Originally posted on The Learning Exchange by Ruth Beatty | August 15, 2016


For the past four years I have been working with Indigenous and non-Native educators to explore what it means to create culturally responsive mathematics education for students in Ontario. Culturally responsive education makes mathematics more meaningful by aligning instruction with the cultural paradigms and lived experiences of students (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008). Discussions with community leaders and Elders have highlighted the importance of both supporting the development of mathematical thinking and promoting the continuing growth of Indigenous culture for Native students. Our goal has been to create sequences of mathematics instruction that incorporate Indigenous knowledge and experiences to better serve Indigenous students currently in the provincial education system, and to learn from Indigenous pedagogical perspectives to improve mathematics instruction for all students.

Ensuring math instruction is culturally responsive requires communication, the introduction of cultural and mathematical content, and learning from Indigenous pedagogy. All of this is founded upon the building of strong relationships.

I always had that sense that my home life was a very different world than when I went to school. The two were very, very distinct. I’ve always gone into the dominant world.

Currently, our education system prioritizes voices from the dominant culture (Battiste & Henderson, 2000; Lipka, Mohatt & the Ciulistet Group, 1998). Responsive education requires listening to Indigenous perspectives and engaging in an ongoing dialogue between Indigenous and school communities. When First Nations students are educated in provincial schools, they are compelled to walk in two worlds and learn within a Western educational tradition that differs from their home experience. This discrepancy was eloquently described by one of our Ojibway research team members who grew up in an Ojibway community in Northern Ontario but attended a provincial public school and is now a teacher in a provincial school.

“I always had that sense that my home life was a very different world than when I went to school. The two were very, very distinct. I’ve always gone into the dominant world. My father used to say, ‘Learn their stuff. Learn it well. Go and do well in that system.’ But as I grew up and matured, you know what I realized? I realized no one ever came to us. Never came and wondered about us and learned our ways. And I really wondered about that. Why are we the ones who have to learn everything? Now I know the things that we were taught as children are just as viable as the concepts that we learn in the dominant society. And there’s nothing wrong with us.”

Bringing Native culture into the classroom as the basis for math education is one way of addressing this discrepancy.

All of the lessons we have researched have been collaboratively designed and delivered, with the goal of creating instruction that is mathematically rigorous and culturally meaningful. This aligns with current math approaches that articulate the need for students to make connections between mathematics and real-world applications (NCTM, 2000). We investigate the mathematics that is inherent in traditional Indigenous cultural activities. For example, students are taught different types of beading including looming, medallion making and the peyote stitch. They learn moccasin making and how to create dream catchers. As the students learn, they help us to uncover the mathematical thinking in the activity including multiplicative, algebraic and spatial reasoning, geometric transformations, measurement and estimation. 

Building relationships is foundational to ensuring mathematics instruction is culturally responsive.

Indigenous pedagogy emphasizes experiential learning, modelling, and collaborative activity. Community members used a combination of direct instruction to teach activity-based skills, and informal inquiry into mathematical problems that naturally arose from the activities, for example, calculating the ratio of beads to cm to determine the length students needed to make their loomed bracelets. Students worked with community members in small groups or individually to find solutions, and the Native members of the research team described how this was similar to learning experiences they had experienced as children working with Elders.

“I remember learning with my friends from an Elder as we all sat at a big kitchen table. We were chatting, we were laughing. There was no worry about making mistakes, we were all learning together. And you just were sitting in close proximity to someone who you trusted to teach you whatever it was you were doing. And I noticed that in the Grade 6 classroom. Quite often we think of classrooms in schools as institutional but I think we created the community feeling in that classroom.”

Building relationships is foundational to ensuring mathematics instruction is culturally responsive. All students, First Nations and non-Native, learned from community members who came into the classroom to teach, and saw that the knowledge brought by those members was honoured and respected. Valuing community perspectives, prioritizing community voices and culture, and involving community members in teaching are the first steps to creating classroom and community interactions that connect mathematics with school and community contexts. And although our research has focused on the development of culturally responsive mathematics curricula, in the process we have developed “student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” (Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, p. 7).

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council through an Insight Development Grant, and by the Ontario Ministry of Education.



Castagno, A.E. & Brayboy, B.M.J. (2008). Culturally responsive schooling for Indigenous youth: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 941-993.

Battiste, M. & Henderson, J.Y. (2000). Protecting indigenous knowledge and heritage: A global challenge. Saskatoon, SK: Purich.

Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Calls to Action (2015). http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

Lipka, J., Mohatt, G.V., & the Ciulistet Group (1998). Transforming the culture of schools: Yup’ik Eskimo examples. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000). Standards. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

This blog post was written by Ruth Beatty for LearnTeachLead.


Ruth Beatty



Ruth Beatty is an Associate Professor in the Graduate Studies and Research in Education department at Lakehead University in Orillia, Ontario.