Discussion paper on the
SMT forum on Mathematics: How does culture matter in Mathematics?
Panelists: Professors Indigo Esmonde, Doug McDougall, and Beverly Caswell, and Doctoral
Candidate Lesley Dookie
Written by Allison Ritchie (Doctoral Candidate)
Moderated by Professor Clare Brett
The SMT (Centre for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education) Forum on culture
and mathematics that took place on April 4th, 2013, held at OISE/University of Toronto, posed
the question, “How does culture matter in Mathematics?” The topic as initiated, seemed to
presuppose the culture does matter; that culture is already a salient factor within mathematics
education. The question then becomes, is what kind of role will culture play; and what are the
ways in which culture may be surfaced and investigated by students, educators and
administrators alike? We are invited to explore the contested space between pedagogical
stance and content knowledge – raising further questions, such as what is schooling for; do we
want teachers who are more subject-matter experts or who have more knowledge of students
and inequity issues; and where is the balance between conceptual understanding and
procedural fluency? The following is a summary of the salient points made by the forum
panelists, hopefully provoking further thought and discussion of these important questions.
Indigo Esmonde takes a perspective that all learning is culture; therefore mathematics learning
is cultural. Esmonde draws on the work on Charles Goodwin to define “culture” as historicallyshaped ways in which we participate in communities, and interact with others in order to work
together. For her, mathematics education is one way of learning culturally, to accord what
others perceive as salient in a similar fashion.
Lesley Dookie approaches mathematics education from a social psychological and sociocultural
lens, and sees classrooms as micro-systems of the broader society, mirroring issues and norms
that exist without, within the schools. She believes that learning is shaped by context, and
facilitated by interactions with others and objects within the environment. Dookie argues that
to move away from learning as a purely cognitive phenomenon is to fully appreciate culture as
a salient factor in education. She goes on to further argue that research in stereotype threat of
females in mathematics education provides an example that stereotyped groups are dealing
with a lot more than mathematical content in classrooms.
Beverly Caswell began by referencing her Inclusive Schools Project, in which she uses culturallyrelevant pedagogy as an entryway to help students gain access to higher mathematical thinking
and discussion. Her view is that mathematics is a cultural practice and tool, for which
individuals use to make sense of their world. Caswell’s example of a Multicultural Math Night
to emphasize the contribution of non-Western thinkers to mathematics education and inquiry,
student-led projects illustrated her point of honouring students’ lives and cultures. She points
out that students seemed honoured to learn about significant contributions made by people
represented in their cultural background, and in turn, motivated them to learn about historical
contexts as well as mathematical content, leading them to ask questions about big ideas and
create their own curriculum.
Doug McDougall began by talking about his early days as a mathematics teacher, and his
efforts to try to get students see the value in mathematics as a subject. For him, mathematics
as a culture and the role of culture in mathematics are two separate issues. He maintains that
mathematics as a culture is to something that is learned; one who adopts the skills and norms
becomes an insider to that community, and hence is successful in mathematics. In contrast, the
role of culture in mathematics is understand that there are a variety of worldviews that exist
outside the classroom, and in turn, these perspectives influence how individuals view
mathematics. He ends with an attempt to merge the two areas, by posing the question of how
might educators better understand other worldviews in the classroom, in order to support
different ways of entering this mathematics community?
Arif Anwar, a doctoral candidate and audience member posed the question of whether
there is one mathematics and multiple ways to get an answer, or multiple mathematics. The
panelists succeeded in excitedly deliberating and stretching the scope of the discussion to
involve the influence of school culture on mathematics education; to incorporate the needs of
the students; to question the kind of community teachers are creating.
The forum challenged the “culture of success” in schools and set of assumptions
individuals have a tendency to make in mathematics, and reiterated the idea that we, as
researchers and educators, have a responsibility to rather, create a culture of inclusivity and
inquiry, by providing alternative entryways to know and understand the subject matter.
mathematics, as a named and static concept, encapsulates but one worldview. With their
different perspectives, the panelists expanded on mathematics as a skilled-based concept; a
procedural practice; a gatekeeping tool; and as epistemically- and culturally-situated
knowledge. As a result, the forum provided a place for beginnings in which to understand
mathematics as all these things.
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Discussion Paper on SMT Forum on Mathematics - OISE