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Culturally relevant teaching requires that students maintain cultural integrity as well as academic excellence. In their widely cited article, Fordham and Ogbu (1986) point to a phenomenon called “acting White,” In which African American Students fear being ostracized by their peers for demonstrating interest in academic and other school related tasks. Other scholars (Hollins, 1994; King, 1994) have provided alternate explanations of this behavior. They suggest that for too many African American students, the school remains an alien and hostile place. This hostility is manifest in the “styling” and “posturing” (Majors & Billson, 1992) that the school rejects. Thus, the African American student wearing a hat in class or baggy pants may be sanctioned for clothing choices and not for specific behaviors. Thus, school is perceived as a place where African American Students cannot “be themselves.”

An example of maintaining cultural integrity was also demonstrated by Ann Lewis, a White woman whom the author described as culturally “Black” (Ladson-Billings, 1992b; 1992c). In her sixth grade classroom, Lewis encouraged the students to use their home language while they acquired the secondary discourse of “standard” English (Gee, 1989). Thus, her students were permitted to express themselves in language (speaking and writing) with which they were knowledgeable and comfortable. They were then required to “translate” to the standard form. By the end of the year, the students were not only facile at this “code-switching” but could better use both languages. While culturally relevant teaching requires that students maintain some cultural integrity as well as academic excellence, culturally competent teachers integrate the students’ culture as part of their everyday instruction. Using research techniques designed and developed through anthropological studies, a new science has been born, Ethnomathematics.

Ethnomathematics is the term used to describe a people’s mathematical contributions in society, and reflects that the need for and use of mathematical techniques is linked to
specific cultural contexts (Ascher, 2002; D’Ambrosio, 2001). Thus, the use of cultural references and examples in mathematics classrooms increases as teachers begin to see the value of framing the mathematics they teach in a context familiar to students. Such integrations work to validate local knowledge and mathematical applications implemented within the students’ community that are typically omitted from curricular inclusions. Gerdes (1998) warns of harmful effects that may result when educators selectively create divisions between daily life events and what is taught in school. Furthermore, when students are not allowed, or encouraged, to co-construct mathematical knowledge they run the risk of discounting who they are and what they know. Consequently, they may lose interest in learning mathematics or question their ability to be successful in using mathematical skills (Kamii & Dominick, 1998).

There is a growing number of teachers who are contextualizing their mathematics instruction by connecting mathematics and culture. One should know that such instruction is much more than a superficial attempt to enliven instruction; rather, it indicates the complex nature of teaching and learning itself. When artifacts, traditions, and behaviors of a learning
community are obvious components of instruction, they also become subtle instructional techniques attuned to the natural learning styles and tendencies of those present. School, as a vital aspect of everyday life rather than a separate reality, begins to incorporate those very activities (often overlooked and undervalued) by emphasizing them within the instruction. Such efforts help to scaffold the instruction, not merely in the activities described, but also by including less obvious yet equally important values, traditions, and cultural nuances of those who are familiar with the activities portrayed in each community.


Ascher, M. (2002). Mathematics Elsewhere. An Exploration of Ideas Across Cultures. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.

D’Ambrosio, U. (2001). “Mathematics and Peace: A Reflection on the Basis of Western Civilization.” Leonardo, 34(4): 327–32.

Fordham, S. Ogbu, J. (1986). Black students’ school success: Coping with the “burden of ‘acting white.’” (Vol. 18). The Urban Review.

Gee, J. (1989). Literacy, discourse and linguistics: Introduction. Journal of Education, 171, 5-17.

Gerdes, P. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education (1998) 1: 33. doi:10.1023/A:1009955031429

Hollins, E. R., King, J. E., & Hayman, W. C. (Eds.). (1994). Teaching diverse populations: Formulating a knowledge base. Albany: State University of New York Press.

King, N. (1994). “The Qualitative Research Interview” in Cassell, C. and Symon, G. (eds), Qualitative Methods in Organizational Research. London: Sage.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1992b). Laboratory consequences of literacy: A case of culturally relevant instruction for African-American students. Journal of Negro Education.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1992c). Reading between the lines and beyond the pages: A culturally relevant approach to literacy reaching. Theory Into Practice.

Majors, R., & Billson, J. M. (1992). Cool Pose: The dilemmas of Black manhood in America. New York: Lexington Books.