Socio-Cultural Influences in Mathematics
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The Problem: Mathematics or mathematics literacy, like science and technology (STEM), continues to be a gatekeeper to educational and personal success in the 21st century. For minority students, the stakes couldn’t be higher. In many school communities across the nation, research and reports indicate that high numbers of minority and low income children and youth are experiencing dismal academic and personal failure. In addition, these students tend to perform significantly below their White, middle-class peers on all measures of academic achievement, including standardized test scores, rates of graduation, and college matriculation (Haycock, 1998; National Center for Education Statistics, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2000; Zuniga-Hill & Barnes, 1995).
A Cause: Over the years the dominant teaching practice in mathematics has followed a traditional approach based on linear and dualistic thinking (right or wrong, one correct answer). This approach views teaching and learning of mathematics as solely objective and culturally-neutral. Such conceptions and practices in mathematics do not meet the learning and problem-solving styles and processes of most urban students and have immensely contributed to their low motivation and lack of interest and success in mathematics learning (Tate, 2005). In fact, most scholars of culturally responsive teaching view cultural bias in mathematics instruction as a major factor affecting urban students’ success in mathematics and other science subjects (Gay, 2000; Tate, 2005). Consequently, researchers have called for more appropriate and more responsive practices, now described as culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Nieto, 2000; Tate, 2005).
A Solution: The notion of culturally responsive teaching in Mathematics has been conceptualized as ethnomathematics (D’Ambrosio, 1997), which is defined as the study of mathematics that considers and integrates the culture in which mathematics arises or how different cultures “go about the tasks of classifying, ordering, counting, measuring or mathematizing their environment” (Oritz-Franco, 2005). Contrary to Western perspective, the concept and discipline of mathematics is not “universal.” Despite what some may think, mathematics is only universal to those who share a particular cultural and historical perspective. For instance, Tate (1995) argues the failure to “center” African Americans in the process of mathematics learning contributes to their failure to learn and understand mathematics. He explains that failing to provide African American students with curriculum, instruction, and assessment centered in their experiences, culture, and traditions, is a major obstacle to providing them with an empowering mathematical experience.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM, 2000) also recognizes the role and importance of culture and learning as a socio-cultural process. Consequently, the organization has developed standards that include teachers’ understanding of how students’ cultural, linguistic, ethnic, racial, gender and socioeconomic background influence their learning of mathematics and, particularly, the role of mathematics in society and culture. NCTM also acknowledges the contribution of various cultures to the advancement of mathematics and the inclusion inquiry-based and cooperative learning, which are aspects of culturally responsive teaching. While examining the impact of culturally responsive pedagogy on student performance, Gutierrez (2000) studied the contextual factors of one high school mathematics department that successfully enhanced urban students’ mathematics enrollment in advanced level mathematics. She argued the implementation of a rigorous curriculum, active commitment to students, commitment of a collective enterprise or cooperative learning, and instructional scaffolding practices—that align with culturally responsive practice—influenced the tendency of students to take more mathematics and higher levels of mathematics than their counterparts in other schools (Gutierrez,2000). Research findings affirmed that effective math teachers of Black and Latino students seek out resources that relate to students’ interests and connect to challenging mathematics curriculum concepts, while at the same time get to know their students well enough to know how to relate new ideas to their lives and personal interests.
The Take Away: Research findings affirmed that effective math teachers of Black and Latino students seek out resources that relate to students’ interests and connect to challenging mathematics curriculum concepts, while at the same time get to know their students well enough to know how to relate new ideas to their lives and personal interests.
D’Ambrosio, U. (1997). Ethnomathematics and its address in the his- tory and pedagogy of mathematics. In Powell, A. B. and Frankenstein, M., editors, Ethnomathematics. Challenging Eurocentrism in Mathematics Education, pages 13–24. State University of New York Press, Albany NY.
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gutierrez, R. (2000).Advancing African-American, Urban Youth in Mathematics: Unpacking the Success of One Math Department. The University of Chicago Press.
Haycock, K. (1998). Good Teaching Matters…a lot. The Education Trust.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teaching for African American students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). The Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education: Washington, DC.
NCTM. (2000). Principles and Standard for School Mathematics. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Nieto, S. (2000). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.
Oritz-Franco, L. 2005. Chicanos have math in their blood: Precolumbian mathematics. In E. Tate. 1995. Mathematics Communication: Creating opportunities to learn(Vol.1 No.6)(344- 351p). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.
Tate, W. (2005). Access and opportunities to learn are not accidents: Engineering mathematical progress in your school. Southeast Eisenhower Regional Consortium for Mathematics and Science Education.
U.S. Department of Education. (2000). The Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education: Washington, DC.
Zuniga-Hill & Barnes. (1995). Effective teacher preparation for diverse student populations: What works best? Class, culture, and race in American schools—A handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.