I posted this on the CDU Learnline Assignment 2 discussion board earlier today. I felt that it would be useful (and reflective) to post it here.

After many more readings; I am more and more convinced that Ethno mathematics should be separated from Ethnic mathematics.  Although definitions vary slightly, they all seem to consider cultures as recognisable sets of people.  If we consider this definition, then by nature we run the risk of imposing stereotypical views, by assuming that a given set of people are an homogeneous group. As per the start of my post above; we may even marginalise those students further, or alienate others; thereby ‘excluding’ by ‘including’; exactly the opposite of what was intended. As I’ve mentioned in another post (in response to Renae McIntosh’s blog): much cultural knowledge is intrinsic – that is it’s known, but cannot easily be transferred to others through verbalisation or text – so it is very difficult to include cultural content or knowledge without removing it from the beliefs, values and practices which make it unique, and special. Pais (2011) suggests the practice of including ‘traditional knowledge’ could even be considered ‘racist’ – squeezing it into the curriculum because of its difference, in the name of catering to diversity. Let alone the notion that the included content is considered ‘mathematical’ only by Western views and standards.

Consider this quote from the Matrix Movies:
Mouse: That’s exactly my point. Exactly. Because you have to wonder: how do the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like? Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like oatmeal, or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things. You take chicken, for example: maybe they couldn’t figure out what to make chicken taste like, which is why chicken tastes like everything. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/quotes)

When we talk about ‘Aboriginal ways of knowing’ or ‘cultural mathematics’ what do we really know? To verbalise these intrinsic knowledges and beliefs, which are valued for cultural reasons; we are more than likely seeing the cultural content through the eyes of an outsider – imposing our values, and compressing the complexity of the non-Euro cultural knowledge. Pais (2011) provides an example related to indigenous housing:
A group of people visited an indigenous community with the view to using ‘indigenous housing’ in school mathematics. In doing so, they changed what was a community activity with particular rituals and knowledge; and turned it into abstract mathematical concepts: characteristics of a triangle and Pythagoras’s theorem… Artificial, and Formal.  Pias further suggested, that even if this cultural content had been incorporated into other curriculum areas, it would still lose meaning – a curiosity, which even if the children could relate to; would only be useful in their local communities; not school; and not in a globalised world.

Further, as pointed out by my half-sister Kathryn, who is Aboriginal, and has just completed her degree – of the children in her 3/4 maths class, it was not always the Aboriginal students who were struggling with maths. Therefore; one cannot assume that a particular group of children will be the ones who need a particular type of support.  Putting the child at the centre of learning; in mathematics or any other subject area; involves understanding the individual cultures of our children. As per the compulsory learning unit (CUC107) which I did in the first year of my degree: everyone has an individual culture, which is derived from their personal experiences, and prior knowledge.

Presuming, as per the current school system, that everyone has to learn formal mathematics (or school mathematics), then as per Begg (2001); Ethnomathematics is justified if considered in the pedagogical context of constructivism:
Beginning with where the child is at.
Starting with their interests
Bringing a human face to mathematics (my interpretation is recgonisable, and tangible support for learning).

Thanks for reading,

Feel free to share your views 🙂


Begg, A. (2001). Ethnomathematics: Why, and what else? ZDM, 33(3), 71-74. doi: 10.1007/bf02655697

D’Ambrosio, U. (2001). What Is Ethnomathematics, and How Can It Help Children in Schools? Teaching Children Mathematics, 7(6), 308.

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