BIRS First Nations Math Education (15w5170)

Arriving in Banff, Alberta Sunday, November 22 and departing Friday November 27, 2015


(Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences / University of British Columbia)

Genevieve Fox (Siksika Board OF Education)

(University of Calgary)

Cynthia Nicol (University of British Columbia)


This workshop is dedicated in memory of Narcisse Blood (1954 – 2015), our esteemed friend.

Through the years our group has worked to develop a variety of practical approaches for overcoming the challenges aboriginal students face. The most relevant strategies discussed and implemented include:1. Educate teachers to effectively teach math:
  • train pre-service teachers to teach math more effectively; increase their capability, confidence and attitude with regard to math
  • educate teachers in the pedagogy of indigenous knowledge of mathematics
  • educate teachers to strive for and expect success for all their students, including Aboriginal students
  • make teachers the harbingers for institutional change by changing their attitude toward and teaching and learning of math and toward Aboriginal learners

  • 2. Implement effective, research-based, math programs:

  • teach math in the cultural context of the students; recognize the historical and practical role of math in the traditional and current lives of First Nations/Aboriginal people and introduce the rich history and its current significance in the field of math

  • incorporate meta-cognition strategies so that students understand their own learning process for math

  • teach the basics of math and expect all students to success at learning
  • teach basic skills and problem-solving early and keep building on the skills students need to succeed at higher levels.

  • 3. Include Elders in this important discussion. It is imperative that if we are to be successful in these areas, that we begin to allow a bridging of “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” with contemporary areas of study.We also focused on numeracy and the following four possible four outcomes (Ginsburgh et al., 2006, pg. 5):
  • Numeracy for Practical Purposes – addresses aspects of the physical world to do with designing, making, measuring.
  • Numeracy for the Interpreting Society – relates to interpreting and reflecting on numerical and graphical information of relevance to self, work, or community.
  • Numeracy for Personal Organization – focus is on the numeracy requirements for the personal organizational matters involving time, money, and travel.
  • Numeracy for Knowledge – deals with mathematical skills needed for further study in mathematics, or other subjects with mathematical underpinnings and/or assumptions. By focusing on the development of these four outcomes, we are able to honour the spirit of each student as an individual and as part of a community. This way of thinking is an integral part of many aboriginal cultures as well as a successful way of learning mathematics in any culture. The reality is that most of the “aboriginal resources in mathematics” are very simplistic and scarce, and do not honour the similarities, difference, depth and richness of First Nations cultures. The main focus of this workshop is to come together as a group with all our different expertise and create lessons where the standards of mathematics learning would be high, and the aboriginal cultural context would be acknowledged. The group currently is divided into 6 groups which looked into different aspects of aboriginal cultures; they focus on the following ideas: 1.- The Tipi: Mary Ruth MacDougall (Elder) delighted us with a wonderful story an incident that happened to her and her husband when they went to an Indian Day Encampment with their Tipi. Bob Meggison (mathematician) and Mary Ruth kept in contact and have been developing materials using this story and the tipi as a mathematical and cultural artifact. 2.- Settlements and symbols and artefacts: how some aboriginal settlements were originally organized according to the cardinal directions and how some of the symbols like the medicine wheel are used to represent aspects in the daily life of people. A little story was also developed in this group which describes an aboriginal settlement and uses the circular nature of encampments to pose a question. A recently produced video based on this work can be found at: The Sweat Lodge: How is a sweat lodge built? What are its proportions, direction and its geometry, as well as all the materials needed to construct it, ceremonies and tradition? Given its construction by using several pieces of bark, and how this bark is bent and attached, students can look into material resistance and flexibility in relation to several geometric configurations. 4.- Natural resources and food collection: acknowledging that in most aboriginal cultures people are not supposed to harvest or gather all the food available but just what is needed. This is an important environmental question: what happens when a population displays this type of behavior, how are resources affected? 5-.Games: in particular arrow and bone games were discussed, how they are played, and how these games can be studied using probability and combinatorics. As an example we have the game of Slahal (Lahal) where two teams each hold a set of sticks (usually 5 sticks per team). When a game starts one of the two teams will have a set of two "bones", one with a stripe and one without. When a team is guessing, the objective is to find in which of the opponents’ hand is the bone without the stripe. When the team has the bones, the objective is to make sure the other team guesses wrong on the bones set. When a team guesses wrong it looses a stick, if it guesses right it gets the set of bones. A member from the teams which has the set of bones will hide the bones and swap them around from hand to hand while the rest of the team is drumming, chanting and trying to distract the other team. 6.- Creating Mathematical resources by relating traditional and new stories with mathematics. Elder Shirley Alphonse from Sooke, has been re-creating stories where we are working to develop mathematical and astronomical resources related to the stories. The groups are currently developing all these themes, and putting together various lessons together. For examples of resources the group has developed look at the following link: have also created and continue developing learning and teaching networks through teachers’ workshops, problem solving workshops for students and academic summer camps where students take math and English for several weeks during the summer. This multi-year project is still work under development, significant progress has been made but it is crucial to build on our success through workshops in a collaborative environment such as that afforded by BIRS. The goal of the meeting we are proposing is to continue with the type of activities outlined above, but also to develop ways of promoting materials originating from these interactions and making them available to various K-12 math programs around the country. Our main goal is to provide resources that are sound, interesting and challenging mathematically, with a factual and rich cultural context and to provide these resources to various venues of instruction in order to supply a more balanced curriculum where aboriginal culture can take its rightful place.Connections like this help to further develop the Truth and Reconciliation process where respectful relationships are created by working together with the different skills we can all bring to further meaningful education. Bibliography: Ginsburgh, L., Manly, M., Schmitt, M. J. (2006). Components of Numeracy. National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy: Cambridge, MA. Retrieved on March 3, 2010 from: