ECS 203

A Whole New Perspective on Mathematics

I have always enjoyed math. My dad is a math teacher, and I always felt as though math just came naturally to me. It was my favourite subject, and I often found myself helping my friends in school who were not good at it. Now that I am in university, studying to become a math teacher, my ideas about what mathematics is are being challenged. This presentation by Dr. Gale Russell has really opened my eyes and made me rethink everything I thought I knew about mathematics.

First of all, mathematics is not universal. Many of us view mathematics as universal because we are only ever exposed to one Eurocentric way of understanding math, which causes us to believe there is only one way to do math. The Inuktitut number system is base 20, not base 10 like ours. They made it this way because between all their fingers and toes, each person has 20 units on their body they can easily use to count. As Poirer explains in Teaching mathematics and the Inuit community, “[d]ifferent cultures have developed different mathematical tools according to their needs and their environment, and the Inuit community is no exception” (54). Near the end of her lecture, Gale tells a story about a group of students from an Inuit community in Northern Quebec who were tested on their mathematics. The students performed extremely poorly on the first test they were given, leading some to think they did not know any math at all. However, the students only performed poorly because the exam was not written in their mathematical language. When the students were given an exam in base 20 that included emphasis on context, an integral part of Inuit mathematics, the students greatly outperformed their provincial counterparts.

Another common Eurocentric idea is that mathematics can only be learned through lectures, memorization, and standardized exams. Students often complain that they do not want to learn math because they will never again use it in everyday life. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Math is a part of our everyday existence whether it be comparing prices, calculating how long it will take to get somewhere, measuring ingredients or the size of something, etc. The problem is not that math is irrelevant to our lives, the problem is that the methods of learning math that have been engrained into us fail to connect to our lives and our innate relationship with mathematical reasoning. As Leroy Little Bear mentions in Jagged Worldviews Colliding, Aboriginal philosophy “leads to a holistic and cyclical view of the world. If everything is constantly moving and changing, then one has to look at the whole to begin to see patterns” (78). Therefore, instead of learning about patterns using arbitrary shapes, students could instead learn about patterns using the seasons of the year or the migration of animals, something that actually connects to their life and personal experiences outside of the classroom.

Finally, there is the misunderstanding that math is a skill only ‘smart’ people posses, and that some people just can’t do math. Throughout her presentation, Gale mentions many times that “we are all mathematical beings”. She also references studies that have shown babies understand basic subtraction and five year old children can comprehend the logic behind fractions. The idea that only some people can do math stems from this Eurocentric understanding that there is only one way to do math, as those who do not learn in this one way will fail. Inuit mathematics challenges this idea in every way. Their number system is in base 20. They have up to six different words for a single number, depending on the context it is being used in. Mathematical reasoning was traditionally taught orally, not with pencil and paper exercises. Everything about Inuit mathematics seems foreign to us, yet it works just fine for them. As mentioned earlier, Inuit students actually outperformed their provincial counterparts in math when tested using the Inuktitut number system. This not only proves that there is in fact more than one way of teaching mathematics, it also gives rise to the idea that all the understandings about math and the methods of doing math that have been so deeply engrained into us are not even the most effective way of learning the subject.

I hope this post has opened your eyes to a new perspective on mathematics and challenged some of the ideas you previously held about how math can and should be taught. I know that I have grown so much just from writing this post, and I cannot wait to learn more as I continue on my journey to becoming an educator.

One Comment

  • Bill Armstrong

    The example of the Inuit children who did poorly on the math test because their culture used mathematics in a different way reminded me of a story from when Operation Head Start began in the US in the 1960s to help disadvantaged students improve their educational performance. Some of the examples in their math tests used things like oranges in the test questions, but most of these kids had never seen an orange in their young lives, and so they too did poorly in answering the test questions because they didn’t understand the concepts. The testers had to revise their questions for a culture of poverty and deprivation.

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