Math Teaching and First Nations Culture

Assoc. Prof Cynthia Nicol explains how cultural values are at the heart of math - photo by Martin Dee

Assoc. Prof Cynthia Nicol explains how cultural values are at the heart of math - photo by Martin Dee

In Haida Gwaii, off British Columbia’s remote northwest coast, teachers are exploring connections between oral stories and mathematical problem solving.

“How might we teach math so that all students, particularly Aboriginal, are more interested, more engaged and ultimately successful?” asks Cynthia Nicol, UBC Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum Studies and former math teacher in Haida Gwaii. One answer is connecting math teaching to culture and place.

Teachers have used stories like Raven Steals the Light — in which Raven-the-trickster steals a light from three nested boxes to create the sun and stars — to prompt students to build box paper models that helps them learn about surface area, perimeter and volume.

“For students, it shows that we can see math in what is around us,” says Nicol. “For teachers, it is clear that from an early age students understand math concepts and have a strong, emotional connection with community.”

In British Columbia, provincial assessments have consistently shown a significant number of Aboriginal students (44 per cent at Grade 10) are not meeting grade-level expectations in school mathematics. UBC researchers are helping address a fundamental need to find news ways to teach math in Aboriginal communities.

For the past two years, Nicol and a team of UBC education scholars have been collaborating with the Haida Gwaii and Nisga’a nations to transform the teaching and learning of mathematics for Aboriginal school students. Cultural values are at the heart of this long-term study.

“A culturally responsive approach to teaching involves respecting community values and views, and honouring traditional knowledge that may have been lost, or never valued, in our school system,” says Nicol.

This study has involved Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers, parents, school administrators, elders, and scholars, to bring people together to think holistically about math. As Nicol notes, it takes time to develop respectful, responsive and reciprocal relationships, and that has been a large part of the project.

Teachers — both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal — are examining their understanding of how students learn math, of culture and its role in the math classroom, and of math as a way of seeing the world.

This is one of a few studies in the world examining Aboriginal mathematics education. According to the researchers, studies in Alaska, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil have looked at specific elements of indigenous mathematics education, yet this is a unique initiative for its collaborative approach, rooted within First Nations communities, and its focus on culture and place.

Nicol and faculty members Jo-ann Archibald, Heather Kelleher and Lee Brown view the partnership with the Haida Gwaii and Nisga’a nations, Haida Gwaii and Nisga’a school districts, and the Vancouver School Board as a long-term commitment.

Funding for this study has been received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Canadian Council on Learning, and The Vancouver Foundation.

More information is available at

By Julie-Ann Backhouse

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 9 | Sep. 6, 2007