Historical Straight Talk About Math
Contrary to some Eurocentric approaches to teaching mathematics, ethnomathematicians instruct their students about how people of all cultures have used math over the course of history.
In his courses, Dr. Eduardo Arismendi-Pardi of California’s Orange Coast College, cites references to the Egyptians, Japanese, Chinese, Mayans, Africans, Latin Americans and Incas, all of whom used mathematical concepts.
Egyptian architect Imhotep’s genius in conceiving the design and plans to build the pyramids of Saqqara, for example, are evidence of the high degree of mathematical precision used by these early Africans, which, Arismendi-Pardi says, surprises many modern-day architects.
Arismendi-Pardi also notes that while the Inca culture did not have a written language, its members used an accurate numeration system of base-10 to collect vital statistical information to distribute goods and operate their society.
Arismendi-Pardi teaches all his math courses from a multicultural perspective, without “reducing the rigors of math,” he says. He might, for example, ask students in intermediate algebra to evaluate a certain algebraic expression, and then point out that the Babylonians used the same expression as a formula for multiplication. His approach may be especially useful for adults and minority students.
As a mandatory course in most schools, math classes are often seen as the last bastion of noncultural learning, a stereotype that Dr. Jim Barta, a professor at Utah State University, tries to overcome on a regular basis. By making the connections for students between math and culture, he creates a “culturally inclusive, culturally relevant” curriculum that uses common things as examples and foundations to teach math.
“It allows teachers to take charge and make the curriculum specific to the groups they are teaching,” he says.
Dr. Daniel Orey, a professor of teacher education at California State University-Sacramento, describes ethnomathematics as the intersection of cultural anthropology and mathematics. The 1998 Fulbright Scholar spends his summers working with high school students in Brazil, where he uses the concepts of ethnomathematics and encourages students to interview their parents to find out what different kinds of math and mathematical algorithms they are using in everyday life.
“My gosh, they accomplished the most amazing stuff once they believed they could do it,” Orey says.
Back in California, Orey works with teachers to show them how to impart the same concepts to their students, using everyday cultural activities as examples of math.
Sarah Case, one of Orey’s graduate students who has been teaching third grade for three years, has taken on pine baskets as her project.
“It’s got me thinking a whole different way, a different perspective,” Case says.
“My mother has been making coil baskets for years, and now I see the concept of spheres, symmetry, balance, triangles and patterns in her work.”
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