Term Paper: Ethnomathematics: Mathematics and Culture

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What is "ethnomathematics," and what role should the study of indigenous counting systems play in the teaching of number and numeration?

Ethnomathematics, as its name suggests, is the study of the interaction between mathematics and culture. Ethnomathematics' most obvious application in elementary school classes may be in social studies units. Students can study how the development of different mathematical methods enabled the construction of various architectural structures that changed the way people lived and worshipped, like the pyramids. Also, the study of mathematics can be integrated into the study of history, as the development of Arabic numbers facilitated the creation of algebra. Mathematics classes may make use of word problems involving students of many ethnic backgrounds or include units such as examining the concept of slope in the designs of Navajo blankets, a technique used by one teacher in his curriculum (Fugit & Smith, 1995)

However, the application of ethnomathematics can be much broader. "Ethnomathematics is the study of mathematical techniques used by identifiable cultural groups in understanding, explaining, and managing problems and activities arising in their own environment" (Patterson, 2005). For example, the manner in which "professional basketball players estimate angles and distances differs greatly from the corresponding manner used by truck drivers. Both professional basketball players and truck drivers are identifiable cultural groups that use mathematics in their daily work. They have their own language and specific ways of obtaining these estimates and ethnomathematicians study their techniques" (Patterson, 2005).Likewise, the practical physics used by engineers is quite different from the theoretical physics explored by physicists in academia. Although ethnomathematics' use of indigenous counting techniques is often assumed to be non-Western in style, indigenous subgroups within Western society also exist. Approaching math from this practical perspective also provides a very concrete answer to the frequent complaint of many children that math has no application to 'real' life.

The importance of ethnomathematics is perhaps best illustrated by examining the origins of the word more closely. Broken down, the word "ethno" refers culture, and culture refers to national as well as a tribal status, professional status, and even age, in deference to Piaget's exploration of how children of various ages have different perceptions of depth and mass (Patterson, 2005). Culture… [END OF PREVIEW]

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