First Nations Math Education (09w5078)

Arriving in Banff, Alberta Sunday, November 22 and departing Friday November 27, 2009


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

Genevieve Fox (Siksika Board OF Education)

(University of Calgary)


In June 2006, mathematicians and math educators who have been working with First Nations communities came together at a BIRS workshop where the main goal was to find ways to move forward in promoting mathematical opportunities for aboriginals.
The workshop was based on the impression that First Nations/Aboriginal student participation and success in school math programs is limited. This impression was readily confirmed by data presented.
The performance of Aboriginal students in BC for the last five years has been significantly lower than the performance of non-Aboriginal students :

- As early as grade 4, Aboriginal students lag behind their non-Aboriginal classmates by about 20% in their performance on the Foundation Skills Assessment in numeracy.

- By grade 10, the gap widens and only 47 percent of Aboriginal students fulfill the expectations in numeracy, compared to 77 percent of non-Aboriginal students.

- Over the last seven years, only 5-7 percent of Aboriginal students have written and passed the Principles of Mathematics 12 provincial exam, compared to 25-27 percent of non-Aboriginal students.

- In the same period, 38 percent of Aboriginal students completed their grade 12, and graduated from secondary school, while 77 percent of non-Aboriginal students graduated.
We find the same pattern on Aboriginal student performance all over Canada, however there are not exact figures since the test data from different provinces are not available.

It was agreed by participants that successful achievement in mathematics is critical for Aboriginal students if the outcome of cultural, political and economic equity for Aboriginal peoples is ever to be realized. Several participants in the workshop described barriers to success for Aboriginal students and identified the shortcomings of current approaches. Most prominent among these were: the cultural and social dissonance between school and one's Aboriginal society; the inhospitable nature of public education systems for Aboriginal students in that their history is ignored and their potential unrecognized; the absence of math programs that lead to success, for all students; and the lack of teachers trained to successfully teach math. These factors, when considered together, constitute insurmountable barriers to success in math for Aboriginal students.

Changing the attitudes of both teachers and students, was agreed by the participants, was a good way to start. Teachers could be the harbingers of academic and cultural change, and we as a community should support them. One way to do it is by empowering teachers in providing them with the necessary knowledge of mathematics in order to be able to teach effectively. Teachers should also have high expectations for their aboriginal students, and a good way for this to happen is by learning more about First Nations culture and traditional ways of knowing. First Nations students can do mathematics, and they must be given the confidence to become successful in this area, a good teacher can give them the confidence and the skills.

Teachers, mathematicians and elders should come together to create a workshop program for improvement in math education among aboriginals, where the standards of mathematics learning will be high, and the cultural context will be acknowledged.

The results of the June 2006 meeting help us to develop the following plan of Action:

Elders (The traditional way of knowing):

The powerful and effective traditional mathematical knowledge of First Nations peoples, should become part of every teacher's lexicon when presenting math. It is important for students to understand that mathematics is an important element of their own living cultures, and not something that is solely 'white people's knowledge,' to put it bluntly. Teachers need to 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.

Elders should be invited to talk to teachers and mathematicians about traditional ways of knowing, and how mathematics is and was part of their traditional culture. The goal is that teachers will have a greater appreciation of the aboriginal cultures and this will be reflected in their teaching. Mathematicians on the other hand, can learn from Elders different approaches to mathematical thought. In addition, mathematicians could help Elders by making them aware of the mathematics in their traditional knowledge.

Teacher Training:

The ultimate goal would be to provide all First Nations people with access to quality mathematics education, and be well prepared to take advantage of it. Knowing the math is key! First Nations people must be given the opportunity to obtain a solid foundation in mathematics and science. They must be given the opportunity to participate fully and equitably in a world now increasingly dependent on technology. Therefore, teachers of aboriginal peoples in Canada need themselves to be properly prepared to teach mathematics, and to teach it effectively within the cultures of their students.

We should provide opportunities for teachers of aboriginal schools to develop their math knowledge and math teaching skills. Mathematicians and math educators should find ways to provide math workshops for teachers in areas where we find that many teachers have difficulties.

Sharon Friesen at the University of Calgary has developed in Alberta lesson studies where mathematicians, math educators and teachers come together to discuss mathematics and math teaching, but very little has been done about inviting Elders into the mix to acquire a cultural perspective even though many people have talked about it.
By working together, success is attainable. It is critical that those involved in the circle of education; primary, elementary, secondary, post secondary coordinate their efforts and create a smooth transition from one level to the next, and the only way this can happen is by communicating and learning from each other.

With this plan in mind we held the second First Nations meeting at Banff on December 2-7 2007.

At this meeting Elders from different First Nations were invited to attend as well as mathematicians and teachers. Through various sessions mathematicians will work with the elders to extract explicitly the mathematical knowledge of their traditional ways. We will demonstrate how mathematics is implicitly and explicitly a part of Aboriginal traditional knowledge.

Our main goal is to create lessons that could be used in the current mathematics curriculum, which would reflect Aboriginal knowledge.

Goals for the meeting:

For Teachers:

--To learn more mathematics through math enrichment workshops.

-- To become more in-tune with Aboriginal cultures and traditional ways of knowledge and learning.

-- To implement this information in the classrooms where all children, not just Aboriginal children, can see how mathematics is used and developed and part of Aboriginal cultures as well.

-- To use these lessons so that Aboriginal children see themselves and their culture reflected in the curriculum. Math, as one of the main subjects, could be a powerful way to start changes in the curriculum across the provinces, where Aboriginal culture has been mainly ignored.

For Elders:

-- To see the mathematics in their teachings and activities.

-- To use this new knowledge and pass it onto the next generation.

For Mathematicians:

-- To become more in-tune with Aboriginal cultures and traditional ways of knowledge and learning.

-- New ways of looking at how mathematics are developed could help some of them in their own research.

The organizers are: Melania Alvarez (PIMS BC Education Coordinator), Genevieve Fox (First Nations Adult and Higher Education Consortium), Sharon Friesen (Galileo Educational Network), Joanne Nakonechny (Director Science Centre for Learning and Teaching).

As with the first meeting we expect interesting results from this second meeting and in anticipation of this we would like to have the opportunity of holding a third meeting in 2009 to continue this trend of providing math resources and support to teachers who teach aboriginal students as well as to create math lessons where we acknowledge aboriginal traditional knowledge. We have developed excellent contacts with different aboriginal and First Nation communities and we would like to find a way to continue this conversation, and to have a third meeting very close to the format of the second one, with elders, mathematicians and teachers. We believe that BIRS is the optimal venue for this encounter and we hope that you look at our efforts as worthy to provide us with this opportunity.


Demographics and Performance of Aboriginal Students in BC Public School, (2004), and Report Card on Aboriginal Education in British Kanwal Neel (Simon Fraser University): Louise Poirier (Universite de Montrell) July, 2005Columbia (2004), Working Group 1a Report: Mathematics Education in the Aboriginal Community.