Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Ethnomathematics and Aboriginal Student Anxiety

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Ethnomathematics and Aboriginal Student Anxiety

Article excerpt


Mathematics anxiety has been identified as a barrier to aboriginal learners who wish to enroll in post secondary education and training in Canada. We examined student beliefs about mathematics anxiety and their perceptions about how increased culturally-relevant mathematical content could enhance their feelings of efficacy in mathematics. We found higher levels of anxiety among aboriginal students; and identified differences between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students' views of how mathematics anxiety can be reduced.


Mathematics anxiety is present in many learners, regardless of age, level of mathematical knowledge, gender or ability (Ashcraft, 2002). Mathematics anxiety is defined as a "feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance" (p. 181). Its most concerning consequence is the mathematics avoidance behaviour that results from high levels of fear. Fear of mathematics is a significant barrier to college student success. Perry (2004) suggested as many as 85% of students in an introductory mathematics course feel at least some degree of anxiety. Woodward (2004) suggested that mathematics anxiety is particularly prevalent among developmental mathematics college students. Anxiety levels among college students can differ on the basis of gender (Woodward, 2004: Zettle & Raines, 2000; Ashcraft, 2002) or among nontraditional, older students (Royce & Rompf, 1992). Bernstein's (1992) study of adults in a non traditional career programs found that men of African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American descent exhibited high levels of mathematics anxiety, as did women of Hispanic and Asian descent.

Aboriginal student enrolment in post secondary institutions is of particular concern to government agencies and educational institutions in Canada as participation rates among aboriginal students, particularly in mathematics and sciences are significantly lower than the rate for other Canadians (The Millennium Scholarship Foundation, 2004). In Canada, "aboriginal" is the term used to describe all persons of indigenous ancestry (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2004). About 20% of aboriginal people between the ages of 15-24 participate in post secondary training compared to 43% of non-aboriginal people. As a result, provincial authorities have given regional colleges a mandate to improve aboriginal enrolment in post secondary and career training programs. One such college that has responded created bridging programs and developmental courses, including several in mathematics. As mathematics anxiety was seen by administrators as a barrier to aboriginal student enrolment, curriculum in one developmental mathematics course was modified to include aboriginal content. In our evaluation, we explored student beliefs about mathematics anxiety, and, in particular, how increasing socio-cultural mathematics content might affect mathematics anxiety.

Socio cultural Learning Theory and Mathematics Anxiety

A decade of research in mathematics education has demonstrated the benefits of adopting a socio-cultural perspective to mathematics education (FitzSimons, 2002). A socio-cultural perspective offers a different lens through which to view student success, curricular content, historical contributions and educational practices by recognizing that mathematics is not free of social, political, economic or cultural context. The adoption of an alternative epistemology that questions a dominant western discourse of mathematics as culturally neutral is recommended. D' Ambrosio (1999) is credited with the first use of the term "ethnomathematics'. Ethnomathematics "tak[es] into account the cultural differences that have determined the cultural evolution of humankind and the political dimension of mathematics" (p. 150). Ethnomathematics scholars that have focused on particular indigenous groups, include Knijnick's (2002a) work with the Brazilian Landless movement, Meaney (2002) and Robinson & Nichol's (1998) work with indigenous Australians, and Ezeife's (2003) work with aboriginal Africans. …

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