School Resources

How to take a culturally responsive approach to teaching mathematics in primary school

In a webinar with The Education Hub, Professor Jodie Hunter (Massey University) shared insights from her extensive classroom-based research into the use of culturally responsive approaches to teaching and learning mathematics in primary school. She discussed the importance of using high quality tasks to provide equitable and culturally responsive opportunities for Pāsifika and Māori students to engage in productive mathematical learning, and offered ways that teachers can explicitly connect to and build on the cultural, social, and linguistic contexts of all their students. Culturally responsive approaches in maths involve:

  • Knowing the students in front of you and having high expectations for them

Teachers need to know who their students are, what their values and experiences are, and what strengths they bring to learning mathematics. Be aware that, while students need strong foundations and the building blocks of learning in all strands, mathematics teaching does not need to be and should not be thought of as exclusively linear or sequential. Teachers also need to see the field of mathematics broadly, and not primarily in terms of number. This means that a student who is not yet strong in addition should not be held back from learning about mathematical concepts such as fractions or geometry. It is important that all students learn something in every lesson, although they may not all learn the same thing.

  • Designing high quality tasks

A high quality maths task has multiple entry and exit points, so that it can be accessed by but also provides enough challenge for all students. An example is an addition task that contains multiple tiers involving a range of numbers. High quality tasks also connect to big mathematical ideas, and provide opportunities for students to consider others’ thinking and address potentially erroneous ideas. Using a wide range of mathematical tasks supports students to see the connections across different areas within maths and provides them with different opportunities to show their strengths. It is also important that tasks connect to and build on each other in order to take students through a progression, although this kind of structured set of tasks may be challenging to design.

Not all mathematics tasks need to be contextualised, as decontextualised abstract mathematical tasks are valuable and enjoyable for students. When using contexts for mathematical tasks, ensure that they involve genuine maths situations that students experience in their lives outside the classroom, or use familiar cultural artefacts, such as sāsā and tivaevae as examples of algebraic growing patterns. The use of these familiar patterns from students’ lives outside of the classroom helps to reduce the cogntive load of interpreting the context of the problem, and allows student to dedicate more of their working memory to the mathematical concepts involved. Remember to treat cultural artefacts and contexts with respect, acknowledging their value in and of themselves as well as for their mathematical content.

  • Using effective pedagogy that acknowledges cultural differences

While argumentation is an important mathematical practice, it is considered impolite and disrespectful in many cultures to disagree, so teachers need to carefully consider how they can promote mathematical argumentation in ways that draw on students’ values. Sometimes it may be useful to draw on cultural metaphors. For example, in the communal activity of sewing a tivaevae, more skilled sewers will correct the work of those less experienced if they make an error, in order to ensure the quality of the finished quilt. In this way, it is possible to correct an error or disagree with someone in a way that is helpful and contributes towards communal goals. It is important here to take a broad view of culture, and to try and tap into all aspects of students’ cultures.

A key role for teachers is to spend time solving the planned task in order to anticipate the range of different possibilities for mathematical thinking and exploration that may arise for students from the task, and to consider all the ways in which their students may demonstrate success in their mathematics learning. By framing success in mathematics broadly rather than just in terms of right and wrong answers, and by encouraging students to bring their own culture to learning maths, teachers can make an important difference to how students see themselves in relation to mathematics.

Jodie recommends as a valuable resource for learning about Pasifika cultures. She also invites teachers to contact the Developing mathematical inquiry communities group on Facebook.

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