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Math education looks to culture

At a time when United States students continue to test below other countries in math performance, educators are looking for ways to improve student understanding. A new approach that promotes math comprehension looks to culture, not science, to motivate students. Known as Ethnomathematics this idea helps students develop their math skills.

A new trend in education, called ethnomathematics, looks to engage students learning math by using references to culture as a connection to the real world. Ethnomathematics combines anthropology, history, and mathematics. The goal is to promote mathematical skills while gaining a better understanding of specific cultures.

Cultures may be foreign, such as using Mayan culture to illustrate the concept of place value, the idea that the digits one-zero are not two numbers but the number ten. The Mayan number system is base twenty, while the western standard is base ten. The contrast helps illustrate the underlying mathematical concept.

Cultures may also be local. In New York one teacher takes students on the subway to teach them about negative numbers. Where they enter the subway is stop zero. Anything further down the line on the ride is given a positive number, while any stops before stop zero are given a negative number. The fieldtrip provides a physical connection to an abstract concept.

Ohio State University education professor Donna Berlin says using these techniques takes thought.

Berlin says, "I would say that it shouldn't be forced. It shouldn't be that you're doing it in an obvious way because you want to connect to a person's culture. It should fit in with what you want to teach. And it does take time for a teacher to find the appropriate resources that target what, in fact, you're trying to teach."

Columbus Public Schools teacher Clare Bell agrees. A middle school teacher for the past fourteen years, she says adding activities and examples into a lesson for the sake of culture is wrong. The addition of material to the lesson should be subtle and help reinforce what is being taught.

Bell has developed an approach that brings in many cultures. This idea, featured in Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School magazine, brings together Islamic, Native American, and Mesoamerican art with geometry. Students create tiles featuring designs from other cultures by playing with the relationships between circles, triangles, lines, and angles. In the process they learn something about the cultures involved.

Bell says, "Why is it important to do this rather than just the worksheets on the geometry? Well, this draws the kids in because it's beautiful, first of all. Some of them are very artistically inclined; some of them have great sense of color. So you've brought in another element that gets them excited about going through this process and doing these things and learning the relationships with the angles and the circles and the lines."

Though the term Ethnomathematics was first used in the sixties, its implementation in the classroom is still largely a teacher's choice. According to Michael Grote of the Columbus School District current textbooks are written for general audiences across the country, and if teachers wish to include ethnomathematic ideas, they must develop the materials on their own.

Berlin says this idea is nothing new for dedicated teachers.

Berlin says, "I think teachers have, good teachers, effective teachers, have always tried to connect the curriculum to their students, and to move their students beyond their small world."

Not everyone believes ethnomathematics has a place in the classroom. New York University professor and education historian Diane Ravitch, though unavailable for comment, wrote in electronic correspondence that teaching mathematics attached to cultures limits the idea that mathematics is a universal language. She also says the addition of these ideas to the curriculum will not help US performance in international assessments.

Bell and Berlin disagree, saying evidence exists to show that the technique is working. Bell says ethnomathematics, though uncommon today, will continue to gain popularity. As the teachers of tomorrow are taught ethnomathematics today they will learn to incorporate these ideas in their classrooms. She adds the change will not come only because of exposure, but because of the nature of ethnomathematics itself.

Bell says, "As more people experience it, more people will want to continue to use it because it's a whole lot more fun, it's a whole lot more interesting. The learning is deeper, and it's just a more meaningful approach to doing the job."

Berlin adds it is a global world, and while the goal is learning the math, knowing more about the world will be a necessary part of any student's life.

Brent Davis is the TV Content Director for WOSU Public Media. He believes that it is vital that WOSU is recognized as a primary source for authentic, engaging, and informative content.