Although it is a core part of the school curriculum, maths can be hard to teach. Students can struggle to see its relevance and gain enthusiasm for it. In a new study, Dr Jodie Hunter of Massey University’s Institute of Education is looking at ways to highlight the mathematics already present in everyday life, particularly for Pasifika and Māori students.
‘I’ve been doing quite a bit of work with teachers on thinking about the mathematical knowledge that Pasifika and Māori students have within their homes and communities, and how this can be built on in the classroom,’ she says. ‘I’ve been looking at Pasifika and Māori art and craft, like quilts, tapa cloths, and tukutuku panels. They have algebraic growing patterns in them, and I’ve been developing ways to use those as tasks for kids so they can make the link that culture is mathematical.
I come from a Cook Island background, and my 92-year-old grandmother makes tīvaevae quilts, so I know there’s a heap of mathematics in Pasifika and Māori culture. The problem is, kids go into a classroom and see mathematical problems which are completely disconnected from them and who they are.’
Dr Hunter says that current teaching methods try to connect mathematics with real life, but there is a danger of the examples becoming quite contrived. On the other hand, cultural items contain existing patterns with a lot of mathematics already inherent in them. ‘The idea is to pull this out, problematise it, and get kids to work on these problems so they can see how mathematics is embedded in their culture. We also talk about what it is, mathematically, about the patterns that makes this type of artwork really beautiful.’
The research has shown that children find it much easier to engage with patterns from their own culture, as familiarity makes them easier to visualise and work with. The result is that children can work at a much higher level of algebra, and generalise better, than they can with the types of unfamiliar, standard patterns usually used in mathematics classes. ‘They could quickly see what the pattern was and that meant that they could take it to a higher level in terms of mathematics and generalisation than the kind of decontextualised patterns where they had more difficulty in terms of trying to see what the pattern was,’ Dr Hunter explains.
The idea is to pull this out, problematise it, and get kids to work on these problems so they can see how mathematics is embedded in their culture.
DR JODIE HUNTER
The research also looked at using patterns contained within dance, such as Samoan slap dances. ‘We looked across different contexts and thought about how we can use the existing patterns as a mathematical context for kids. Drumming is another good example. When you are drumming you are using patterns, multiples and sets, but not many people would think about drumming as a mathematical activity.
‘We definitely have an equity issue with Pasifika-Māori students who are underachieving compared to other populations. What often happens is that teachers position Pasifika-Māori students and their culture in a kind of deficit frame, so that they talk about the kids having no maths at home and coming to school without maths, and the kids are doing it too because they’re talking about their culture as having no mathematics, which is all untrue. There is in fact a lot of mathematics going on and it’s a case of pulling it out.’
Dr Hunter is also interested in introducing algebra early on in education. ‘Algebra is a gatekeeper in mathematics education,’ she says. ‘Often, at primary school, there is a really big focus on numbers, which are concrete. Then students hit high school where maths teaching turns to algebra and becomes abstract, and there’s no bridge in between, so kids end up completely hating maths. Part of the work I’ve done is looking at how you can bridge the mathematics right through, looking at the kind of algebra that you can be doing in primary school so that when kids get to secondary school they can make those links. I’m trying to think about how we can smooth this transition.’
Concepts in algebra, she says, can be introduced into mathematics education right from the beginning of school. For example, ‘What the equal sign means, because a lot of people think it simply means “write the answer”. So we do a lot of work on getting kids to see that the equal sign is showing a relationship instead.
‘If you drop out of mathematics, you’ve lost opportunities. I’m not saying everyone is going to be a mathematician, but you need to continue with mathematics to have opportunities in your future in terms of education and employment.’