Numeracy Across Cultures

I hate math. That’s I’ve always thought, from the time even before I started school learning to count in my parents warm and welcoming arms. Then I moved to the classroom and my struggles weren’t met with encouraging words or soothing voices. It was teachers trying to meet the required outcomes who went by the rule that if most of the class could grasp the content, it was time to move on to

bigger numbers!

Multiplication flashcards!

Weird, half circle things called protractors because my circles just weren’t good enough!

And then I sat in the final math class of high school with a scientific calculator in my hands and not a clue what to do with it!

On my grade 12 graduation day, I promised myself that I was done math, and allowed my brain to forget all the useless math stuff I had accumulated over 12 years of learning. I thought I was done, honestly, I did.

And then…. came my first in school placement.

Bouncing from classroom to classroom I tried desperately to escape the math as I embarrassingly realized on my first day that I couldn’t even add double digit numbers without a calculator. Pathetic, I know.

My experience with math in the school system was not one of great success. It is one of struggling and tears; of confusion and frustration.

I learned a type of math rooted in Eurocentric ideas. I was never presented with a different way of learning, and neither are many students who come from other cultures with different understandings of the world around them.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to read an article titled “Teaching Mathematics in the Inuit Community” and also hear a lecture from a faculty member on the topic of Eurocentricism education, specifically in the field of math. Both the article and lecture discuss the vast difference between Inuit ways of knowing math, which the Inuit children learn in their native language up to grade 3.

The differences in language and in idea range widely across all aspects of math. Here are some examples of the ways in which the knowledge differs:

  1. Firstly, the Inuit people use a base numerical system of 20, whereas the Euro system is 10. This stems from the practice of living in igloos, which I have come to learn trap heat very well and cause the inhabitants to remove much of their clothes exposing their ten fingers and ten toes; hence the base 20 system.
  2. Second, the Inuit people represent space differently. There are different words if 3 objects are contained within another object (pingasutalik) or standing in a row (pingasut). This is different from the Euro way in which 3 always means 3.
  3. Lastly, spatial representation to an Inuit person comes from a completely different idea than the typical euro way of knowing spatial amounts. In euro knowledge, we provide specifics on spatial measurements in precise numbers. The way that Inuit people recognize spatial amounts is through a common knowledge base of knowing and gathering knowledge from previous experiences. An example of this from the lecture would be if you were asked to run to the store and buy potatoes for supper, someone who experienced a euro-upbringing would ask how many potatoes, to which the answer would be 6; whereas someone who experienced an Inuit upbringing would answer enough to feed 6 people. The Inuit knowledge accounts for variations in shape, size, or change.

As you can see, the ways of knowledge differ greatly. This kind of misalignment is not often recognized as a big deal in the Canadian school system, as Eurocentric education is enforced as the sole correct way of knowledge. Whitewashing our students creates problematic gaps in the education sector, and erases the valuable knowledge that lies within the many cultures across Canada and the world.

Some questions to consider:

How does the eurocentric education system harm those who do not subscribe to eurocentric ideas?

How can we do a better job of incorporating other ways of knowing into the classroom?

Does eurocentric ways of knowing privilege a certain group of people in Canadian society?


Author: Hayley Hodson

I have known I wanted to be a teacher my entire life. I never had a doubt in my mind of what I wanted to be in this world. Even though I was certain of the end goal, I never stopped to wonder what the journey to get to that point would look like. This blog is it. This blog is the messy middle where I transition from student to teacher. Every thought and belief I have and learn throughout my education is posted to this blog in order to document my journey in becoming a teacher. I invite you all to join me as I strive to become more than just a teacher, but also a kind and inclusive citizen.

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