For over a decade, teachers, administrators, elders, and other community members of the Yup'ik Eskimo villages in southwest Alaska have been planning ways to integrate traditional Yup'ik mathematics and science into the school curriculum, introducing such topics as the Yup'ik base-twenty system of number words and the symmetry of patterns in clothing and basketry.
A continent away, British mathematics educator Mary Harris assembled a traveling exhibit, Common Threads, to illustrate mathematical concepts intrinsic in women's work with textiles in various cultures. For example, she compares the geometry involved in knitting the heel of a sock - "women's mathematics" - with that of designing a right-angled cylindrical pipe - "real mathematics."
At the same time, sixth graders in a predominantly Latino, low-income community in New York City plan an outdoor play space within their school yard to accommodate the preschoolers to whom they teach mathematics. The sixth graders attend the Community Service Academy of a public middle school, and the preschoolers come from an African American church and a Jewish community center (Zaslavsky 1996).
All these people are engaged in doing ethnomathematics, which is the meeting of cultural anthropology with mathematics and education.
People all over the world are involved in mathematical activities. They count objects, measure various quantities, design buildings and works of art, locate places in space, and play games that incorporate mathematical concepts. Of necessity, they develop terminology to communicate with others about these practices. How they carry out these activities differs from one society to another. We can no longer view mathematics as a culture-free discipline.
The Brazilian philosopher of mathematics Ubiratan D'Ambrosio introduced the term ethnomathematics in the 1970s in speeches emphasizing the influence of sociocultural factors on the teaching and learning of mathematics. In his usage, the prefix "ethno" encompasses identifiable groups, such as national societies, ethnic groups, works in a specific field, professional classes, local communities, or children of a certain age, and includes their jargon, codes, symbols, myths, and ways of reasoning. By no means is a precise definition of ethnomathematics accepted by all who are interested in sociocultural perspectives in mathematics, nor is complete agreement found about the term that should be used to describe such perspectives. In Africa Counts: Number and Pattern in African Culture (1973), I wrote about the sociomathematics of African peoples. Ethnomathematics is not confined to ethnic mathematics; it includes the mathematics developed by various ethnic groups but has a wider scope as well.
Although ethnomathematics is concerned with the mathematical experiences of various groups, multicultural education is a national movement that encompasses all aspects of education for all students at all grade levels and involves all disciplines. Ideally, multicultural education is a program that promotes the right of all students, whatever their gender, ethnic and racial heritage, or socioeconomic status, to receive the highest possible level of education that will enable them to understand the issues and problems of our diverse society and later solve them. Students should be encouraged to develop skills in critical thinking and analysis that can be applied to all areas of life, including vital issues involving race, gender, and socioeconomic class.
Multicultural mathematics education requires the inclusion in the curriculum of the ethnomathematics of all peoples - ethnic and racial groups, women and men, the various classes in society - as well as the practices and problems of the students' own communities. Although school mathematics usually emphasizes European contributions, much of the mathematics in the elementary- and middle-grades curriculum originated in Africa and …