ERIC Identifier: ED380295
Publication Date: 1995-03-00
Author: Strutchens, Marilyn
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Multicultural Mathematics: A More Inclusive Mathematics. ERIC
One of the underlying themes of the NCTM Curriculum and Evaluation Standards
is mathematical connections (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989).
Students should be able to use a mathematical idea to further their
understanding of other mathematical ideas, and they should be able to apply
mathematical thinking and modeling to solve problems that arise in other
disciplines. Furthermore, they should understand the role of mathematics in our
multicultural society and the contributions of various cultures to the
advancement of mathematics.
Until recently there have not been
many links to students' culture in the mathematics classroom. This may be one of
the major barriers to achievement of many groups historically underrepresented
in mathematics, for these students may see mathematics as a subject that has
very little meaning or value for their current or future lives. Banks (1989)
contends that preparing students to be functional in a competitive, pluralistic
society and teaching them about their customs, heritage, history, and other
aesthetic aspects are essential components of an effective educational program.
As mathematics educators actively look for ways of linking mathematics and
our multicultural society (Bishop, 1988; D'Ambrosio, 1985; Frankenstein, 1990;
Zaslavsky, 1993), the five dimensions of multicultural education identified by
Banks (1994) provide a framework for empowering all of our students through
1. Content integration, the illumination of key points
of instruction with content reflecting diversity;
Knowledge construction, helping students understand how perspectives of people
within a discipline influence the conclusions reached within that discipline;
Prejudice reduction, efforts to develop positive attitudes toward different
Equitable pedagogy, ways to modify teaching to facilitate academic achievement
among students from diverse groups; and
Empowering school culture and social structure, ensuring educational equality
and cultural empowerment for students from diverse groups (pp. 4-5).
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING MATHEMATICS
The examples below
show how Banks' five dimensions of multicultural education can be used to make
mathematics more culturally inclusive.
"Content integration." The first dimension of multicultural mathematics
identifies diverse cultural contributions to mathematics. This dimension is
important because so many people view mathematics as Eurocentric. Consequently,
students from non-European backgrounds may feel that they cannot contribute to
the field and thus develop a helpless and powerless attitude toward mathematics.
Discussing the contributions of mathematicians from different ethnic groups,
nationalities, and genders helps students from diverse cultures overcome some of
their fears and negative attitudes toward mathematics.
For example, students can learn about Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught
African-American mathematician, who assisted in the surveying of the District of
Columbia, wrote almanacs, and created numerous mathematical puzzles (Reimer
& Reimer, 1992). Students can talk about Banneker's life and have fun
solving some of the puzzles he created.
Histories of mathematical concepts or skills also fall under the category of
content integration. For example, several proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem have
been found in countries as far apart as Babylonia, China, and India (Joseph,
1987). Discussing these proofs can help students see how different writers can
think about the same idea in several different ways.
"Knowledge construction." This component refers not only to group consensus
within a discipline but also to the process whereby individual students
construct knowledge for themselves. In mathematics classes, teachers can help
students understand that even though there are certain elements of mathematics
that are universal--such as counting, locating, measuring, designing, playing,
and explaining (Bishop, 1988)--there are differences in the ways diverse
cultural groups view some of the major aspects of mathematics. For example,
Indians and Chinese believe that a result in mathematics can be validated by any
method, including visual demonstration, whereas Europeans expect a conjecture to
be proven step by step, starting with self-evident axioms.
Teachers can help students see that mathematics is derived from real-life
situations by exposing them to ethnomathematics, the mathematics "practiced
among identifiable cultural groups, such as national-tribal societies, labor
groups, children of certain age brackets, professional classes, and so on"
(D'Ambrosio, 1985, p. 45). Ethnomathematical methods vary according to interest,
motivation, and certain codes and jargons that do not belong to the realm of
An example is the "case price technique" developed and used by milk drivers
to compute delivery charges. Suppose a driver has an order of 32 quarts of milk
at $.68 per quart. Instead of computing 32 x $.68, which is hard to do mentally,
the driver might take the case price (a case holds 16 quarts) and double it. If
a case costs $10.88, the driver can compute the cost mentally as $10.88 x 2
Discussion of ethnomathematical procedures can prompt the exploration of
methods that students bring with them into the classroom. The validation of
student-invented algorithms is important for self-esteem and belief in their
ability to do mathematics. Moreover, these invented algorithms are grounded in
real-life experiences and students' own construction of knowledge, thereby
making the mathematics more meaningful.
"Prejudice reduction." Positive attitudes toward different cultural groups
can be encouraged by using mathematics to study social or cultural issues.
Statistical data can reveal and dispel stereotypes and myths that affect
cultural groups. A critical understanding of numerical data prompts individuals
to question taken-for-granted assumptions about how society is structured and
enables them to act from a more informed position on societal structures and
processes (Frankenstein, 1990).
For example, the Percent Culture Inclusive Module (Strutchens, 1992) helps
students appreciate the importance of mathematics in their career choices. The
module includes national statistics on 8th graders' attitudes toward classes,
expected occupations, feelings about school, and problems teenagers have,
reported by race and ethnicity. Students are asked to complete surveys on these
topics before the national statistics are discussed. Later, the students tally,
present, and compare their data to the national data.
Multicultural literature can not only help with content integration but can
also help with prejudice reduction by depicting what is unique to a specific
culture and what is universal to all cultures. By portraying the nuances and
variety of day-to-day living, multicultural literature presents a true picture
of the culture it reflects (Bishop, 1992).
For example, The Black Snowman (Mendez, 1989) provides an excellent context
for discussing African-American heritage while learning the mathematics involved
in recycling bottles and cans. In this story, a teenager and his younger brother
discuss collecting bottles and cans to purchase a gift for their mother. The
story provides a context for students to talk about environmental and economic
issues. Students can discuss whether, in a given amount of time, it is more
profitable to collect bottles, or cans, or both. They might also want to contact
local recycling companies and compare rates, distance, and hours of operation to
see which company provides the best deal.
"Equitable pedagogy." This dimension is concerned mainly with interactions
between teachers and students and requires a mutual respect for culture, not
just in terms of historical contributions and artifacts, but in every aspect of
instruction. Teachers help students make connections between their community,
national, ethnic, and global identities (Ladson-Billings, 1990).
Teachers believe that all students can learn mathematics and teach
accordingly. Teachers see themselves as facilitators helping students to
construct their own knowledge of mathematics. Teachers understand and accept
that learning styles are baseline essentials for providing educational equity in
Teachers are passionate about content. Teacher-student relationships are
fluid, humanely equitable, and extend beyond the classroom into the community.
Teachers encourage students to learn collaboratively; students are expected to
teach each other and be responsible for each other (Banks, 1989; Heckman &
Weisglass, in press; Ladson-Billings, 1990).
An example of a program that fosters equitable pedagogy is The Algebra
Project, a program founded by Robert P. Moses, an African-American mathematician
and parent who wanted to ensure that his and other children develop a concrete
understanding of algebra. The Algebra Project provides sixth graders with a
smooth transition from arithmetic to algebra through a home, community, and
school culture and a model of intellectual development based on motivation
rather than ability (Moses, Kamii, Swap, & Howard, 1989, p. 423).
For example, to develop understanding of signed numbers, students begin with
the physical activity of riding a subway train. As the students and their
teacher travel on the subway, they notice where the train stops. Their entry
point is considered the origin; stops before the origin are denoted with
negative numbers, and stops after, with positive numbers. In this typical
lesson, students are taken through five steps to help them understand the
concept: (1) a physical event, (2) a picture or model of the event, (3) an
intuitive (idiomatic) description of the event, (4) a description in regimented
English, and (5) a symbolic representation of the event (Moses et al., 1989).
"Empowering school culture and social structure." Finally, in order to make
higher level mathematics accessible to all students, we must examine the
dimension of multicultural education that deals with the school culture and
social structure. Some of the variables considered here are grouping practices,
social climate, assessment practices, participation in extracurricular
activities, and staff expectations and responses to diversity.
One of the most critical aspects of mathematics is that it is viewed as a
filter that limits students' career aspirations (Sells, 1978). Many students
fail to qualify for certain college programs because they have not been
adequately prepared in mathematics. Researchers have found that African
Americans and other ethnic groups are the predominant groups in lower level
classes, where they generally receive substandard instruction and are not
adequately prepared to function in society (Oakes, 1990).
College preparatory mathematics or alternative mathematics courses that lead
to gainful employment should be available to all students. One such alternative
program is the Tech Prep Applied Academics program. Tech Prep is a collaborative
effort between industry and school systems to provide rigorous,
competency-based, hands-on, applied academic courses in physics, math,
communications, biology, and chemistry to prepare students for high tech careers
whose entry point is an associate degree from a community college. Through Tech
Prep, students can take applied academic courses along with vocational-technical
classes in their junior and senior years in high school and earn credit toward
their associate degree (Gayton, 1995). More initiatives of this sort must be
devised to provide all students the opportunity to succeed in our technological
and multicultural society.
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