Feature Educators

Christine Ho Younghusband

Christine Ho Younghusband, now an assistant professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, began her inquiry into ethnomathematics 15 years ago at a time when Indigenous education wasn’t visible in the mathematics curriculum.

As a teacher of Math 8, Christine found herself with time and space in the curriculum, so decided to embark on an inquiry project with a colleague to integrate Indigenous education into mathematics. In her project, Math Embedded: A Tribute to Susan Point, students studied the work of Coast Salish artist Susan Point and her work with spindle whorls. “The ‘spindle whorl’ refers to a carved, circular plate attached to the end of a wooden spindle that acts to lend weight during the wool spinning process. In Coast Salish tradition spindle whorls are carved with powerful, symmetrical designs which blur and merge as the spindle turns” (Google Books).

"That project was life-changing because everyone had an entry point, everyone could see their mathematics."

In Christine’s project, students demonstrated their learning of linear and rotational symmetry by designing their own spindle whorl, without using a ruler, without using a calculator. Their designs reflected who they were, and even inspired some students to bring in their own artifacts from home and talk about their heritage. Christine says, “That project was career-changing and life-changing because everyone had an entry point, everyone could see their mathematics, everyone could connect in their own way that they felt was personally relevant to them.” The entry point? Indigenous education!

4 sample selections of spindle whorl math projects.

Spindle whorl designs by Math 8 students

Further along in her career, Open School BC, a consulting agency that offers education solutions for school districts and ministries, invited Christine to work on a team with two others to create a video and learning activity to bring Indigenous perspectives into the mathematics curriculum.

Christine and her colleagues began their work by choosing an artifact, the Bentwood box, and then thought about the math questions that could be generated. Initially they thought, “How many Bentwood boxes could fit in the gym?” But they challenged themselves: “Is this a real question? Or should we ask a different question? Let’s understand what the box is for. The dimensions matter. If it’s for a blanket versus food, the dimensions change.” By thinking about the authentic purpose for the Bentwood box, Christine and her colleagues determined the rich mathematical question: “What are the dimensions of the tree that we would need to harvest in order to build this box?”

Christine considers this experience to be the best learning community she’s encountered in her career. They were scared shitless. Curious. Excited. But they were willing to try. She says, “We have to keep encouraging each other to take these risks. You can’t do it alone!”

Scared shitless. Curious. Excited. But willing to try.

Christine’s advice for teachers, schools, and districts looking to teach ethnomathematics:
1. Think about mathematics and don’t be limited to what’s in the curriculum.
2. Pick an artifact. Where does that artifact come from, what territory is it from? Why is it important? Where is the math? How would you use it in your classroom? What do you need to learn about it? Who do you need to contact to learn?
3. Not everything is a Google search. That’s not how information is held. We can’t get to the nuances without listening and observing, witnessing and experiencing.

David Sufrin

David Sufrin, a professor of education at Vancouver Island University, is doing exciting things with his student teachers to connect mathematics with Indigenous culture.

Early in his teaching career, David lived on Haida Gwaii for 10 years and it was there that he first developed his passion for connecting math with community and culture. Teaching trigonometry and algebra, David quickly realized that these subjects, as they were traditionally taught, were “not relevant to kids’ lives” and so began to adapt curriculum to make it more hands-on and applicable.

Now, in his elementary math methods course for teacher candidates, David offers his students an assignment that requires them to get to know the local (Cowichan) First Nation. Students are asked to design a math task within a chosen cultural activity, such as games, artwork, or ceremonies. They must research their chosen cultural activity and look for a connection to mathematics, and then create a teaching resource to share with their fellow classmates or try in their practicum.

“As a non-native, I am a learner in my classroom. I practice and model First Peoples Ways of Learning. I collaborate with Elders and Knowledge Keepers.”

As well as connecting to the local Indigenous culture, David asks that these math tasks incorporate aspects of First Peoples Principles of Learning. That is, they are related to story, are holistic and interdisciplinary, and are experiential and activity-based. (For example, teacher candidates Lucas Anderson and Andrew Gait designed an activity in which students must familiarize themselves with a Trickster story, such as How Raven Made the Tides. Students must then find connections to math and graph an aspect of the story, such as the height of the tides at various times of day.)

This is a sample math activity based on the story, How Raven Made the Tides

Trickster Math by Lucas Anderson and Andrew Gait

For David, it’s about the process for his student teachers; he wants them to experience the process of connecting math to the world around them. He believes that this is an invaluable process that will transfer into their teaching career.

David acknowledges, his students are often nervous to do this kind of work with Indigenous culture. As a non-Indigenous person, he also feels this apprehension. He asks himself these difficult questions all the time: What right do I have to teach indigenous culture? And how well can I do this? How authentic is it? How much permission should I have?

To combat his doubts, he reminds himself of this important tenet: “As a non-native, I am a learner in my classroom. I practice and model First Peoples Ways of Learning. I collaborate with Elders and Knowledge Keepers.”

Now that Indigenous ways of knowing are woven into the BC curriculum, David believes all teachers “have an obligation to bring that aspect of learning and culture into their classrooms.”

David’s advice to teachers looking to connect math with indigenous culture:
1. “Believe that what you’re doing is important.”
2. Open your heart to looking at math, not just as symbols and algorithms, but as so much more than that, as connections to the world.
3. “The First Peoples Ways of Knowing: Read them. Read them again. Incorporate them into your teaching practice.”
4. Use the resources available to you!