Decolonizing math education

What we can learn from Indigenous teaching methods

Examples of beadwork done by students at Eganville and District Public School in collaboration with Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation artist and ethnomathematician Christina Ruddy. With Ruddy and Lakehead University researcher Ruth Beatty, the students explored the cultural significance and mathematics of loom beading, including multiplicative, algebraic and proportional reasoning.

Grade 3

Photo: Ruth Beatty

Canada’s school curricula have historically been very Eurocentric, prioritizing European educational philosophies and worldviews. But Indigenous Peoples have been on these lands for millennia and have their own ways of teaching and knowing that are largely ignored in the current education system. Ruth Beatty, associate professor in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University, is working with Indigenous partners including Colinda Clyne and Christina Ruddy to bring some of these techniques into classrooms in Canada. In doing so, they’re making complex math concepts more relatable for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike.

“The way we usually teach math is so abstract and removed from students’ lived experiences,” says Beatty. “We wanted to find a way to make math instruction more meaningful for everybody, while honouring and respecting the knowledge that has been here since time immemorial.”

Grade 5

Photo: Michael Fitzmaurice

Rethinking education about Indigenous culture

What little Indigenous content is found in K-12 curricula is usually confined to history or social studies, portraying Indigenous culture as static, belonging to peoples of the past. Clyne, curriculum leader for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education with the Upper Grand District School Board in southern Ontario, and a member of Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg First Nation, was excited to work on a mathematics education project that presents Indigenous culture in a different light.

“This project shows that we’re here right now, a living culture that continues to evolve,” says Clyne. “And it shows that Indigenous knowledge is everywhere.”

Grounding math in real-world applications

Each of the project teams, which include Indigenous artists and educators from local communities, link art forms such as beading, birch bark basket-making and moccasin-making with mathematical concepts including algebraic, proportional and spatial reasoning. For example, as students design and create their own beaded bracelets, they learn about the relationships between wrist measurements, bead size and pattern dimensions, and how to make adjustments to get the desired results. In some projects, students even learn coding skills, enabling them to explore even more pattern permutations.

“In speaking to teachers and students, I’ve found that the way they’re thinking about math now is different—much deeper and richer—than before,” says Beatty.

Grade 3 students at Eganville and District Public School with their beadwork.

Photo: Ruth Beatty

But the project is about more than making math accessible. Students also receive teachings connected to the cultural activity, which are essential to the learning experience and provide an avenue for Indigenous students to explore, connect with and share elements of their culture in a way that emphasizes its value. Ruddy, an Algonquin artist of the Pikwakanagan First Nation and a co-researcher in the work since its inception, says that’s been missing from education for a long time.

“Growing up, I was told constantly that Indigenous people can’t do math,” says Ruddy. “Introducing it in this way proves that wrong while empowering kids to value their own inherent knowledge. That builds self-esteem and self-worth in a way that is irreplaceable.”

Long-lasting effects

With funding support from SSHRC—an Indigenous Research Capacity and Reconciliation Connection Grant, a Connection Grant, and an Insight Development Grant—the project has grown from just two classrooms in Renfrew County to a movement that has been shared with more than 1,000 students across Ontario and will soon be expanded to communities in Saskatchewan. The team has presented at multiple conferences and webinars, and received Lakehead University’s Community Engaged Research and Indigenous Partnership Research awards for their work.

“Wherever we go and whoever we speak to, people are really passionate about this work,” says Beatty. “Many of the community artists we have worked with are now picking it up and carrying forward without needing much support from us, which is what we hoped for from the beginning.”

But she cautions that the project must always be Indigenous-led. Using it strictly as math education enhancement without Indigenous partners would directly oppose the project’s primary goals.

Ruddy agrees: “What we’re doing is a direct connection to a past that’s been silenced for so long. When I got involved as an artist, I had no idea it would become a lifetime journey for me. It has been an incredible gift to get to be a role model for Indigenous kids and share this experience with them.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about the project, watch a webinar hosted by the project team, visit the Supporting Indigenous Learners in Mathematics website, or read Beatty and Clyne’s paper, Relationships and Reciprocity Towards Decolonizing Mathematics Education.