We are all Mathematical Beings

This week’s focus on curriculum as numeracy sparked my attention and challenged me to question how the way math is being taught in schools is oppressive and strictly addresses the dominant worldview. Eddie Woo’s Ted Talk, the assigned chapter from Jagged Worldviews CollidingTeaching Mathematics and the Inuit Community and Dr. Gale Russell‘s engaging presentation all provided me with various perspectives concerning teaching and learning mathematics.

Reflecting on my experiences in mathematics illustrates how the way mathematics is taught in schools does not create equitable learning opportunities for all students. The concept of accepting and embracing all ways of thinking and knowing is not new to me as it was consistently stated in my classrooms that everyone thinks differently, however, beyond stating this comment, the belief was rarely implemented in classrooms and often entirely contradicted. In my math classrooms the phrase “math is universal” was often expressed and personally, this became something I adored about the subject because I viewed it as a language for global communication. Reflecting on my experiences illustrates how the belief that math is universal is a myth, and in reality, the way mathematics is being taught is extremely culturally biased. For example, I learned math through the base-10 numerical system and it was critical that I understood the word equal to mean “the exact same” in order to be successful in my math classes. What about students who grew up being exposed to different numerical systems or have been taught alternative meanings for the word equal? How is this fair to them?  I was also trained to reiterate formulas, practice repetition, and memorize multiplication tables to ensure I would perform well on tests. Personally, I was successful in this system and the affirmation I received from my test marks motivated my positive attitude towards math. Due to my personal passion for mathematics, I also challenged myself to learn the “why” concerning what I was being taught so that I could justify my work.  But what about students who struggle with writing exams and did not put in the effort to learn what isn’t being explicitly taught? Is this system doing them an injustice? I believe that even students who prosper in math classrooms may be missing out on the possibility of developing deep understandings due to the emphasis placed on simply doing well on exams. Another problematic result of the way math is being taught is that many students develop negative attitudes towards math and the belief that they simply “do not get math” early on in their schooling. This attitude follows them and may cause them to choose to take the pathways of math stereotyped to be easier or totally avoid taking math classes which may hinder their opportunities in the future. Math is everywhere in our world, utilized by everyone, and rooted deeply in daily activities. Unfortunately, the way math is being taught in schools makes the subject appear daunting for some students, separate from everyday life and does not permit one’s culture and community to have a role in the learning process.

Eurocentric views of mathematics control the school system but despite their dominance, other brilliant perspectives of mathematics do exist and are deserving of being acknowledged and implemented. Louise Poirier discusses Inuit Mathematics which is very different from the math that I have been taught proving that the belief that “math is universal” is a myth and that what I believe to be common sense in math is not the same for everyone. For the Inuit culture, mathematics is performed under the base 20 numerical system which is vastly different from performing mathematical operations in the base 10 system that dominates the school system. Their reason for using base 20 follows that humans have 20 digits (fingers and toes combined) which I believe is both brilliant and logical. The second big difference I noticed between Inuit mathematics and Eurocentric mathematics is the gap that occurs when translating words between the two languages. For example, “line” in Eurocentric mathematics is automatically assumed to be straight but in Inuit mathematics, the term “line” does not imply straight. This is due to the reason that straight lines are far to come by in nature and the Inuit people place a great emphasis on learning from the land. This also connects to how in Inuit mathematics they do not have measuring tools such as rulers or compasses but rather they use objects found in nature or their limbs for the purpose of measuring. What was most interesting for me is that in Inuit mathematics, they do not have symbols for representing numbers because they simply represent numbers orally and a number without context has no meaning in their culture. Thus, they do not use formulas or perform hand-written operations which are highly emphasized in Eurocentric mathematics.

Exploring Inuit mathematics, taught me that my way of understanding mathematics is not the only way and that as an educator, I will need to be cautious when teaching math and ensure that I am not blinded by the commonsense understandings of mathematics that I have become engrained with throughout my schooling. We are ALL mathematical beings, and it is my goal to develop a classroom where ALL students are inspired to discover their mathematical abilities and learn math from various perspectives.

 

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