Re-Calculating Math Instruction
Professors in the ethnomathematics movement are bringing diversity, culture and a more accurate history to math instruction
By Pamela R. Weiger
Orange Coast, Calif.
ichael Jordan, according to some math professors, is a mathematician. He estimates wrist angles, calculates the relationship between distance and speed and analyzes circumference. Interpreting the work of people like Jordan in a mathematical context, says Dr. Gloria Gilmer, is the essence of ethnomathematics, a growing academic field of study and teaching style that is gaining popularity in community college circles and elsewhere in higher education.
“The patterns in rap music, the patterns woven into corn-row hairstyles, the intricate fish nets on fishing boats, it’s all math, because math is the study of patterns,” Gilmer says. The Marquette University-educated mathematician has taught at six different historically Black institutions and was the first Black woman on the board of governors of the Mathematical Association of America. Today, she spends her time consulting and heralding the virtues of ethnomathematics.
As a field of study, ethnomathematics looks at the interaction between mathematics and culture. From a multicultural perspective, ethnomathematics proposes that math’s development is neither linear nor Eurocentric.
The study of ethnomathematics traces the roots of math to many non-European cultures, along the way correcting many of the misunderstandings about the history of the subject as it has traditionally been taught in the United States. Take for example, the oft-cited Pythagorean theorem.
“How could a theorem whose proof was recorded in Babylonian documents dating 1,000 years before Pythagoras was born be attributed to Pythagoras?” asks Dr. Eduardo Arismendi-Pardi, an associate professor of mathematics at California’s Orange Coast College and one of ethnomathematics’ rising stars.
A Brazilian mathematician and philosopher originally coined the term ethnomathematics in the early 1980s. The field has gained popularity in mathematical circles in recent years as an increasing number of educators are being encouraged to incorporate multiculturalism into curricula.
Several universities now offer courses in ethnomathematics, and next spring, Orange Coast College here expects to offer one of the first such courses at the community college level.
Perhaps the larger impact of this emerging field, however, is how it is changing the way math is taught at all levels. By relating mathematical concepts to everyday practices in various cultures, ethnomathematics makes the subject more user-friendly.
Gilmer calls it “people’s math.”
“A large population is unable to learn math as it is taught in our schools,” she says. “I can’t believe God is satisfied with this.”
“So many students are not successful in math because they are taught rules and theorems and algorithms, and they learn to mimic in a form of parrot math,”
Arismendi-Pardi says. “This [ethnomathematical] approach allows students to
discover math concepts on their own and it makes them less likely to forget what they learn.”
Confronting the ‘Ethnic’ Stigma
At the mention of the word “ethnomathematics,” some educators hear “Ebonics” and shudder. Arismendi-Pardi says his
subject is not at all like Ebonics. Other
proponents of this new math don’t mind the comparison.
“If you think of Ebonics as a form of communication, then there are similarities,” says Dr. Jim Barta, a professor in the Elementary Education Department at Utah State University. “The concepts of a square or a rectangle are the same — that’s the commonality — but the way they are expressed mathematically is aligned with culture.”
And like Ebonics, Barta believes ethnomathematics is designed to bolster self-esteem and make people proud of themselves.
“It’s ‘ethno,’ not ethnic,'” insists Gilmer, stressing that the “ethno” prefix can refer to any group, including national societies, labor communities, religious traditions and professional classes. As the founder and president emeritus of the International Study Group on Ethnomathematics, Gilmer says her biggest lament was that she couldn’t get African Americans to understand that “this area was made for us.”
“Math is hard for people because it is not real. It’s an abstraction, studying models, not reality,” she says. “And the elitists want to keep it that way.
“Why would you start with space when you could start with games in the neighborhood?” Gilmer believes that educators must attract people’s attention by looking at where they are.
For one of her research projects, she spent hours sitting in beauty parlors, quietly watching as stylists created intricate braiding and weaves in African American hair. Then, she says, she began to see patterns and suddenly, “I saw all kinds of mathematics.”
The result was a paper that answered the question, “What can the hair-braiding enterprise contribute to mathematics education, and, conversely, what can mathematics education contribute to the hair-braiding enterprise?”
Through a discussion of “tresselations,” box braids and triangles, she concluded “this single practical activity can, by its nature, generate more mathematics than the application of a theory to a particular case.”
Gilmer, who looks at contemporary examples of mathematics while others look at historical examples, says she believes that African Americans can be particularly resistant to this new approach to math.
“It has taken so long for people to acknowledge that African Americans know math that they don’t want to take a step backwards,” she says. “It has to do with whether you are satisfied with segregating yourself as one of only a few who can do it, or you want to be a citizen of the world and respect other people’s way of doing math.”
A Better Way to Learn Math?
Some critics of ethnomathematics cite the lack of empirically based data to support the claim that this may be a better way for students to learn math than the traditional drill-and-worksheet methods. Both Arismendi-Pardi and Barta agree that results-based research is lacking, but they cannot ignore what they’ve seen in the classroom.
“My own personal, very limited experience shows me that students perform better and have greater retention [with ethnomathematics],” Arismendi-Pardi says. “And they definitely have a better attitude towards math, when in the past it has usually been very negative. But it is hard when you only have one semester to undo all the negative feelings they have about themselves and math.”
“I don’t discount what I see when the kids’ eyes light up and they get excited and say ‘You mean my mom’s a mathematician?'” Barta says.
As for the skeptics who see ethnomathematics as a politically correct fad, Arismendi-Pardi insists that it is much more than that, and in fact is a serious field of endeavor. His goal now is to show this particular pedagogical approach to as many colleges as he can, and he has already made a serious attempt at spreading the word.
He has been invited to speak to schools and organizations across California and beyond. The California Academic Senate recently endorsed the ethnomathematics approach as a method of teaching to improve results.
“It is taking on a political angle,” acknowledges Dr. Daniel Orey, professor of teacher education at California State University-Sacramento. But with the surge toward testing and back-to-basics, he believes ethnomathematics can help teachers working with basic concepts needed for testing.
“Look at how many questions in the tests can be done with algorithms,” he says. “Our goal is to turn these tools into strategies for success.”
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