Hidden Oppression in the Math Experiences of Traumatized Kids… and Exploring Patterns in Math Worlds, Including Inuit Math

Leroy Little Bear gives some illustrative examples of how mathematics is approached through the Inuit lens:

-Language (Inuktitut, English, German) affects the learning of numbers

-Base 20 system is followed

-Counting is less important

-Inuktitut as traditionally an oral language affects students the experience of the written word, includes numbers, and written math equations

-Measurements by fingers, rather than rulers 

-Calendar months by different animal, plant and season shifts. Slightly different every year. -Affected by the environment.

Leroy Little Bear states that colonialism “tries to maintain singular social order by means of force and law, suppressing the diversity of human worldviews.”

“Typically this proposition creates oppression and discrimination….-”

In elementary and high school, I learned math in French. I think this was a privilege – to learn math in another language. And to have the opportunity for formal education is a privilege too. Many of us do not realize how lucky we are just to be learning every day. While many underprivileged groups endure their daily fights against hunger, abuse, oppression, others are fortunate just to have seats in the classroom with bellies full of food, parents with good jobs, peace in their home life, warm, clean clothes to wear, and very little “big stressors” to worry about.

When basic needs are met, life is different: Our brains are primed for a different kind of learning. 

Truthfully, my childhood education experience was coated in layers of seemingly unbeatable stress – the kind that seems impossible to change – and that, to my dismay, even at the time, was in my awareness that the stress was interfering significantly with my learning.

Grade 10, 11, 12 math is incredibly challenging. Our French Immersion math teacher in high school was incredible. She was passionate about mathematics and cared greatly about passing along her knowledge to others. She worked hard to help every student understand complex math concepts. There are, however, the greater barriers to learning, the ones that feel too big for us as children. These are the barriers that exist in the unspeakable spaces: because to give voice to it would be to risk breaking ourselves. Only the traumatized know the fear, the sting, the caution, the risk….of being unheard.

So better to sit through math class. Try our best to focus. But using a brain that has been primed to dissociate wants the opposite of math learning. It wants to be free to run loops, to find creative outs, rather than the structured focus of the math. Or at least, I did.

Painful for me was the reality that I had the capacity to excel at math. I had the smarts, but I couldn’t bring myself to keep my attention on my schoolwork and learning. I would find myself focusing politely for the minimum expected duration. We would then move on to individual work time, and I would distract others, goofing off and avoiding the work. I hated my own pain and suffering more than I loved math.

Truthfully, I felt deeply bothered that I could not be present in class, knowing I was losing out on important learning opportunities, but telling myself “I will figure it out later” Later, I learned, that would be much more difficult than I ever could have thought, and that in fact, it was my traumatized brain that was preventing me from learning.

I believe it is beyond the scope of most math teachers, to support kids whose brains have been overtaken by traumatic hooks, and whose focus is at best, fragile. Our teachers are spread thin, giving every moment of time to each student, helping them to break down concepts, and helping them understand to the best of their ability. They are not meant to be counsellors, or social workers, or family therapists: But what enormous expectations we may place on them. They themselves also cannot fix the fabric of society, a culture that created or contributed to the difficulties students face. They are trying to teach math, but truthfully, they will bump up against so much more. So many other painful truths, maybe invisible at times, but sometimes brought forth by attempts to follow the pathways of instruction for mathematics curriculum learning.

Expanding on our learning, we watched a YouTube video, featuring Eddie Woo (Mathematics is the sense you never knew you had). What I liked is how he showed that there is math in everything. Math is everywhere.

And what underlies this is more common connections. Such as the work of Bishop (1988), who recognizes six different domains of mathematics that seem to be found in all cultures:







In future education work, I am interested in reading studies on how students’ brains are impacted by trauma. Specifically, how are mathematical learning centers affected by trauma?

My brain’s curiosity goes to the six domains described by Bishop. I can’t help but wonder if these common mathematical processes are used in the experiences of children living through ongoing situations of complex post-traumatic stress in their upbringings. For example, in homes of violence, how many times do children “count” the reactions of their stressed-out parents? In what ways are complex mathematical calculations used to predict future trauma? Once this pattern of thinking has been established in the mind, brain and psyche of traumatized children – how might these pathways be inadvertently reactivated by the learning of similar math processes in school? And could the unknowing reactivation of these pathways by educators (without acknowledgement of the hidden history) actually cause a further stress response in children that may affect their learning?

I hypothesize that traumatized children may learn math differently (as well as other subjects), and the lack of understanding of this contributes to a type of systematic oppression that we are only just beginning to learn about. 

Clearly, there is so much to learn and explore – from the depths of particular math approaches – such as Inuit mathematics – understanding commonalities and patterns in mathematical thinking – and exploring layers of hidden oppression. What a journey!


Louise Poirier (2007). Teaching mathematics and the Inuit community, Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 7(1). p. 53-67.

Alan Bishop (1988). Educational Studies in MathematicsVol. 19, No. 2, Mathematics Education and Culture (May, 1988), pp. 179-191

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