As a First Nations and Metis education consultant, Sharon Meyer noticed that of all the classes where schools were bringing in Indigenous knowledge and reconciliation, math classes were never mentioned.
In an effort to change this, Meyer teamed up with Glen Aikenhead, a professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Education, to create the Mathematics for Reconciliation for Professional Development project.
With funding provided by the McDowell Foundation, the pair recruited four math teachers at Carrot River Jr. Sr. High School to develop seven math lesson plans that incorporate Indigenous understandings of math into the existing provincial curriculum.
Kevin Duchscherer was thrilled to jump on board as one of those teachers. Over his two decades as a math teacher, he has had students ask him countless times why they needed to learn math.
With the traditional approach to math often coming across as “very, very dry,” Duchscherer said students sometimes struggle to engage with the subject or understand how it applied to their lives.
“If we look at it only from a western perspective, it can be quite procedural and not a lot of real underlying meaning to it,” he said.
After a year of using the lessons to teach his students, he saw his Grades 7, 8, 9 and 10 math students become more engaged with the subject.
“Giving our lesson some additional meaning, not only for our non-Indigenous students but our Indigenous students as well, gave them … a better opportunity to identify with the lesson itself and its importance,” he said. “It was a fantastic experience.”
For example, Duchscherer said he used a traditional Indigenous game to teach students about logistical and spatial reasoning. By asking students to think of rules that would make the game more difficult or more fair, students had to think through a process to get the outcome they were looking for.
“We had conversations afterwards talking about why would this not be only important in Indigenous culture, but in our own culture with regards to exercising our minds, answering difficult questions and solving difficult challenges,” he said.
Especially for students who have a hard time grasping the abstract concepts in math, using these types of hands-on methods gives them a firmer understanding of how those concepts apply to real life.
Aikenhead said finding new ways of engaging students in math leads to higher graduation rates.
“Mathematics is the worst subject in high school for discouraging students from graduating,” he said, noting that only 26 per cent of Saskatchewan’s high school graduates easily connect math’s abstract concepts to real life.
“When you introduce some of the local Indigenous understanding related to mathematics, the Indigenous students’ success or test scores in mathematics goes up dramatically and with the non-Indigenous students in those classrooms it goes up noticeably … This is a win-win situation.”
Meyer is pleased to see teachers integrating Indigenous knowledge into their lessons instead of just teaching about Indigenous culture from a textbook.
“We tend to think of math as just numbers and it’s more than numbers. It’s part of life,” she said, adding that once students were able to connect a math concept to real life, they understood it better.
Teacher training was also a key part of the project, showing them Indigenous ways and making them comfortable sharing Indigenous stories and working them into their lessons on their own, said Meyer.
The seven lesson plans created will soon be available to teachers across the province through the McDowell Foundation, along with a 100-page report on the project in Carrot River. Meyer said she has already been overwhelmed with the number of teachers interesting in doing similar lessons in their classrooms.