Classroom Practice

Decolonizing Math: Creating Culturally Relevant Math Lessons

Decolonizing Math
Written by Andrea Simmons

Although students can have trouble with any subject, math is the one that students complain about most often. Often this comes from the fact that students don’t see the connection and relevance of math in their daily lives. Too often math problems don’t reflect realistic situations or connect to students’ realities, making it hard for them to really engage with the content. This is especially true for Indigenous students. Many of the elements of western math instruction don’t necessarily align with the principles of Indigenous learning.

So, how can teachers decolonize math lessons without it feeling overly contrived or inauthentic? Let’s look at some ways.

Integrating Indigenous Examples

A simple first step in integrating Indigenous perspectives into math content comes from integrating terminology and examples into math problems on a consistent basis. While this is a small change, using a relevant example can help a student understand a topic better. For example, if you are introducing the concept of probability to your class, using an example that showcases an Indigenous hand game that is frequently played within the community may help hold the students’ interest and help them better relate to the topic. By using a relevant and familiar example, students can instead focus on the new terminology related to the topic, rather than struggling to understand other elements of the example.

Sample – Probability in Lahal

It’s important that the examples used in instruction are pertinent and meaningful, as well as consistent. Ideally, examples come naturally to the explanation and are not forced. They should also add value to the instruction, not just be token names or places that are integrated to provide loose connections.  

Connecting Math & Indigenous Knowledge

Another way to help decolonize math content is by focusing content around the six areas of human activity that educational researchers, such as A.J. Bishop, have identified as common across all cultures. These include:

  • measuring
  • locating
  • playing
  • counting
  • designing
  • explaining

If you center math problems around these activities and work in relevant cultural terminology and examples, you will be able to make problems more approachable. A great example of this is using cooking to teach fractions. Food is an important part of the family culture in Indigenous communities.

If you base a math problem around how to scale a recipe to make a common dish in the community, such as Fry Bread or Bannock for a large group, you are using a real-world example that may resonate well with students and translate to the knowledge they will need. When students learn cooking from family members and elders, it is typical to hear terms like “a handful” or “a pinch”. An activity could start by measuring and quantifying some of these local values to align them with more universal numbers, like a ½ cup or ¼ teaspoon. Students can then learn how to scale the recipe by using proportional reasoning. They can also look at downscaling recipes to feed smaller groups and preserve resources, therefore applying division of fractions.  

To take this concept a step further, you can also look for ways to connect broader Indigenous themes to math instruction. Let’s look at an example of this:

Say you are teaching the topic of number percentages as part of your grade 8 math program. Instead of just jumping into a question, you can start by talking about a theme that may resonate with your students, like family and ancestry. By asking your students to map out their family tree and calculate percentages of different scenarios, like the number of females vs males, the average ages, or other variables, they will see real-world, contextual learning. Number percentages could also be taught by looking at topics such as resource management, predicted yields, or community profiles. This not only makes percentages more relevant but enhances numeracy as it includes some data analysis.

Using Stories in Math Instruction

Although word problems are a big part of teaching logic and reasoning, they are not often presented in alignment with Indigenous oral traditions. They may use sentences to frame the question and provide more details for the reader, but they are not truly story-based learning.

The use of storytelling can help frame a topic and provide history and context to learning. Consider how multiple topics can align under a theme and weave together in a lesson or a series of lessons and build out learning through stories.

In one recent example, we were working with a school where students were having trouble with the concepts of even and odd numbers, as well as with skip counting. What we decided to do was to build a story-driven set of videos that showcased the tale of three friends playing a game of Willow Sticks. This allowed us to weave in many math concepts to a game that most of the students in the community commonly played, making it more relevant and providing a new perspective to how the content could be taught. Instead of a teacher addressing it on a topic by topic level, the themes were woven into a story and related in a familiar situation.

Approaching Math from a Holistic Perspective

Weaving in storytelling, and providing relevant examples, can often lead to approaching math in a more holistic way. By relating to broader topics and themes, it allows for learning opportunities that bridge home, school and community.

It’s easy to work with math concepts like trajectories, angles and distance calculations while talking about outdoor education activities like ice fishing and trapping. You can also work in math skills when looking at science topics. While teaching students about trees, it’s easy to work in lessons about counting rings, determining a trunk’s radius or diameter, or predicting the volume of sap that a tree can generate per year as part of estimating the overall yield for syrup.

There is a natural progression toward math integration into other projects and subjects and a more holistic approach for inclusion.

Steps for Success

Decolonizing math resources does require some planning and structure, as well as support and participation by others. It may also require some preparation and education for teachers so they feel supported and comfortable including Indigenous examples as part of their teaching. To use an example well to support a math concept, a teacher may need to do some essential research. For instance, if a teacher wants to use an Indigenous game to explain a math concept, he or she will need to first make efforts to learn the game, its rules, its history, and its cultural significance. It may also require the collaboration of other teachers to build projects that span subjects or topics to better integrate math into overall learning.

If you would like to explore how Learning Bird can assist you in building decolonized math content, we’d be happy to chat. We can also share with you some other examples of content that support this. Contact us at 1-888-332-4775 or email achieve@learningbird.com.

About the author

Andrea Simmons

Andrea has a lifelong love of learning and has worked in the marketing and communications field for over 20 years, helping organizations share stories and build compelling content. When not writing, Andrea can often be found weeding her garden, baking something decadent, or building new worlds out of Lego.

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