Culturally Responsive Education in Mathematics

indigenous aboriginal education mousewoman

This artwork is of Mouse Woman, the Narnauk supernatural shape-shifter. This art was used as official artwork of the Aboriginal K-12 Math Symposium, held at the UBC Longhouse. Artist William (Billy) NC Yovanovich Jr.––whose Haida name is Kuuhlanuu––is a member of the Ts’aahl Eagle Clan of Skidegate, Haida Gwaii.

Last week, our Mathematics, Community, and Culture class discussed culturally responsive education – yet another controversial and evolving topic in mathematics education. It seems to me that culturally responsive education is a philosophy whereby a teacher (or a writer of curriculum) attempts integrate culture and curriculum in a way that emphasizes the ways of knowing of different cultures so as to provide a richer educational experience. In the context of indigenous issues consistently under consideration here in British Columbia, many of the members of the class wondered if there was bias in which culture education was meant to be “responsive” to. You can see how there can be a debate here about whether or not culturally responsive education aims to “respond” to a particular culture, or remove some of the emphasis from another.

Due to a prevailing dichotomous view of “dominant culture” and “less-dominant culture”, culturally responsive education can strongly imply a requirement of dominant cultures to recognize cultures that have long been less dominant. I agree that the role of culturally responsive education, according to Mukhopadhyay (2009), should be to treat all cultures fairly rather than equally. Education does need to recognize other less dominant cultures more than dominant ones simply because dominant cultures will prevail in other aspects of a student’s environment regardless of what we do as teachers. This does not mean total exclusion of dominant cultures, but it should mean an effort on the part of the teacher in all subjects (not just mathematics) to respond to many cultures positively and to expose students to many cultural paradigms.

How this is done is incredibly complex and likely looks different in each classroom, but, as was said by Christine Younghusband, speaker at the most recent Aboriginal Math K-12 Symposium (2012), if we want our students to be culturally responsive (or take on any other value), we as teachers need to be culturally responsive (or truly believe in that value). Storyknifing, for example, to introduce the idea of geometric visualization instead of, say, giving a worksheet and some plastic block manipulatives to students is a simple way that a teacher can introduce a mathematics topic (and tick those curriculum objectives!) while giving a strong message to students of the strong mathematical heritage inherent in many cultures. But this message will only be strong if a teacher uses a strategy like Storyknifing within a consistent effort in the classroom to invite students to think critically about culture and the perceptions that prevail. The message will only work if the cultural context of an activity, like Storyknifing, is preserved. One wouldn’t want students to see storyknifing while learning Cartesian Coordinates and get the impression that storyknifing was used in navigation.

If someone were to simply use the Math Catcher videos, for example, as one-off or as one of a few of intermittent cultural resources in their classroom, it would appear to the students as nothing more than a video version of an ordinary word problem stated in a Squamish context. Culturally responsive education is not about using storyknifing or Math Catcher videos in one’s classroom, but about a philosophy of classroom practice to expose students to different perspectives and cultures and to encourage them to investigate and question dominant paradigms.


Mukhopadhyay, S. Powell, A. & Frankenstein, M. (2009). An ethnomathematical perspective on culturally responsive mathematics education. In B. Greer, S. Mukhopadhyay, A. Powell, & S. Nelson-Barber (Eds.). Culturally responsive mathematics education (pp. 65-84). New York: Routledge.

Lipka, J. Wildfeuer, S. Wahlberg, N. George, M. & Ezran, D. (2001). Elastic geometry and storyknifing: A Yup’ik Eskimo example. Teaching Children Mathematics. February, 337-343.


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