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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Ethnomath: Will kids learn more math if it's culturally relevant?

In an attempt to make math "more engaging and inclusive," some teachers are teaching what's called ethnomathematics, writes Hechinger's Kate Rix. "Achievement gaps are in part a result of overly abstract math instruction that’s disconnected from student experience," say advocates.

In Oahu, Sydney Kealanahele launched a class on linear equations by asking eighth graders what they knew about kalo, or taro root. A boy talked about picking kalo with his grandmothers. Others discussed poi, the Hawaiian food made from mashed taro. Someone said there are fewer taro farms on Oahu.

That’s when Kealanahele guided the conversation to the whiteboard, plotting data on pounds of taro produced over time on a graph, which created a perfect descending line. The class talked about why there is less taro production, which led to a discussion about the shortage of farm labor.

Kealanahele was inspired by the ethnomathematics program at the University of Hawaii West Oahu, but says she doesn't have the time to do an ethno-lesson more than twice in three months.

Ancient Hawaiians slid down the side of the Hualālai Volcano in an extreme sport known as holua, Janel Marr teaches her students. “We talked about . . . what would the slope be? How fast might they be going? Because slope is really related to the rate of speed,” she said. “Math isn’t just theoretical. It’s having an experience of being part of the place.”

Ron Eglash and his wife, Audrey Bennett, both University of Michigan professors, developed modules that teach the history of a cultural practice, such as braiding hair into cornrows, quilting, beading and henna designs, then let students use software to create their own designs. Cornrow Curves and similar lessons have been adopted by districts in 25 states.


Math is cultural, said Mark Ellis, a professor of education at California State University, Fullerton. Students learn math "descended from the computational traditions of many places, including Mesopotamia (360-degree circles), ancient Greece (geometry and trigonometry), India (decimal notation, the concept of zero) and China (negative numbers)." Ethnomath might add "sub-Saharan fractal geometry and Mayan counting systems."

 While there's little research on whether ethnomath students learn more math, Ellis argues that He said that "culturally responsive instruction takes other measures into account, besides academic outcomes," such as "students’ attitude about math, sense of belonging in math classes and engagement in math discourses."

I think the learning math part is important. I also hope students will understand that the power of math is abstraction. It doesn't matter whether the Greeks or the Egyptians thought up geometry first. Human beings figured it out over the ages and 21st-century human beings can learn it too.


May 26

"plotting data on pounds of taro produced over time on a graph, which created a perfect descending line."

Therefore it most likely wasn't actual data. The real world hardly ever creates a perfect line.

That being said, there's nothing wrong with introducing a topic in such as way that it makes students care about what's coming. We do it all the time. Give the students a puzzle to solve (logarithms come to mind) and let them see the relationship within the puzzle, before saying "and here's the formula to solve exponential equations". Even before that the HW had exponential equations to solve (3^x=10, solve to two decimal places) and they did it by guess and check (which is a g…


May 24

If they're going to teach all that other stuff in math class, how's about teaching some MATH in the history and English classes?


May 24

Please, show me how to teach everything I'm supposed to teach in the curriculum AND include this kind of silliness.

I assure you, no one in my trig classes knows or cares who invented sine and cosine curves, or what their skin color was. It's a non-issue.

Adults make this an issue to paper over realities that make •them• uncomfortable, such as cultural achievement gaps.


Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Malcolm Kirkpatrick
May 24

Math is had because it's so easy. Like running.

This Sam Lloyd puzzle dates to the days of iceboxes and horse drawn transport.

A milkman has two ten-gallon dairy cans (full) of milk. One cook has a three-gallon pail (empty). One cook has a five-gallon pail (empty). Each cook wants two gallons of milk. There are no spare containers. There is no way to mark the containers. The milkman does not want to pour milk away. How does he make the sale?

I'll be back.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Malcolm Kirkpatrick
May 24
Replying to

It's a lesson in the advantage of notation.

<10,10, 0, 0>

<5,10, 5, 0>

<5, 7, 5, 3>

<8, 7, 5, 0>

<8, 7, 2, 3>

<8, 9, 0, 3>

<8, 9, 3, 0>

<6, 9, 5, 0>

<6, 9, 2, 3>

<6, 10, 2, 2>

Try do this in words. Maybe someone with IQ 180 could do it. Maybe someone with exceptional visual imagination could see this and count the steps. I was stumped until I used notation. Notation makes it easy.

There's no reason to deprive any group of clear Math instruction, except ...

Enrollment determines school funding. This gives to administrators a strong incentive to maximize residence time in the system (i.e., to waste students' time).


May 23

Would it makes sense to conclude the same would be true of white, Anglo-Saxon children? Would their math scores drop in a learning environment, which focused solely on the dominant culture in the classroom or school?

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