Mathematics education

Does the current mathematics curriculum we offer Aboriginal students get the learning outcomes we want or need? Does it reflect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures? Does is merely reflect them or does it allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to see themselves within it?

The Australian Curriculum website states:

Across the Australian Curriculum, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures priority provides opportunities for all learners to deepen their knowledge of Australia by engaging with the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. Students will understand that contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities are strong, resilient, rich and diverse. The knowledge and understanding gained through this priority will enhance the ability of all young people to participate positively in the ongoing development of Australia.

The Australian Curriculum: Mathematics values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures. It provides opportunities for students to appreciate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have sophisticated applications of mathematical concepts.

Students will explore connections between representations of number and pattern and how they relate to aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. They will investigate time, place, relationships and measurement concepts in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contexts. Students will deepen their understanding of the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples through the application and evaluation of statistical data.

What about the mathematics pedagogy we see in the diversity of schools across Australia with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students? Are our teachers getting results? Do we have an acceptable percentage of Indigenous students doing the deep maths in Years 11 and 12? If not, why not?

My thoughts at the moment are that we need connected professional learning communities developing responsive mathematics pedagogy (RMP). What is RPM?

The following story, ‘Three ways to catch a kangaroo’, provides a metaphor for responsive mathematics pedagogy and the different ways of teaching mathematics; just like the different ways to catch a kangaroo. It highlights the need to be competent in a number of ways so that at any time, given the circumstances and context, an appropriate strategy can be called upon, or even a blending or combination of strategies.

Three ways to catch a kangaroo

The first way is to use a boomerang and throw it at the kangaroo. The boomerang hits the kangaroo in the head and knocks it out and there you have it. (Consider the mathematics in this strategy – the physics in relation to velocity, wind, distance, strength and accuracy of the thrower for example).

The second way is where a group of people circle the kangaroo and close in on it and captures it as it has nowhere to escape.

The third way is to dress up like a kangaroo. You cloak yourself in a kangaroo skin so that the kangaroo thinks you’re one of them and you sneak up on it and pounce.[i]

During the project Make it count (I managed this national Closing the gap project from 2009-2013), the diverse ways of teaching mathematics under development became a contentious issue for clusters. The debate however led them to look more closely at what they were doing and what other clusters were doing. They soon began to see likenesses, connections and possibilities for their own pedagogy and incorporated aspects of other pedagogic practices into their own. From this, the project concluded that teachers needed to be able to teach in a balanced way within all three approaches and developed a model to describe this, naming it Responsive Mathematics Pedagogy as illustrated in the diagram below. “Not one of these is enough in its own right. The three elements interact in a dynamic and generative way” (Morris, Thornton, Statton, and Toberty, 2012).


Responsive mathematics pedagogy is culturally, socially and academically responsive to the learning needs of Aboriginal students.

Being culturally responsive includes teaching mathematics through culture, Aboriginal ways of learning, Aboriginal pedagogy, and teaching to the cultural needs and knowledges of learners.

The ‘8ways’ or 8 Aboriginal ways of learning from Orange Public School is an example of this in action. This Aboriginal pedagogy framework is described by one of its creators, Dr Tyson Yunkaporta[ii](2012):

This Aboriginal pedagogy framework is expressed as eight interconnected pedagogies involving narrative-driven learning, visualised learning processes, hands-on/reflective techniques, use of symbols/ metaphors, land-based learning, indirect/synergistic logic, modelled scaffolded genre mastery, and connectedness to community. But these can change in different settings.

In the Make it count Orange cluster, Orange Public School adapted this 8ways framework to develop their own ‘unique’ pedagogy using the eight ways as a starting point for dialogue with school and community to localise their ways of doing things.

Being socially responsive is teaching mathematics through social contexts and is about social inclusion and perspectives within the teaching learning cycle. Making links to potential employment contexts in business and industry can be a part of this. Students see that learning relates to their social worlds but can also lead to important career, lifestyle and community advantage later on in life. An example of this is from the Alberton cluster where the teaching of mathematics was through the deliberate acts of ‘mathematisation and contextualisation’ (Thornton, Statton and Mountzouris, 2012). Social contexts such as a very popular cooking show on television or the learning of mathematics through visual arts (eg drawing, sculpting) were used.

Being academically responsive is about the academic mathematics, the Western mathematics prescribed and required by the Australian Curriculum. It is about academic inclusion and teaching to the academic needs of Aboriginal learners. For example, teachers can identity what might be invisible in the Western (Australian Curriculum) mathematics classroom to Aboriginal students. As well as the mathematical concepts, teachers know and understand deeply the cultural tools and language in Western mathematics curriculum that might be invisible to Aboriginal students and explicitly teach them, and scaffold the teaching, to make them visible to students.

[i] This story is told with the kind permission of the conveyor of the story and comes from Eora Country in NSW. It is highly likely that the story has many variations in other areas across the country.

[ii] Tyson Kaawoppa Yunkaporta is a Bama man of Nungar and Koori descent (Aboriginal Australia).

What are your thoughts?


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