Mathematics as a Natural Human Process

We have all heard the story: “I don’t get math, I am just an English person”, or similar statements. It happens with all subjects really, but I have noticed it is fairly consistent with the Math vs English subjects.

As someone who is studying math, trying to break these patterns and improve overall knowledge of math, it was quite interesting to find out about the research Gale referenced. We are all mathematical beings. According to the research experiment, toddlers already have a basic concept of subtraction as such a young age, and on top of that they are constantly problem solving, trying to understand the world. It makes sense, as problem solving is the basis of learning, weaving its way into every class subject in some form.

As discussed in class, mathematics tends to be dubbed the unbias, fully neutral, strictly factual subject that is not affected by outside sources. Yet, the over-scientification, abstracting the creativity out of the subject, is creating a biasness and tunnel-vision within our modern maths. If a different way works for a student, we see them constantly lose marks because it was not the “right way”, yet in many other art subjects we will see difference and creativity embraced. On top of this biasness, any student who has been dubbed the poor math student, the “english student”, a simplistic mind, etc.. have all faced some form of oppression and discrimination within Mathematics. I believe part of this issue is a lack of informed teachers. We see math instantly paired with the sciences fairly often, yet math is as much of an art as any trade or fine arts. There are many different paths to take, and different outcomes that might or not be right, yet we try to restrict all students to one, western-rooted answer as the sole truth.

I personally never experienced this oppression in mathematics, however I consistently witnessed it with people around me. Teachers saying “maybe you are just an English person”, or giving up on the lower scoring students. Making assignments easier, not for the benefit of the student, but simply to make their grade look larger. Friends of mine who were penalized for finding a different, creative method to solving a problem that was not the same as the textbook or teacher’s answer. Students who were criticised or targeted because earlier in the semester they politely corrected a teacher’s mistake on the board. I was lucky to have good math teachers initially, which allowed me to find success in mathematics. Some of my friends were not so lucky as you can see, and looking at it from the perspective Gale introduced, oppression is alive and well in mathematics as it stands today.

When you consider the Inuit Community from the article, and their understanding of mathematics, it is an interesting story to look through. The biggest hurdle for the Inuit students seemed to be the English language from my perspective. This can even be zoomed out to the culture clash and worldview differences, but at the basis the noticeable drop in grades was during the compulsory English in grade 3 mathematics. This means they learn the foundations of mathematics in their comfortable language, and then when the complexity increases we randomly force them to use English for math. This seemed surprising to me because it really shouldn’t matter what language is used in math, the outcomes should be about math, not language.¬† This is in my mind one of the biggest issues Inuit students are having with math, the language is their problem not the logic!

Other factors that might be involved are the differences between indigenous/inuit mathematics, and the westernized mathematics taught in grade 3. The inuit use a base 20 math system with groups of 5, which might seem illogical until you realize that you have 10 fingers and 10 toes, and they are in groups of 5, totalling 20. So right off the bat, the numbering system is entirely different. In was also contextual, they viewed the number 3 in six different contexts. 3 inside something, 3 objects, groups of 3, pattern of three, card number 3, and the digit of 3. A notable item in that list is the digit, which is viewed as a separate interpretation because they never really had digits before since math was verbal. In terms of the name sof numbers, they are all loosely based on groups of smaller numbers. Example: the Inuit word for 6 translates to many threes, and the number 30 is translated as and twenty and ten. In this sense, we can notice how their natural use of groups and multiplication can be seen through these translations, which further proves that the math isn’t the root of the low marks in math.

Another comparison of a western mathematical concept with the Inuit concept is the annual calendar. Western world uses the standard calendar with months, and it is somewhat based on solar or lunar principles. The Inuit calendar¬† is based on natural events instead. So January is “the coldest of all months”, February is “when baby seals are born but are dead”, December is “two stars appear in the sky”, and so on. The length of the months is dependant on the time each event occurs, and can fluctuate between years.

So as we can see, mathematics are in fact oppressive, and it is shown through the curriculum forced upon Inuit students, as well as my own personal observations as a student. Math is also an art, it is fluid and can change and be interpreted in many different ways. The Inuit perspectives not only reinforce this, but they surpass it by embodying that natural fluidity of math. We as teacher have to work towards the understanding of mathematics rather than the memorization of western conventions, the more meaningful lesson is when a student discovers a solution to the problem, not when they rebound exactly what you had taught in class the previous day. This understanding goal for teaching will help us naturally become more inclusive with math, as we embrace diversity in solutions and creative thinking. It will also help us move towards a less oppressive idea of math, as we will be teaching for multiple learning types, rather than saying only one learning type is good at math. We now know mathematics is susceptible to oppressive actions, biases, and discriminatory behaviour, and now it is our job to work with our lessons to prevent that.

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