Research in Action: Making mathematics more meaningful through culturally responsive education

Women smiling wearing pink frame glasses and a blue flowered shirtMath is not a four-letter word. But to those with rampant math phobia, it certainly feels like it. Dr. Ruth Beatty, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University’s Orillia campus often sees students who actively dislike or even fear math. To her the problem isn’t with math itself, it’s with how the subject traditionally has been taught.

She started her research career looking at how children understand math and how educators can best teach the subject. She found that by looking beyond numbers and symbols and by taking a more holistic approach to what it means to think “mathematically” teachers could make math more accessible and fun.

Nine years ago, while teaching in the Master's program at Lakehead’s Thunder Bay campus, Beatty made a fascinating connection that has guided her work since then.

“Some of my students were First Nations educators or had been teaching in First Nation schools and we were talking about the disconnect between Indigenous culture and mathematics education in Ontario curriculum,” said Beatty. “I started visiting communities to learn more.”

While working with the Elders she realized that math is naturally embedded in Indigenous cultural practices like beadwork or birch-bark basket-, snowshoe- and moccasin-making.

“Take a beaded bracelet, for example,” says Beatty. “There's so much math in it. There is patterning and algebraic reasoning, there’s geometric transformations, proportional and spatial reasoning. There's number sense and numeration.”

With that cultural connection in mind, Beatty began a study in 2012 with the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation and teachers from the Renfrew County District School Board at a school with 20 per cent Indigenous students and 80 per cent non-Indigenous students. The project partnered community members, artists, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers with Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators to co-plan math instruction for Grade 3 and 6 students based on Algonquin loom beading. Cultural and language teachings were also integrated into the math unit.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. Indigenous students got to share their heritage and gain a sense of pride in their own knowledge systems that were valued on the same level as Western curriculum. Non-Indigenous students gained an appreciation of Indigenous culture. Most importantly, both groups learned exciting new math skills in a fun and engaging environment.

Perhaps the best endorsement of the math classes came from the students themselves. At the end of a session, with students working in their designs, making calculations to determine how many beads they would need, the teacher told them to wrap it up, math class was over. They looked up in surprise. Wait? What? Math? They had spent three hours absorbed in their learning with no idea they were, in fact, doing math.

Beatty and her team have collaborated with nine more communities around the province including The Chippewas of Rama First Nation and Simcoe County District School Board. Her work shows that math doesn’t belong to Eurocentric culture or scholars. Math is all around us and if taught in inventive, positive, and culturally responsive ways, no one needs to be afraid of it.

Faculty of Education professor Dr. Ruth Beatty and her school board partners received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, CanCode, and the Council of Ontario Directors of Education to carry out this important research.