When I think back on my experiences from elementary and high years, I never thought that there were any aspects that were oppressive and/or discriminatory in teaching me and my peers. There were times where I hated math because I saw it as useless. For example, when I was going to need to calculate the equation for a parabola? On the other hand, there were times I understood the math and I felt accomplished.
I always thought that math was something objective and that it was universal. It was not until my first year of university that I realized that math is not as objective as I thought it was and that math is not universal. For example, I was taught to count by tens and I thought everyone counted by tens, too. It was in MATH 101 where the professor taught us that different cultures had different number systems. For there is a group of Indigenous people in the states where their number system is 8 based. And their reason for that is, that they count between the fingers and thumbs. Compare to the Eurocentric 10 based number system, we use our hands of count but instead of counting between fingers were count the fingers themselves. I realized that culture affects the way people did and taught math. Going back to my past experience with math I can now see my math experience was dominant by a Eurocentric way of looking at math.
If we were to compare European mathematics and another culture’s way of doing mathematics we would find many differences. For example, a study investigating the math difficulties experienced by students in an Inuit school found that the teachers were teaching their students Inuit mathematics and then transitioning to Eurocentric mathematics (Louise Poirier 2007). The transition from Inuit to Eurocentric math is difficult because the two systems have many significant differences. There are three different I want to highlight.
- Base number systems are different. The Eurocentric number system is based on tens, while the Inuit number system is based on twenties. This challenges out Eurocentric way of counting because it brings into the question “why do we count by tens and not twenties?” Is it because counting by tens is more efficient? But who cannot say that county by twenties is as efficient as counting by tens?
- Measuring units – For example time is measured differently in the Inuit culture. Europeans measure time in mounts and years, which is based on the lunar mount and solar year. In contrast, in the Inuit culture time is measured in events. For example, September is when ‘when the caribou’s antlers lose their velvet’ (Poirer 61). And the number of days for months changes it all depends on how long the event will last.
- Style of teaching is different. Eurocentric way teaches math visually with text and paper, while Inuit teaches math orally with stories or narratives. This difference brings in questions such as “why do we teach this way?” “and why do we only teach this way?”
I have learned there are many more differences between Eurocentric and Inuit mathematics and even more differences with other cultures. It is being open to other perspectives on math that I know I will grow to appreciate and see math has rich cultural connections.
Louise Poirier (2007) Teaching mathematics and the Inuit community,
Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 7:1, 53-67, DOI: