Educators aim to make math meaningful for students by relating it to their cultural background.

This article discussingethnomathematics was authored by The Hechinger Report, a non-profit, independent news organization highlighting issues of inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to the

When Sydney Kealanahela initiated her linear equations lesson with her eighth-grade students in Oahu, she sparked curiosity by delving into the significance of kalo (taro root) in Hawaiian culture. She engaged her class in a discussion about kalo, teasing out personal experiences and connecting math with their daily lives.

One student who had previously shown little interest in math shared his enthusiasm for picking kalo with his grandmother, bridging the gap between their cultural heritage and mathematical principles.

The vibrant class dialogue not only touched upon the traditional Hawaiian food poi but also raised awareness about the declining number of taro farms in Oahu.

Capitalizing on the moment, Kealanahela transitioned to the whiteboard to illustrate taro production data through a graph, stimulating a conversation about the diminishing taro yields and the labor shortage on farms.

Kealanahela, a long-time eighth-grade math instructor at a Kamehameha Schools, enhanced her teaching by incorporating an ethnomathematics approach, which intertwines math with cultural narratives, resonating with students’ realities.

While ethnomathematics has existed for years, its recent expansion strives to address disparities in math education, particularly among Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students who historically score lower on federal tests compared to their Asian American and white peers. Advocates underscore the importance of contextualizing math to bridge the achievement gap.

Shelly Jones, a professor of math education at Central Connecticut State University, emphasized the need to cultivate inclusive math spaces that honor students’ diverse knowledge and experiences, challenging conventional “one-size-fits-all” instruction methods.

Research on the efficacy of ethnomathematics remains limited, with its implementation primarily at the discretion of individual educators who embrace its principles. However, the potential benefits of ethnomathematics on student confidence and engagement are widely acknowledged when executed with appropriate training and sensitivity.

Reshaping Math Education Beyond Western Traditions

Ethnomathematics aligns with culturally responsive math teaching practices, requiring educators to forge personal connections with students and foster a math-friendly environment. It envisions math lessons grounded in real-world applications, such as skateboarding, braiding, and weaving, to stimulate students’ engagement and dismantle the myth of math as a Western invention.

Mark Ellis, a professor of education at California State University, Fullerton, underscores the significance of incorporating non-Western mathematical traditions into curricula, challenging the Eurocentric lens through which math is often perceived in the U.S.

He urges educators to explore mathematical practices from various cultures, such as Hawaiian slope calculations, sub-Saharan fractal geometry, and Mayan numeral systems, to broaden students’ mathematical horizons.

Related: Backlash and Adaptations in Advanced Math Education

Ron Eglash, a professor at the University of Michigan, advocates for a holistic approach to ethnomathematics, encouraging students to delve into mathematical concepts across diverse cultures, fostering a deeper appreciation for global mathematical heritage.

The integration of ethnomathematics into mainstream education signifies a shift towards more inclusive and engaging math instruction, empowering students to navigate mathematical concepts through their unique cultural perspectives.

By infusing cultural narratives and real-world contexts into math education, educators can create dynamic learning experiences that resonate with students’ identities and foster a sense of belonging in math classrooms across diverse communities.

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