Ethnomathematics

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Image by Ron’s Iteractions (note: not Ron Eglash). Original photo by NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

I’ve just recently been doing some readings on ethnomathematics. From what I’ve been able to figure out, ethnomathematics is the study of mathematics of different cultural groups. Its goal is to teach value for one’s own culture, respect for another’s culture, and curiosity to learn more about different cultures while teaching mathematics in a cultural context. That being said, it is a fairly new and ever-growing and changing field of mathematics education, so the definition can vary significantly at this point, informed by the life experiences and culture of the person giving the definition!

Ethnomathematics is likely controversial because it does not conform to the needs of advocates who support traditional, computational, arithmetic and algebra driven curricula (see math wars). It requires a more exploratory and interdisciplinary approach to the subject. However, if one is to embrace ethnomathematics, one then opens themselves up to examining the way mathematics is done in all cultures, rather than only the canonically respected mathematics that was done in Europe that is still taught today. Often teachers balk at “multicultural mathematics” because it means an awkward application of mathematics to, say, number systems at the beginning of the year that quickly gets seen by the teacher as a waste of time because it doesn’t tick boxes on the list of curriculum objectives. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Ethnomathematics also opens the door to issues of culture and representation in mathematics and in education in general, which many teachers may not be emotionally prepared and/or educationally trained for (or simply not be interested in dealing with). However, Ron Eglash (2009) exposes a way that we can use culture as a bridge to math – and nicely tick some of those curriculum objectives as well – while integrating art and mathematics in exploration of weaving or architecture or religion. While I can’t provide the article due to copyright, check out his TED Talk.

In addition, D’Ambrosio’s (2001) more philosophical piece seems to imply that ethnomathematics is a way to explore the diversity of cultures while simultaneously being something that students can gather themselves around. While cultures, such as Inuit and Navajo and Maya, may have different perspectives on the distribution of time, the heavens, and agriculture due to their proximity to the equator – in essence, they have different ethnomathematics – these cultures are united by the fact that they have come to ways of knowing through interaction with their environment – in essence, that they have ethnomathematics. Both D’Ambrosio and Eglash, it seems, agree on the rich, paradoxical “unity through diversity” that ethnomathematics can bring to the classroom.

This is an interesting area for teachers to explore if they’re looking for interdisciplinary learning to come alive in their classroom!

References

Eglash, R. (2009). Native-American analogues to the Cartesian coordinate system. In B. Greer, S. Mukhopadhyay, A. Powell, & S. Nelson-Barber (Eds.). Culturally responsive mathematics education (pp. 281-294). New York: Routledge.

D’Ambrosio, U. (2001). Ethnomathematics: Link between traditions and modernity. The Netherlands: Sense. (Chapter 2).