it’s unnecessary, undoable across all learning areas – and that most people no longer believe in the primitive nature of Aboriginal people.  Instead; he suggests a sustained unit or course about Aboriginal studies, or kinship, would be more beneficial to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal learners.  He goes on to say that Aboriginal students are as capable of learning and achieving, as anybody else, and tokenistic inclusion does not promote excellence, or demand respect for culture.

To demonstrate his point, he refers to other traditional cultures, such as India and China who make up much of the world’s population, and whose education levels are increasing, rather than decreasing. He suggests that, in the near future, Australian children will need to compete not only against their own classmates, but against those from across the country and around the world.  Therefore; Australian education needs to equip the children for the future; not marginalise them by highlighting their cultural pasts.

Interestingly, Mundine suggests that school attendance is the most important priority for education.  So, I wonder, what part does ‘tokenistic cultural inclusion’ play in engaging Aboriginal children, (or other minorities), and encouraging attendance? Perhaps Ethnomathematics is not about what students “learn” through inclusion of kinship (and other cultural) histories in their maths lessons, but perhaps it’s about how to get them interested in and engaged in learning the ‘accepted norms of the discipline’ in the first place.

But then, what does that mean for non-traditional Aboriginal students? And how does this affect them with regard to further isolating them from their peers? What does it mean to non-Aboriginal (or multicultural) students who have no historical connection to the ‘tokenistic cultural’ inclusions?  And, aside from demonstrating the relationship between mathematics and culture (as a non-Eurocentric invention) – how does connecting students to their pasts in maths encourage them to study maths for their futures?

UPDATED 29th MAY, 2016

Below is a comment I made on another student’s post about the same article.  I have done some more reading since I wrote my post above; yet it appears I still have some of the same questions. I think; more than focussing on the past or present (perceived) cultures of our students; we need to get to know them as individuals, and connect them to THEIR views of the world – as with any other area of teaching; this requires relationship building… Many Aboriginal children are already far removed (D’Ambrosio, 1990) from the Aboriginal Perspectives included in the Australian Curriculum (2014); so it is possible that providing Western presentations of ‘cultural’ content may not allow the child to become connected in a way that was intended.
My response (below) highlights the some considerations about including content for the sake of it, and without acknowledging the heterogeneity of our students’ values, beliefs and experience; regardless of their apparently similar backgrounds. And the danger of achieving the opposite of what was intended, by incorporating inappropriate content; or incorporating content inappropriately:

Below is a comment I made on Renae McIntosh’s blog post about the same article.

One thing that I felt I wanted to respond to on Renae’s post was this:
Like he was trying to prove or make a point about it – indigenous people can count too, see we did it this way.. as he would elaborate extensively. An example he said such as verbal and non-verbal tags in counting (1 hand equalling 5, 2 hands equally 10) would be fantastic in the classroom and getting children to represent number this way in a learning activity. I thought it was a good example of how Indigenous culture can be incorporated into mathematics with cultural considerations (Renae McIntosh, 2016)

I too think it sounds like a fun and engaging way to include culture in learning – at face value. Really, who doesn’t count that way anyway – if not physically, then mentally; but while the activity ‘might’ bring a sense of pride or belonging; there’s a real risk of ‘so what’, if we don’t understand, and share the whole context from which the cultural activity began.
More and more, with all the reading I’ve done, and in the context of Mundine’s entire article; I think he was trying to make the point that non-indigenous people do not see Aboriginal culture in the same way they do. Therefore, things aren’t always as they seem to outsiders. This is the very reason why some researchers, such as Pais (2011) argue that incorporating ‘microscopic’ portions of culture to illustrate a point, actually does not celebrate the culture as intended; rather it reduces the culture to an object which can help the ‘dominant’ culture achieve their goals of formal mathematical education. Also; even though Aboriginal people do appear to demonstrate mathematics through various social, physical, and mental processes, they are not viewed as mathematical in the original culture. They are only labelled that way by us – the outsiders, or by indigenous people who have been influenced by the ‘other’ society. Ultimately mathematising aspects of cultural practice (such as symmetry, tessellations and patterns) is a western view.
And even though some, like Mr. Mundine, believe that school IS for Western learning – to enable students to walk in ‘two-world’s, and to improve their futures in a globalised, high-tech world; incorporating ‘culture’ as a means to an end by valorising – that is assigning a value to – particular cultural practices or objects belies the complexity of their culture. Much indigenous knowledge is intrinsic –  it can’t easily be transferred to others by writing or verbalising. but even when it is, the recipient will still attach their own personal values and understanding to the information.  I have posted elsewhere, an example about indigenous housing removed from context, re-valued and formalised by Western standards.

As [Renae] pointed out in [her] post; Mundine suggests that if we as non-indigenous people really want to include indigenous culture into the curriculum, then it should be included in a specific Aboriginal studies course. However; as per your question: where do we get teachers for this? And would it really, in a school setting, provide a true insight into the cultural lives of Aboriginal people; and even then, if we consider that Aboriginal people are not an homogenous group; what would be taught? And who would decide what’s important?

Is the ‘whole culture’ understanding necessary? Do we belittle the culture of others by only including it out of ‘curiosity’ (Pais, 2011), or do we celebrate diversity?
I have another reading to do which I hope will answer this question!

Thank you so much for posting, and for allowing me to reflect further upon this issue that causes contradictions and criticisms even between researchers (Pais, 2011).


ACARA. (2014). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures. Retrieved 30 March, 2014, Retrieved from

Mundine, N. W. (2014). Teaching children Aboriginal kinship in maths does not add up. The Australian, (5 May, 2014).

Pais, A. (2011). Criticisms and contradictions of ethnomathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 76(2), 209-230. doi: 10.1007/s10649-010-9289-7