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Ethnomathematics… in the Classroom


On many occasions I thought about math in art, music, history, and all aspects of life, but it didn’t occur to me to think of math as a cultural experience.  As I reflect on my experiences with math, I remember looking at Native American arts and crafts and thinking about the math that went into creating such beauty.  I thought about the Egyptians and the pyramids they built and wondered about the math they used to add such precise amazement to the world.  I even tell my students, when they question its relevance, that they do math all day every day, but never thought to share their heritage in math.

Ethnomathematics…  Who would have thought you could put culture and math together, formally, that is.  As long as I had been learning and loving math, I had not thought of math as a multicultural subject.  Then I read an article by Ubiratan D’Ambrosio, credited for formulating the word that connects mathematics and culture.

As I read the article I received clarity about my own ideas about teaching and learning mathematics.  In order to really accept a concept or acknowledge its importance, some students must have a connection to it.  In my experience with teaching mathematics to African American urban youth, I’ve learned that many of them are disconnected from math and therefore, do not feel an allegiance to learning it.  Incorporating ethnomathematics into the math curriculum can help connect students to math and encourage them to open up to accepting its importance in our world, beyond the classroom.  When incorporating ethnomathematics it’s important to connect the students to their own culture as it relates to math.  The student will then gain a better appreciation for math and hopefully become more interested in learning math.

I believe ethnomathematics is a key to making math relevant to my students!

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Author: Math Education Concepts

I am a Co-founder of and Program Coordinator for Math Corps Philadelphia, a combined academic enrichment and mentoring program. I am the author of "Teacher Training Manual: Designed for Secondary Mathematics Teachers of African American Urban Students." I hold a Master of Education degree in Secondary Mathematics and have several years of experience teaching secondary and post-secondary mathematics.

7 thoughts on “Ethnomathematics… in the Classroom

  1. You know my father has done volunteer work for Urban League in Camden, NJ where I was born. Not sure if he had to work with the Philly office for that or not, but he always talked about reaching out and showing the importance of technology as a way to a good career choice for urban youth especially underrepresented minorities. Of course the key to that is mathematics and science. I always felt that we underrepresented minorities need to understand and appreciate the connection and relevance that mathematics plays not only in their lives but everyone’s life! Which is why I agree that ethnomathematics could be a key to making math relevant to your students.

    I never heard of the term ethnomathematics until late last year. Here is some information that I learned that I feel that is worth sharing. Ron Eglash is an ethno-mathematician: he studies the way math and cultures intersect. He has shown that many aspects of African design — in architecture, art, even hair braiding — are based on perfect fractal patterns.

    Here is his TED Talk on African fractals:

    Here is a link to his Bio:


    The CSDT African Fractal page:

    One of my favorite parts from his TED talk:
    “The most complex example of an algorithmic approach to fractals that I found was actually not in geometry, it was in a symbolic code, and this was Bamana sand divination. And the same divination system is found all over Africa. You can find it on the East Coast as well as the West Coast, and often the symbols are very well preserved, so each of these symbols has four bits — it’s a four-bit binary word — you draw these lines in the sand randomly, and then you count off, and if it’s an odd number, you put down one stroke, and if it’s an even number, you put down two strokes. And they did this very rapidly, and I couldn’t understand where they were getting — they only did the randomness four times — I couldn’t understand where they were getting the other 12 symbols. And they wouldn’t tell me. They said, “No, no, I can’t tell you about this.” And I said, “Well look, I’ll pay you, you can be my teacher, and I’ll come each day and pay you.” They said, “It’s not a matter of money. This is a religious matter.”

    And finally, out of desperation, I said, “Well, let me explain Georg Cantor in 1877.” And I started explaining why I was there in Africa, and they got very excited when they saw the Cantor set. And one of them said, “Come here. I think I can help you out here.” And so he took me through the initiation ritual for a Bamana priest. And of course, I was only interested in the math, so the whole time, he kept shaking his head going, “You know, I didn’t learn it this way.” But I had to sleep with a kola nut next to my bed, buried in sand, and give seven coins to seven lepers and so on. And finally, he revealed the truth of the matter. And it turns out it’s a pseudo-random number generator using deterministic chaos. When you have a four-bit symbol, you then put it together with another one sideways. So even plus odd gives you odd. Odd plus even gives you odd. Even plus even gives you even. Odd plus odd gives you even. It’s addition modulo 2, just like in the parity bit check on your computer. And then you take this symbol, and you put it back in so it’s a self-generating diversity of symbols. They’re truly using a kind of deterministic chaos in doing this. Now, because it’s a binary code, you can actually implement this in hardware — what a fantastic teaching tool that should be in African engineering schools.
    And the most interesting thing I found out about it was historical. In the 12th century, Hugo of Santalla brought it from Islamic mystics into Spain. And there it entered into the alchemy community as geomancy: divination through the earth. This is a geomantic chart drawn for King Richard II in 1390. Leibniz, the German mathematician, talked about geomancy in his dissertation called “De Combinatoria.” And he said, “Well, instead of using one stroke and two strokes, let’s use a one and a zero, and we can count by powers of two.” Right? Ones and zeros, the binary code. George Boole took Leibniz’s binary code and created Boolean algebra, and John von Neumann took Boolean algebra and created the digital computer. So all these little PDAs and laptops — every digital circuit in the world — started in Africa. And I know Brian Eno says there’s not enough Africa in computers, but you know, I don’t think there’s enough African history in Brian Eno. (Laughter) (Applause)”

    You can read more on the origins of binary code in Africa here:


    • It’s interesting that your father worked in a similar community not too far from my home.

      Thank you for the links and the excerpt from the TED talk. It is very intriguing and informative. I will look into African fractals. I enjoy learning, especially when it is relevant to what I am doing!

      You have a wealth of knowledge. Thank you always for sharing!!


      • That is interesting! Well, my father and mother were raised in Camden and my brother, sister and I were born there. My mother’s family is still in Camden and I visit every year; I am actually over do for a visit. 🙂

        Thank you for your enthusiasm for the subject, it is inspiring! I hope that your students appreciate that fact. Speaking of wealth of information, I get a lot of it from the many professional mathematicians, college lecturers, and high school teachers on Google+! I highly recommend joining it.


      • Thank you for the kind words Luis!

        I will definitely consider joining Google+.


  2. Pingback: Ethnomathematics… in the Classroom « Guzman's Mathematics Weblog

  3. When we consider that every country has it’s currency denoting it’s cultural graphics and keynote descendants, depite the consensus global or territorial value, we discover that, indeed, ethnic and territorial populations hold very dear the correalation of math, cultural and ethnicity. I wonder how currency could work as a prompt for math class discussion on Ethnomathematics.


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