Culturally responsive mathematics teaching in early childhood education

HomeEarly childhood education resourcesEarly mathematical thinkingCulturally responsive mathematics teaching in early childhood education

Culturally responsive mathematics teaching in early childhood education

HomeEarly childhood education resourcesEarly mathematical thinkingCulturally responsive mathematics teaching in early childhood education

Culturally responsive teaching empowers children to learn by using familiar cultural resources to teach knowledge, skills, and attitudes[1], and to support children to make meaning of and understand the world around them[2]. Learning is thought to be more meaningful, relevant, and easy to grasp when it is situated within children’s own frames of reference and lived experience[3], and children often achieve greater success when they are taught through their own cultural lens[4]. Cultural resources here include knowledge, prior experience, frames of reference, and ways of approaching and acting on the world[5]. When teaching is culturally responsive:

  • children’s cultures are seen as an asset
  • all cultures are valued as having mathematical knowledge to contribute to children’s learning[6]
  • cultural resources become part of the curriculum in their own right[7].

Why is culturally responsive teaching important in mathematics?

Culturally responsive teaching is important in all areas of the curriculum, but may require careful reflection and high intentionality in the area of mathematics in particular. Mathematics is often taught without reference to culture, partly because it is easily viewed as an abstract and objective, culture-free subject[8]. However, mathematics is a product of human activity, and so the ways in which it is taught and used always reflect cultural values[9]. The values, concepts, contexts, and practices of the dominant culture are usually emphasised, while those of minority cultural groups tend to be underrepresented[10]. When mathematics is taught without reference to other cultures, it reinforces the dominant culture, and children from minority cultural backgrounds can develop deficit perceptions of their own culture in relation to mathematics[11].

This can result in children from diverse backgrounds making less progress in the school form of mathematics, and inequities and hierarchies being reinforced[12]. Children can also be disadvantaged by the mode of teaching mathematics when this is unfamiliar to them. For example, at school, mathematics is often presented within contexts which promote competition  and prioritise individual learning and knowledge, while children may be more familiar with collectivist-oriented contexts in which mathematical tasks are performed as a group[13].

Equity in mathematics learning can be achieved when teachers explicitly connect mathematics to the social, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds of children[14]. When mathematics is contextualised in children’s family and cultural practices, it is seen as practical and useful, and a bridge can be formed between children’s informal knowledge and more formal mathematical concepts[15]. For Māori students, culturally responsive teaching practices such as incorporating taonga, tikanga, and te reo Māori into school mathematics teaching has been found to lead to significant achievement gains[16]. Acknowledging, valuing, and drawing from children’s cultures in curriculum shows children that teachers care about them[17], which can also be an important factor in enhancing wellbeing and learning. Finally, incorporating cultural resources from children’s own cultures in teaching mathematics supports children to retain and develop their cultural competence[18] in their heritage mathematical practices and knowledge[19].

Diverse cultural contexts for teaching mathematics

Research shows that many families have important mathematical funds of knowledge or bodies of knowledge and skills which support individual and household functioning and wellbeing, and which can provide contexts for teaching mathematics. Funds of knowledge can relate to cooking, food preparation, and cultural activities[20] such as weaving, carving masks, and building canoes[21].  Pasifika art forms, for example, depend upon complex patterning activities. Tapa cloth designs often include growing patterns (patterns which increase or decrease by a constant difference, or by exponential growth) and are often represented as geometric patterns which have visual links to number patterns. Samoan sasa, which is a type of slap-dance, involves repeating patterns, as the synchronised patterns of movements of one dancer are repeated by subsequent dancers in turn[22].

A measure of quantification is found in every culture, although the forms this takes might be quite distinct and diverse. In Australian indigenous cultures, quantification may take place through ‘reckoning’, or estimating the quantity of a group of items by recognising patterns rather than counting the objects one-to-one. This means indigenous Australians may be able to recognise large quantities of objects without recourse to counting[23].

How to develop culturally responsive mathematics teaching

Culturally responsive mathematics content: The selection of cultural contexts should not be superficial, based on assumptions about children’s cultural experiences, or about putting mathematics into stereotypical cultural contexts[24]. Instead, culturally responsive practice in mathematics should begin with an investigation into the mathematical funds of knowledge that children and their families have. Understanding children and families’ funds of knowledge enables teachers to be clearer about the connections and understandings that children might make[25].

To learn about children’s mathematical funds of knowledge, teachers need to be attentive and alert to information that provides insight into mathematical practices and understandings. This means actively noticing information about mathematical knowledge and understanding when it is offered, and asking questions and initiating conversations about the multiple ways in which children and families draw on and develop mathematical knowledge in their everyday lives[26]. For example, teachers might notice and comment on the patterns in family member’s clothing and jewellery, or they might ask whether families know about and use a particular shop or market for food shopping, and the kinds of things they buy[27]. It might then be useful to visit that shop or market stall to see the way that mathematics is used: for example, are goods weighed out? How are prices displayed and calculated?

It can be helpful for teachers to work alongside other teachers who have strong cultural knowledge, or have a cultural buddy in the form of a cultural expert who can help teachers to develop their cultural knowledge[28], which can support interpersonal interactions between teachers, families, and children. Teachers also might share responsibility for developing close links with individual families from different cultural groups[29] as a way of sharing insights and knowledge across the team. Teachers can also find out how to count in children’s home language. Children taught the counting system in their home language are found to be able to solve number problems more easily than children taught in a second language[30].

Culturally responsive mathematics teaching practices: It is also important that teaching practices for learning mathematics are aligned with children and families’ cultural values. This might mean making more use of collaborative contexts for doing mathematics, with children sharing mathematical understandings in reciprocal ways, and supporting younger children and those with less experience to participate[31]. Collaboration can also be promoted through using inclusive language such as ‘us’ and ‘we’ [32]. Appropriate strategies will vary for each family. For example, research suggests that appropriate strategies to engage Pasifika children in learning include telling stories to explain concepts, and using humour[33].

Demonstrating respect through high expectations and belief in children’s capabilities, as well as respect for children’s cultural backgrounds, has also been found to be important for children from diverse cultural backgrounds. In fact, older children report that, rather than their teachers having extensive knowledge about their culture, it is more important to them that they show respect and interest in their culture[34]. Research has also shown that, for many diverse students in school, caring relationships make the most difference to children’s engagement and achievement in learning. Behaviours that promote relationships between teachers and children, such as sharing emotions while engaged in mathematical activity together, are important[35].

Points for reflection: Culturally responsive teaching needs to be enacted in a thoughtful and critical way, so critical reflection on ways of being culturally responsive is very important. For example, a superficial inclusion of cultural artefacts or activities in mathematics learning might serve to diminish or denigrate the cultural practices as teachers focus on the mathematics embedded within them[36]. It is also important to ensure that no learners are disadvantaged by the use of unfamiliar cultural referents, which means teachers need to ensure that children from different backgrounds are all offered appropriate entry points into the activity. Research notes some examples where the use of cultural examples in school disadvantaged some learners in the class and led to tensions between students[37], while in early childhood, research has documented particular groups of children being disadvantaged through the use of unfamiliar contexts for role play[38].


[1] Rubel, L. H. (2017). Equity-directed instructional practices: Beyond the dominant perspective. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 10 (2), 66–105

[2] Mogari, D. (2017). Using culturally relevant teaching in a co-educational mathematics class of a patriarchal community. Educational Studies Mathematics 94, 293–307.

[3] Averill, R. (2012b). Reflecting heritage cultures in mathematics learning: The views of teachers and students. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 5, (2), 157–181;

Mogari, 2017.

[4] Parker, F., Gau Bartell, & T., Novak, J. D. (2017). Developing culturally responsive mathematics teachers: Secondary teachers’ evolving conceptions of knowing students. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education 20, 385–407.

[5] Parker et al., 2017.

[6] Averill, R. (2012a). Caring teaching practices in multiethnic mathematics classrooms: Attending to health and well-being. Mathematics Education Journal 24, 105–128.

[7] Rubel, 2017.

[8] Hunter, J. (2022). Challenging and disrupting deficit discourses in mathematics education: Positioning young diverse learners to document and share their mathematical funds of knowledge. Research in Mathematics Education, 24 (2), 187-201.;

Parker et al., 2017.

[9] Hunter, 2022.

[10] Hunter, J. & Miller, J. (2022). Using a culturally responsive approach to develop early algebraic reasoning with young diverse learners. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 20, 111–131;

Martin, D. B. (2019). Equity, inclusion, and antiblackness in mathematics education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 22 (4), 459-478.

[11] Hunter, 2022.

[12] Martin, 2019.

[13] Hunter & Miller, 2022.

[14] Hunter, 2022.

[15] Rubel, 2017.

[16] Averill, 2012b.

[17] Averill, 2012a.

[18] Parker et al., 2017.

[19] Meaney, T. & Evans, D. (2013). What is the responsibility of mathematics education to the Indigenous students that it serves? Education Studies Mathematics, 82, 481–496.

[20] Hunter, 2022.

[21] Hunter & Miller, 2022.

[22] Hunter & Miller, 2022.

[23] Meaney & Evans, 2013.

[24] Aguirre, J. M., Turner, E. E., Gau Bartell, T., Kalinec-Craig, C., Foote, M. Q., Roth McDUffie, A., & Drake, C. (2012). Making connections in practice: How prospective elementary teachers connect to children’s mathematical thinking and community funds of knowledge in mathematics instruction. Journal of Teacher Education 64 (2), 178–192. Https://

[25] Rubel, 2017.

[26] Aguirre et al., 2012; Hunter, 2022.

[27] Aguirre et al., 2012.

[28] Averill, 2012b.

[29] Averill, 2012b.

[30] Mogari, 2017.

[31] Hunter & Miller, 2022.

[32] Hunter & Miller, 2022.

[33] Averill, 2012b.

[34] Averill, 2012b.

[35] Averill, 2012a.

[36] Meaney & Evans, 2013.

[37] Mogari, 2017.

[38] Barron, I. (2009). Illegitimate participation? A group of young minority ethnic children’s experiences of early childhood education. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 17 (3), 341-354.

By Dr Vicki Hargraves


Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our early childhood webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our early childhood research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.

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