Math as a Human Activity


Wool bag woven by hand by Vivian Campbell. Photo by Robert DeAbreu

Considering some of the readings about the role of context in the mathematics classroom, I’ve been feeling skeptical lately that ethnomathematics would work with all students. Jo Boaler (1993) states that choosing contexts for mathematics that replicate the complexity of the real world as much as possible benefits students’ learning. I wondered if Langdon’s suggestion was correct: “students acquire a better understanding of mathematics by discovering that it is already a part of their environment than by studying local cultural examples” (in Boaler, 1993, p. 16). Therefore, while an ethnomathematical approach to the classroom can cause a valuable shift in students’ worldview (Eglash, 2009), are we hindering their mathematical understanding by introducing concepts in a cultural context so radically different from their own?  As Nel Noddings says, “slaving away at someone else’s real-life problem can be as deadly as doing a set of routine exercises and a lot more difficult” (Noddings, 1994, p. 97).

Our Mathematics, Community and Culture class visited the Musqueam Community Centre to learn the mathematics embedded in mat weaving and other cultural practices. My experience there essentially summed up the benefits that various readings expounded. According to Mukhopadhyay et. al. (2009), “ethnomathematics draws attention to mathematics as a human activity” (p. 68). Rather than distancing me from mathematics, Vivian Campbell’s weaving presentation drew me in to learn more about Musqueam cultural practices and the mathematics behind them. Even more striking was that, upon my return home, the experience catalyzed an investigation of photos and video I had taken of cultural practices in different countries during my travels. I sought to see “mathematics as a human activity” in weaving, fishing and canoe making in Myanmar; weaving, rice paper making and rice harvesting in Vietnam; and weaving, wood carving, and drum making in Ghana. By “incorporating the mathematics of the cultural moment, contextualized, into mathematics education,” (D’Ambrosio, 2001), I was inspired to learn more about the culture (Musqueam) being presented, and prompted to further investigate cultures that I had experienced, bringing me a much richer understanding and appreciation of culture and mathematics.

In other words, it didn’t matter that Musqueam culture is so drastically different from my own; learning about it was interesting and caused me to look for mathematics in other things that I had seen. Generally, I’m a curious guy, but this was a cool experience. I would love to explore some of this stuff with students (when i finally have a class of my own again!) as I am intrigued by the benefits that can be reaped by widening the cultural paradigm in the mathematics classroom.


Eglash, R. (2009). Native-American analogues to the Cartesian coordinate system. In B. Greer, S. Mukhopadhyay, A. Powell, & S. Nelson-Barber (Eds.). Culturally responsive mathematics education (pp. 281-294). New York: Routledge.

D’Ambrosio, U. (2001). Ethnomathematics: Link between traditions and modernity. The Netherlands: Sense. (Chapter 2).

Boaler, J. (1993) The role of contexts in the mathematics classroom: Do they make mathematics more ‘real’? For the learning of Mathematics, 13(2), 12-­‐17.

Noddings, N. (1994). Does Everybody Count? Reflections on Reforms in School Mathematics. Journal Of Mathematical Behavior, 13(1), 89-­‐104.

Mukhopadhyay, S. Powell, A. & Frankenstein, M. (2009). An ethnomathematical perspective on culturally responsive mathematics education. In B. Greer, S. Mukhopadhyay, A. Powell, & S. Nelson-Barber (Eds.). Culturally responsive mathematics education (pp. 65-84). New York: Routledge.

7 thoughts on “Math as a Human Activity

  1. I really enjoyed this post and hope to see more on this theme. It encompasses so much to help student learning and helps to show kids (and their parents) just how relevant, interesting and beautiful Mathematics can be.


  2. Confused… ““students acquire a better understanding of mathematics by discovering that it is already a part of their environment than by studying local cultural examples” One thing is better than another… but I would think that “studying local cultural examples” might actually facilitate discovering that math is a part our environment. How are “local cultural examples” ” radically different from their own”? [ If it is local, why does it have to be radically different? ]
    Another question: are you learning this math stuff new now, or are you already familiar with it? IT’s a heck of a lot harder to extend knowledge to appreciate its application in strange territory while a person is still figuring it out. Just because I wasn’t distracted by something doesn’t mean my students, who don’t bring my fascination and familiarity to the situation, won’t be.


    • Thanks for your comments and questions. I guess it depends on what we mean by “local”. Local does not always mean the same thing as familiar. Regarding the conflict of “local cultural examples” being “radically different” – it’s possible that a student from an immigrant family living in Vancouver would have a problem connecting with many local examples, or with examples from indigenous nations in this area. Or in international schools, finding an example that all students can identify with can be quite difficult!

      I agree that it’s harder to extend knowledge in a context that is strange, which is why I wondered (and still wonder to some extent) what negative effect ethnomathematics can have. There are so many times I’ve thought something was great, then brought it to class and it was a big flop! I suppose that students would have to be interested in exploring culture in general (of course, there would be effort from the teacher to inspire this :)), and then it would be possible to generate understanding by exploring math in different cultural contexts.


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  4. Hmm it appears like your site ate my first comment (it
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      – read blogs and post comments like you have done. Reach out to other bloggers and they will reach back.
      – don’t feel pressure to read everything on the internet in your interest area. You can’t. Instead, use blog readers to bring things of interest to you. Look at this when you have a free moment here and there. Remember: you’re supposed to be enjoying the learning experience! 🙂
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      – send out the link to your blog posts on twitter and other social media (though twitter is the best as you can connect with other educators).

      Dan Meyer wrote a blog post about how beginner bloggers get into the blogosphere and there are some great comments and helpful hints on the link given on this blog page. Read the article and check out the google doc where these ideas are shared.

      Hope that helps! Welcome aboard!



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