Educators Aim to Enhance Student Interest in Math by Incorporating Cultural Relevance

In her lesson on linear equations last fall, Sydney Kealanahele asked her class of eighth graders on Oahu a thought-provoking question about the significance of the kalo, or taro root, in Hawaii. Prior to delving into math, she engaged them with a discussion about their knowledge of kalo and whether they had actually harvested it.

One unassuming boy, who had never participated in class discussions and showed little interest in math, surprised everyone by raising his hand. He excitedly shared that he picked kalo with his grandma on her farm, sparking the class’s curiosity and enthusiasm.

Prompted by the students’ shared experiences, the classroom discussion unfolded organically, focusing on the pivotal role of kalo in Hawaiian cuisine, particularly in the traditional dish, poi. Observations were made about the declining number of taro farms in Oahu, leading to an exploration of the reasons behind decreased taro production and the associated labor shortages on farms.

Drawing from her professional development training in ethnomathematics, Kealanahele deftly steered the lesson towards a hands-on investigation of the historical and cultural context of taro farming. By graphing data on taro production over time, she facilitated a dynamic discussion on the factors affecting taro cultivation and the broader implications for agricultural labor practices.

While teaching eighth-grade math at a branch of the Kamehameha Schools for six years, Kealanahele introduced this innovative approach for the first time, integrating real-world farming narratives into math instruction. The ethnomathematics framework she employed aimed to bridge the gap between abstract mathematical concepts and students’ lived experiences, fostering a deeper appreciation for the cultural significance of math.

Kealanahele’s pioneering use of ethnomathematics underscores a broader movement to transform math education by infusing cultural relevance into the curriculum. Advocates argue that conventional math instruction often fails to resonate with Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students, perpetuating achievement disparities and disengagement in classrooms. By grounding math lessons in cultural contexts, educators can empower students to connect math to their own heritage and identities.

According to Shelly Jones, a math education professor at Central Connecticut State University, traditional math classrooms can be alienating for Black and Brown students, emphasizing deficits rather than celebrating diverse mathematical knowledge. By embracing culturally responsive approaches like ethnomathematics, educators seek to cultivate a more inclusive and empowering math learning environment for all students.

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