Eurocentric Numeracy, and What That Means

But that comes from thinking that mathematics is always certain and that it’s free from relationship. And it’s not.

Gale Russel

Math is regarded as oppressive in how it is taught. I was discussing how it could be oppressive with my sister because she is getting a degree that is heavily math oriented. I, myself, was terrible at high school math and have no confidence working with it. An idea my sister gave was that they don’t credit culture they come from. For example, the number system used in English is similar to the Arabic number system. I think a lot of Western/European ways of thinking is shaped from the Arab world. There were different milestones and discoveries made during the Renaissance period (1300-1600ish) that relied on knowledge found and published during the Islamic Golden Age that took place while Europe was undergoing their Dark Ages. There’s a documentary that also shows that Europeans travelled to the Arab countries and saw how they jotted down what they traded and sold. They kept records, which is the basis of financial accounting. Europeans brought that back with them when they travelled home. However, it is not a part of the curriculum to explore how European math relies on Arabian ideas of how do math, and its underlying influence on the Western ways of knowing (if you want to go that far). Math is also discriminatory because it’s ableist. I have worked with people of disability and I noticed how there is an importance of writing down what you solve. If you are someone with a physical disAbility, you might find it difficult to hold a pen and write down the answer or work through the process to get do the answer. One of the smaller ideas I had was how confusing math questions can be at times. I felt that a lot of the word problems the teacher set us up to do where strange. For example, it wasn’t rare to see a questions like “Jimmy has twenty watermelons” in Grade 2. I would focus more on why Jimmy would need twenty watermelons. My sister says maybe Jimmy was holding a party, and she decided that teachers intentionally confuse children. This confusion helps children focus on what the actual problem is, and prioritize the numbers, rather than the confusing context. However, I think context matters. A child has more interest in situations they have been in or will be in compared to situations other people will experience. I think the idea of ignoring confusing contexts and just working with the problem is setting up children to not question their surroundings. Things have to make sense for them to learn. Another way math is discriminatory is when word problems only talk about European/Western experiences. For example, any word problem regarding clothes would be iffy. People around the world who wear other cultural garments (the shalwar, for example) would constantly have to adapt to questions about Susie has X number of jeans. No one wears jeans in rural Pakistan, so those questions would be weird and go against the value placed on modesty, in their opinion.

Based off of Poirier’s article and Gale Russel’s lecture, there are three ways that Inuit mathematics challenge the way we practice math in an European-influenced world.

  • One idea Russel introduces is the misconception that only certain people can do math, because it’s a taught way of thinking. The idea is that since it is taught, it is not natural and does not exist consistently through different cultures. This posits a strange idea that some cultures just don’t practice math. Russel claims that babies speak and understand the world in mathematical terms and logic before they actually learn to communicate in their mother-tongue. Math, then, should be natural and a normal way of communicating. The math curriculum, or the way teachers teach it, can make the subject strange and foreign. Poirier claims that there are six domains that are consisted to be mathematically literate. These six domains are: counting, localization (spatial intelligence), measuring, designing, building games, and explaining. Majority of these are skills that even three-year-olds practice without needing to be taught explicitly. One time, I walked in on my little sisters designing their own games because they decided they didn’t like the rules of the traditional games they played. Rules are important to them because they help the game go smoothly.
  • Russel takes away the idea that math is always certain, and doesn’t require context. Math is heavily influenced by the culture and values of that society, and is not something that is constant and stagnant across cultures. Poirier claims: “If mathematical knowledge is a social construction, then the learner’s culture and community will play an important role in learning” (56). Math is a social construction because math is a way of knowing, and ways of knowing are influenced by our understanding of the world.
  • Russel mentions that students often believe that math must be learned the European pen-and-paper way. This is not always the case. Math can be said orally at times. For example, math can be about building games. These rules don’t have to be written down as long as each member playing the game understand it after being briefed orally. If my sisters play a game, they don’t write down the different rules. They just discuss the rules and play. Poirier says that the “The teaching methods used by most teachers in the North (paper-and-pencil exercises) are not based on the ‘natural’ ways of learning of Inuit children” (55). Inuit children learn to speak either English or French in grade 3, and until then, they speak their own language. They interact with math such as geometry at a young age because they use it while working with their parents, and use their spatial intelligence to analyze the environment around them to tell them what is coming or what to expect from it. They don’t write it down on paper, or write extensive algebraic equations to prove their answers.

In general, today’s math is considerably Eurocentric and can be close-minded. This is not exactly what we should be teaching the next generation because they will probably be interacting with the world more and should understand the context and culture they come from so that they don’t generalize. Many students also believe that they aren’t good enough or smart enough to do math, when in realize, it is integrated with every facet of our lives. It is the Eurocentric model that encourages that mindset. We should then look at math in broader and richer terms than simply getting students to spout numbers and equations on a test paper, because math is so much more than a couple equations to put on a paper in order to get a passing mark. It is a language, and must be treated as such.

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