Creating Cultural Relevance in Teaching and Learning Mathematics

By Leonard, Jacqueline; Guha, Smita | Teaching Children Mathematics, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Creating Cultural Relevance in Teaching and Learning Mathematics


Leonard, Jacqueline, Guha, Smita, Teaching Children Mathematics


Current reform in mathematics education, spurred by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), emphasizes the importance of making connections to the real-world experiences of children. Even in such activities as riding a bus, subway train, or bicycle to school, the cultural experiences of children from diverse backgrounds provide teachers and students with a plethora of mathematics problems. Culture is meaning that is shared by a group of people who hold common values and beliefs (Malloy and Malloy 1998). Members of the group may have racial, ethnic, political, or community ties, which can be used as springboards for culturally relevant teaching.

Culturally relevant teaching is described as "a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes" (Ladson-Billings 1994, pp. 17-18). Culturally relevant teaching embeds student culture into the curriculum to maintain that culture and to transcend negative effects of the dominant culture. Such teachings also draw on the history of students' lives, as well as their unique ways of communicating, behaving, and knowing, while preparing students to effect change in society, not merely to fit into it (Ladson-Billings 1994). Thus, mathematics may be used to empower people to make needed changes both politically and economically (Moses and Cobb 2001). Mathematics problems that tap the culture of the students have the potential to engage them at each of these levels. The purpose of this article is to present examples of culturally relevant mathematics teaching.

Why Pay Attention to Culture?

Teachers of children in early childhood programs and elementary school are more likely to be white, female, and middle class (Delpit 1988) and, thus, outside the culture of students of color and those who live in rural or urban areas. Some of these "mainstream" teachers may view the students' cultures and experiences as deficits (Malloy and Malby 1998), not understanding the richness of the diversity students bring to the classroom. This cultural discontinuity creates a mismatch between the cultures of the home and school and may result in poor academic performance because teachers and students approach [earning from different perspectives (Diller 1999). Including aspects of the students' culture in mathematics problems is one way to avoid the cultural deficit model and help students and teachers value the culture of the community.

Connecting Mathematics and Culture

Framing problems in a cultural context exposes students to problem solving from many perspectives. Barta and Schaelling (1998) suggest using cultural games to engage Native American students. Games can be used to motivate students of all cultures and backgrounds. Boykin and Toms (1985) suggest that teachers use such cultural expressions as rhythm, communalism, social-time perspective, verve, and movement to engage African American students.

Although ideas for teaching facts, rules, and algorithms may be abundant, engaging students in successful problem solving remains a daunting task. Students often are confused about which operation to use to solve word problems because they do not understand whether quantities in the problems are increasing or decreasing. Rosa and Minaya-Rowe (1999) used contextualized word problems to help Hispanic students improve their abilities to describe, explain, and justify mathematical understanding.

Using culture as the context to support mathematical understanding requires that teachers learn the culture of the community. Duller (1999) sought advice from a friend who was a member of the cultural community of the students she taught. Teachers also should become familiar with various pedagogical techniques, such as audience participation, choral response, and movement (Hollins, Smiler, and Spencer 1994), as well as different teaching strategies that have been successful with minority students, such as small-group and cooperative-group learning (Campbell 1994). …

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Creating Cultural Relevance in Teaching and Learning Mathematics
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