Imagine I handed you a binder with the course outline and lesson plans for my class. After you’ve looked through it, I ask you questions. In the first round, I ask you what grade level I teach, which content standards I’m covering, what my general pedagogical strategies are. Then in the second round, I ask you to tell me where in the world you think I teach, what strengths and interests my students have, and what challenges our school faces. Creating lessons that help to answer that second round of questions is what initially drew me into ethnomathematics. I think of this as the “what” of ethnomathematics. When seeing other teachers create beautiful, interdisciplinary experiences that connect their math lessons to culture, I would feel inspired – these lessons took “what are we learning” and demonstrated math as deeply connected to the needs and identities of students. Creating and implementing these types of lessons is intimidating! By design, they aren’t easy to transfer, because they are rooted in the knowledge of a particular community. The resources and energy needed to make them is no small task.
I think when faced with this challenge, this is where the “why” of ethnomathematics motivates me to grow and meet the demands of creating that type of curriculum. Part of ethnomathematics is acknowledging that STEM and STEM education are not culture-free. Questions of purpose, precision, what can be abstracted and what context is essential to a problem – whether something even is a problem or a question worth asking – are all influenced by our cultural backgrounds. History has horrifying examples of how those values can influence the type of math and science pursued and the harm it can cause. It also has beautiful, motivating examples of what Ubiratan D’Ambrosio calls “non-killing” mathematics. Ethnomathematics demands a shift in our priorities as mathematics educators, and I find this demand to be the source of productive discomfort and dissatisfaction with my own practices as a teacher. That restlessness gives energy for change, which for me leads to the “how.”
How I respond to my students and structure our time together continues to shift as I engage with an ethnomathematics approach. When students don’t do “my math”, how do I respond? This is important, because even if “what” we are doing connects to students’ culture and selves, how I engage with students moment-to-moment can either support or undermine that connection. To give an example – as the final project for our geometric constructions unit, students create mural-sized mandalas out of sidewalk chalk, using string as both a compass and a straight-edge. These two tools are the core of Euclidean geometry. But when we get out into the courtyard, students read the environment around them – they see guidelines in the basketball court, useful right angles in the sidewalk and corners of textbooks, valuable straight-edges and parallel lines when they anchor their design against a wall. When these additional strategies all deviate from the “right” way to do constructions, I have a choice in how I respond – do I honor their thinking and explore mathematics from their actual, embodied interactions with the world? Do I acknowledge it, but then minimize it by redirecting them to the “correct” method of constructions that omits these tools? While the second response still happens more often than I want, ethnomathematics helps me to keep seeking those opportunities to build culture, purpose, and connection into my students’ experiences.