Ethnomathematics and the Eurocentric Ideas About Teaching Mathematics

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Thanks to A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction, we now know what has been wrong with mathematical education for generations and have been given a toolkit to help educators defeat the historic and systemic inequities that have plagued math teachers and their students though a program of "ethnomathematics".

Here is a quote from the "About" section of the Pathway website:

"This toolkit was developed by a team of teachers, instructional coaches, researchers, professional development providers, and curriculum writers with expertise in mathematics education, English language development, and culturally responsive pedagogy."

Here are the group's partner organizations:

Teaching Mathematics

…and, you'll notice right at the bottom in small print the collaborators wish to thank the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their "generous financial support". 

The Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction is:

" integrated approach to mathematics that centers Black, Latinx, and Multilingual students in grades 6-8, addresses barriers to math equity, and aligns instruction to grade-level priority standards. The Pathway offers guidance and resources for educators to use now as they plan their curriculum, while also offering opportunities for ongoing self-reflection as they seek to develop an anti-racist math practice. The toolkit “strides” serve as multiple on-ramps for educators as they navigate the individual and collective journey from equity to anti-racism."

The Equitable Math instruction program consists of five strides as follows:

Teaching Mathematics

Let's focus on the first stride, "Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction":

Here is a quote from the booklet with my bold:

"This tool provides teachers an opportunity to examine their actions, beliefs, and values around teaching mathematics. The framework for deconstructing racism in mathematics offers essential characteristics of antiracist math educators and critical approaches to dismantling white supremacy in math classrooms by making visible the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture with respect to math. Building on the framework, teachers engage with critical praxis in order to shift their instruc- tional beliefs and practices towards antiracist math education. By centering antiracism, we model how to be antiracist math educators with accountability."

Equitable Math is primarily for math educators but also advocates for a collective approach to dismantling white supremacy and the program is intended to be useably all teachers, leaders, coaches and administrators in the educational system as follows:

1.) Teachers should use this workbook to self-reflect on individual practices in the classroom and identify next steps in their antiracist journey as a math educator.

2.) Leaders and coaches should use the framework during observations and walkthroughs, annotating the behaviors and providing targeted feedback.

3.) Administrators should examine programs and policies and how white supremacy impacts student outcomes (e.g., tracking, course selection, intervention rosters). In addition, they can hold teachers accountable for completing the activities in this workbook.

Here are the terms that the authors believe identity white supremacy as defined by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun's "Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Change" in 2001:

• Perfectionism

• Sense of Urgency

• Defensiveness

• Quantity Over Quality

• Worship of the Written Word 

• Paternalism

• Either/Or Thinking

. Power Hoarding

• Fear of Open Conflict

• Individualism

• Only One Right Way

• Progress is Bigger, More

• Objectivity

• Right to Comfort

Here is a table showing how math classrooms have developed white supremacy culture noting that there are at least 2 spelling mistakes on the page (agnecy and sutdents):

Teaching Mathematics

Here's another key quote:

"These common practices that perpetuate white supremacy culture create and sustain institutional and systemic barriers to equity for Black, Latinx, and Multilingual students. In order to dismantle these barriers, we must identify what it means to be an antiracist math educator.

In order to embody antiracist math education, teachers must engage in critical praxis that interrogates the ways in which they perpetuate white supremacy culture in their own classrooms, and develop a plan toward antiracist math education to address issues of equity for Black, Latinx, and multilingual students."

The authors then outline the characteristics of antiracist math educators and how they can design a "culturally sustaining math space" and "center ethnomathematics":

Teaching Mathematics

I found these two issues particularly interesting:

"To help combat the problem of racism in their classrooms, math teachers undertake a multistage process with monthly assignments as follows:

Identify and challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views.

Expose students to examples of people who have used math as resistance. Provide learning opportunities that use math as resistance."

The process for each month includes engagement, reflection, planning, acting (with accountability) and reflecting on these issues:

Teaching Mathematics

Let's look at what teachers are expected to accomplish in September as an example of the process of changing how math is taught.  Math teachers are to ask themselves "Who are my students?" and deal with how tracking students is part of white supremacy by:

Teaching Mathematics

Teaching Mathematics

Teaching Mathematics

While the Equitable Math program is California-based, other jurisdictions including Oregon are adapting the narrative that math is racist.  As shown in these screen captures from the Ontario, Canada Curriculum and Resources website for the grade 9 math curriculum keeping in mind that CRRP stands for Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy:

Teaching Mathematics


Teaching Mathematics


Teaching Mathematics


Teaching Mathematics

Teaching Mathematics

I like that; Eurocentric ideas about teaching mathematics.

Let's close with a few thoughts.  I'm really not certain how mathematics can be considered racist when students are expected to "get the right answer" and "show their work".  Reading between the lines, it would appear that the Equitable Math program is telling students who excel at mathematics under the current curriculum that they are somehow racist or white supremacists and gives students who are poor at mathematics a justification for their poor performance.  Successfully answering mathematical equations like this:

Teaching Mathematics

….and this:

Teaching Mathematics

…form a key part of careers in engineering and science.  Without the development of complex math skills, North American society must keep a wary eye on China where STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is now officially part of primary school curricula and is considered by parents as part of a well-rounded character.  There is only one right answer to a mathematical equation and I would prefer that the engineer who is designing the bridge that I travel over or the building that I work in has the skills to get the right answer.  Unlike the arts, mathematics is not a "touchy feely" subject and requires the ability to solve a problem successfully as well as the ability to memorize certain basic concepts.  It also requires educators who have a firm grasp of the concepts that they are teaching and the ability to help students that are struggling with basic skills by giving them the coping skills necessary to succeed.

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