I am deeply concerned with the direction of Indigenous education in Australia and how mathematics education has been positioned in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I have a different vision for Indigenous education in mathematics; it’s a vision based on connecting culture and mathematics.
I’m from the Quandamooka people of Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island, Queensland). I have a PhD in applied mathematics and I’m currently a senior lecturer at Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland. I’m also the chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mathematics Alliance (Atsima), which is a newly formed not-for-profit organisation with the vision for “All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners will be successful in mathematics.”
This success can only be achieved by understanding mathematics from a cultural perspective and creating a mathematics education that supports the cultural identity of our youth, and of all learners.
To make the connection between maths and culture, you must ask two fundamental questions: “What is mathematics?” and “What is culture?”. I have done numerous workshops with teachers exploring these two questions and, interestingly, a similar pattern emerges.
Most participants have an excellent understanding of culture. They talk about the intangibles such as knowledge, history, philosophy, language and the tangible such as art, music, food. We also discuss how culture evolves from a rich dynamic between cultural knowledge and experiencing the world through our cultural expressions. It is clear that culture is all encompassing; the question then becomes “how can mathematics not be connected to culture?”.
When discussing “What is mathematics?”, participants usually start with notions such as number, multiplication, division and how these are applied in everyday life: shopping, timetables, cooking and so on.
People’s anxiety about mathematics usually stems from the belief that mathematics is either right or wrong, that is, you either experience success or failure with mathematics. Their understanding of mathematics does not go beyond the everyday use of mathematics. There is very limited understanding of other mathematics such as algebra and calculus, who would use them and how they are used.
Mathematics is a cultural expression that provides another way to view the world.
This understanding is a direct result of how mathematics is taught in our educational system; it is taught as facts, rules and procedures. This type of direct instruction has failed our society where students still ask the question, “Why do we need to know this?”, “When will I ever use this?”.
Consequently, Australia still faces a crisis where students are choosing not to study mathematics, creating a skills shortage. We need to reconnect students with mathematics by engaging students in the “why”; to explore mathematical concepts, relate this to the world and allow students to experience mathematics. We need to engage our students’ creativity and imagination.
In 2014, Warren Mundine, chair of the prime minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, made a statement to the effect that embedding an Indigenous perspective in mathematics was nonsense, which has stifled any progress in the national curriculum.
This reinforces the strongly held belief that Indigenous cultures have no connection to mathematics. Indigenous cultures, for over 40,000 years, have developed deep philosophies and knowledges about the world. These philosophies categorise the world – people, animals, plants, land – into two groups called moieties.
The two moieties exist so that all things can be kept in balance, that is, one moiety cannot out number the other or be considered more important than the other. From these moieties, there are numerous sub-categories that are placed in a relational space to create an order and a structure.
After being immersed in the western education system, I am only starting my education in our Indigenous philosophies and knowledges. However, from the outset, I immediately saw its mathematical nature and how it can be applied to teaching mathematics.
For example, numbers are either positive or negative and, in a sense, have their own moiety. Similarly, the operations (+, −, ×, ÷) sit in this binary relationship in the notion of “joining” and “separating”. Each of these mathematical concepts allows us to define relationships and keep them in balance. The order and structure that are created from such mathematical relationships is encapsulated in algebra. It is no surprise then that Indigenous people of Australia have language for number and have base-five number systems.
For me, mathematics is a cultural expression that provides another way to view the world. Mathematics is a knowledge system that has a rich history and many cultures from around the world have contributed to its development. It is owned by all of us.
Taking a cultural perspective of mathematics, will engage students’ imagination and creativity and provide students with a strong understanding of what mathematics is and why we do it. Connecting culture and mathematics will allow Indigenous students to learn mathematics from their own cultural knowledge and first language.
It will assist in the revitalisation of our languages and support the identity of our students. It also provides an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to know more about us, our culture, our knowledges and our language. It is a win-win.