Making the Connection between Culture and Mathematics

School of Education and Social Policy assistant professor Edd Taylor is exploring questions like these as he examines how the consideration of diversity might improve both teaching and learningWhile each student brings a unique background to the classroom as an individual learner, what can be gained by looking at these learning experiences from a cultural perspective? How can diversity be embraced not only in shaping a school community but also as a resource to make instruction more accessible for all learners?

School of Education and Social Policy assistant professor Edd Taylor is exploring questions like these as he examines how the consideration of diversity might improve both teaching and learning. He emphasizes the importance of understanding diverse student populations and the resources they bring to the classroom. “People typically talk about diversity as a goal rather than a resource,” he explains. “A resource is a unique way to think about it.”

Mathematics in a cultural context
Taylor has focused his work on how mathematics learning, specifically, is shaped by the shared understandings of one’s culture. In part, he explores the different paths that students take to comprehend mathematics and how well they express that knowledge in the classroom. “It’s very difficult to separate issues of culture and learning,” he says. For example, culture and language can have a tremendous impact on the way a child learns to count. “Practices within a culture affect understanding,” he explains.

As part of his research, Taylor studied elementary students’ understanding of mathematics in a lower-income African-American community. These students often stopped at the corner store after school to purchase snacks. Based on their use of money in this setting, Taylor found that the children showed a variety of mathematical understandings. Among these was knowledge of place value, or breaking up numbers into smaller numbers. He noted that when the shopping task became more difficult, peers or adults provided help. For example, the store clerk might support the child by suggesting an item that could be purchased with the amount of money the child had.

Interestingly, when the children were tested in conventional classroom methods of understanding place value such as using blocks, they demonstrated significantly less proficiency or even none at all. “It seemed they didn’t have place value knowledge, but they did have it,” Taylor notes. “Some assessment tools may greatly underestimate the knowledge that students possess. In particular, tools or artifacts that are used in students’ everyday lives may better capture student understanding,” he explains. As a result, he emphasizes the importance of using assessment tools that consider a student’s knowledge base.

Equity in mathematics education
The issue of equity in mathematics education extends to virtually all levels of the field, and Taylor is addressing a wide range, studying the issues as they appear all the way from elementary school to the PhD level. He has devoted some time to examining mathematics doctoral programs, which he sees as an especially crucial piece of the puzzle. “Math education doctoral programs must change so their graduates, math educators and future math teachers, understand the content knowledge and the methods to teach mathematics in ways that are appropriate for all students,” he explains.

Taylor is concerned about the lack of a diverse teacher workforce compared to the rich diversity of students in public school classrooms. “Teachers are not necessarily familiar with their students’ cultures,” he notes, adding that this deficit is largely unaddressed in mathematics education doctoral programs. In order to reach all students, teachers must understand how culture impacts learning and plan instruction that takes this relationship into account. According to Taylor, reaching those who will be teaching future teachers — mathematics education professors — is among the best ways to improve teacher preparation so that graduates have a better understanding of the influence of culture on learning.

Taylor is part of an organization whose goal is to do just that. Diversity in Mathematics Education (DiME) explores the role of diversity in the teaching and learning of mathematics and, especially, how to guide future generations of math educators. Along with DiME, Taylor facilitated a professional development program and study that worked with a group of 20 teachers to identify and integrate the diversity of their students in their mathematics instruction.

The study explored how teachers might draw on their students’ everyday understandings in the classroom. First, parents were contacted to find out how mathematical concepts were already being used at home. Then, Taylor and his group looked for ways to incorporate this prior knowledge, such as familiarity with sports, into classroom lessons. The teachers learned to integrate the understandings behind “at-home math” into their instruction. For example, instead of using football merely as the context for a problem, the numbers inherent to football, like series of sevens and threes, would be used.

The next DiME conference, which Taylor is co-organizing, will be held at Northwestern University this summer. Taylor looks forward to convening with other professors as well as PhD students who not only understand mathematics but also recognize the importance of equity in mathematics education. The conference will provide opportunities for sharing and discussing research, information on obtaining funding and securing publications, and areas of service such as mentoring and supporting doctoral students.

Linking culture and learning
Currently, Taylor is examining religious practices and mathematics understanding. He is researching two communities that tithe, or give 10 percent of their income to the church, to see whether children who participate are developing an understanding of rational numbers such as percents, fractions and ratios. His preliminary findings have shown that many of the children have good understanding about how much to tithe. However, Taylor is also discovering that this knowledge does not necessarily transfer to the classroom. While the children may be able to calculate 10 percent of their allowance in the cultural context of tithing, for example, they are not always able to show this in a formal way in the classroom when asked to calculate 10 percent of a number. Taylor hopes to identify ways for teachers and parents to help children link this knowledge.

In the future, Taylor looks forward to investigating issues related to identity, including how students see themselves as young mathematicians. Overall, he points out that students must be understood as part of their larger community and that the connection between culture and learning must be addressed if mathematics is truly to become accessible to all learners. According to Taylor, success depends on both smaller-scale factors such as student-teacher interaction and curriculum options as well as larger factors, including teacher preparation and the economic disparity between urban and suburban school districts. “We have to think about these issues related to students’ diversity of learning, from both the smaller issues to the larger structural issues,” he maintains.

Photo by Andrew Campbell
By Jennifer Beck