Tuesday, November 15, 2005

On "Ethnomathematics": Math Is Not a Neutral Train Runnin'

On "Ethnomathematics": Math Is Not a Neutral Train Runnin'

Back in the late 60's I began to rethink the way I taught math and the content of the math I was teaching. I was a young man still in my 20's and I was moved to do this because:

(1) In the 60's I was teaching youngfolk who graduated from NYC hi schools crippled with math miseducation and were not getting the math I was literally dropping on them (as was done to me- but by chance and specific kinds of socialization at Lincoln U. in PA -I "got it"). Our students believed that Whitefolks did math (the Asian math whiz myth was not developed yet) because they were genetically "capable" and we were not. This was the racial inferiority complex and racist assumptions that defined a Black person's education life. For example, at Queens College where I taught math in the SEEK Program from 1968-69, there was a white math prof in the math dept. who gave an interview to the campus newspaper saying that Blacks don't have the mental capacity to do math... and if they do, it's because they have some "white blood" in them.

(2) Because of my deeply involved revolutionary political activism (Panther Party/Black Arts Movement/Black Studies Movement) and from the teachings of folk like John Henrik Clake and Dr. Ben, the growing knowledge of the world of math before and beyond Europe... I began to rethink just what is mathematics and who does it and why?

(3) Because of the above two realities, I began to think about the connection of math knowledge and its central importance to not only understanding the enemy, but what place in future society would we Blackfolk be in if we were "distanced" from math, science & technology (we now know he answer!). By the time the Black Scholar published my little essay in 1970: "Mathematics & the Black Liberation Struggle" I understood that mathematics is an integral part of all societies... and is presented or "done" differently in each of those societies. I also understood that the historical roots of math was out of Africa- not just the great civilization of Kemet (Egypt), but other African civilizations in different eras contributed to the vast math knowledge base that flowed to Asia, the Americas and later Europe.

(4) In this great period (60's & 70's) of strong Black education research & struggles (Black Studies, Community Control and the struggle for control over African/Diaspora research), it became clearer to me that we had to redesign our math pedagogy (ways of teaching) if we are going to bring our people into the positions of POWER. Capitalism was using science and technology in an exponential manner for its profit maximization demands and for its increasing control and surveillance of people and nations. By the end of the 60s, we had already entered a world that was becoming dominated by those who not only controlled the means of production, but also INFORMATION. One of the ways it was being done was to suck the knowledge out of humans and place/store it in a machine called a "computer." Unfortunately, there were only a tiny handful of politically active Blackfolk in the early to mid 70s who were scoping this out. By about 1974, I wrote another piece for the Black Scholar on Technology and the Black Liberation Movement where I tried to hilite this trend in capitalism and warn about how we will become more oppressed and alienated as a people if we don't produce a new generation of conscious Black science/tech activist-scholars and workers.

The pioneering work of the then incarcerated Brother Frank Chapman, Claudia Zaslavsky ("Africa Counts") on the history of math and science out of Africa gave me ammunition and inspiration to push my pedagogical ideas outside the elitist/gender-biased/racist box. Further my SUNY-Old Westbury brother colleague Dr. Everard Barrett (Dr. B) showed me ways of further enhancing my teaching methods. In 1973 or 74, he went into the then decrepit (still is) Black school system of Roosevelt, LI... took a random group of 3rd graders and within a school year had them passing 9th year algebra exams!! His pedagogy flowed to his teaching of adults at Old Westbury also.

(5) There were numerous alternative math/ethnomath/criticalmath conferences, essays, organizations, programs and books developed during the past 35 years. But, because the field of mathematics is one of the most conservative intellectual fields of study and because much of the leadership in this new field of math studies and pedagogy was lead by people of color from all over the world, it got constantly kicked to the curb or relegated as wild radical politically correct rantings of kooky 60s holdovers.

However, by the mid80's Brother Bob Moses's Algebra Project gets to be known to public school and college educators all over the US. He was able to synthesize a number of things many of us had been struggling to get "mainstreamed." The Algebra Project is one of the most successful middle school math programs in the US. If a Diane Ravitch type conservative would look at it, she/he would see "ethnomath" being used along with critical thinking pedagogical methods that push the students to go far beyond what is actually expected of them in middle school. Hence, Algebra Project students arrive at a much higher level of understanding some of the most sophisticated algebraic concepts... and are able to articulate this to others. even tho these sessions are not test-driven, Algebra Projects students do very well on hi-stakes testing because they have the confidence AND a DEEP understanding of math ideas.

By 1993-4, we (a number of education activists and parents- many of whom are still fighting today) created an Algebra Project-NYC as got it started sucessfully in 5 school in District 13 and later a couple of schools in district 17. Hundres of parents and students and teachers met all over the city eager to be part of something that was truly successfully getting midlle school Black & Latino students excited and knowledgable about math. Unfortunately, thru DOE bureacratic mess and internal Algebra project board's over cautiousness, the Project faded from the scene in NYC by 2000. But the Project is going strong in Mississippi and other places. We can bring it back to NY. We SHOULD bring it back to NY.

During this period (1975-1990) the works of Mozambiquan math educator- Paulos Gerdes -became well-known within the ethnomathematics world. I had the privelege to not only meet him and his colleagues but saw his successful work -first hand- in action in Mozambique and South Africa. Gerdes's work is rooted in "ethnomath." It's rooted in bringing African youth to very sophisticated math levels thru an African-centered math based on the various ways African did and do math. It is a successful math education program that has been up and running since the late 70's... in spite of US supported civil wars & IMF/World Bank machinations.

(6) So... I know this math education reform struggles firsthand. I also know that Western math is one of the most multicultural-based math on the planet! It is a creole mix of math from Africa, Europe, India, China and the Americas that evolved into what we see today first thru Europeans studying from Africans in Egypt and North Africa, then thru Arabs and Moors dominating the culture of Southern Europe for seven centuries, then thru the travels of Marco Polo (and other Europeans of his time) to the East, then thru the conquering encounters of Europeans thruout the Americas. One needs only to read George Joseph's "Crest of the Peacock- The NonEuropean Roots of Mathematics" to see what I'm talking about.

(7) This Ethnomath/criticalmath/African-centered Math Movement is an international movement that has been growing over the decades -in spite of the conservative onslaught to rollback math education to the 1930's. The Rethinking Mathematics book is a step in the right direction. what is also needed are people who teach teachers how and why to change their negative education ways- especially in the middle and hi school levels.

(8) Math is not a neutral thing. Yes, Math is universal (and the Western version of it has become standard because of whom the victors are- just like the basis of all computer language is English and binary numbers). All over the world People do Math- People live and work in a society -society is governed by political, economic machinations and spiritual beliefs -so math ideas are rooted in social, spiritual, economic and political realities of a people's society. Math is not hovering in the heavens outside of people... waiting to be discovered by a "genius". Math is inside of us- all of us -waiting to be discovered and used. It is a way of thinking influenced by Nature and the social world around us....

I Can say more, but I hope this helps put a context on the racist conservative attack on the attempts to transform math ed so that EVERYBODY can learn deeply the power and beauty of mathematics for the sake of liberation and the survival of Humanity and the Earth.

In Struggle,

Sam Anderson


Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Someone has to tell Obama there's a better way to educate kids. The public needs to take issue with the poor academic programs in school.

I've been at war with the NCTM standards and TEP programs funded by NSF grants. Our leaders don't understand that children need great textbooks and curriculum. The United States should adopt the best standards. Singapore curriculum will eliminate tracking. You could measure the performance of support programs with it. Not many people realize Singapore was written in English for children whose home language was not English. I believe Dr. B understood this too and he really deserves more credit for revolutionizing mathematics education. College professors are missing the point entirely.

When school districts adopt textbooks, my hope is they will consider that reading level and literacy do matter. Presently, students spend too much time in classrooms decoding text and not enough quality time solving problems.

Words have value, only if they have meaning.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of Elinor Orr's book, "Twice as Less: The Performance of Black students in mathematics ans science"?

She points out that Black English is a language with an inner coherency, rules of grammar etc, like any other language, and in no way inferior to standard english. Then suggests that the constructs of Black English present obstacles to some African-Americans in learning Math the way it is presented in this country.


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