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Decolonizing Mathematics Education: An Interview with Dr. Ruth Beatty

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

Ruth Beatty (PhD) is Associate Professor at Lakehead University with a research interest in Anishinaabe and Métis ways of knowing mathematics and culturally relevant educational practices. This interview explores a 10-year ongoing initiative aimed at decolonizing mathematics education with a community-based research approach. These projects have been funded through a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, two SSHRC Connection Grants, an Indigenous Research Capacity Development Grant, and a CanCode Grant.

What inspired this research initiative and how did it begin?

It all started about 10 years when I was in Thunder Bay teaching a masters course. Many of my students completed their education or were teaching in Indigenous communities. They made me aware of a disconnect between how they think about math and how they were taught math. The math curriculum largely teaches from a colonial, positivist lens and many students find math classes uninteresting. We identified a research need to explore Indigenous ways of knowing mathematics to build culturally relevant education practices.

To launch this project, Danielle Blair and I spent a year speaking with Elders to know what direction to go and how to do this research in a good way. It is imperative to do this work in partnership. Our first partnership was with the Algonquin of Pikwakanagan First Nation and Eganville and District Public School (Renfrew County DSB). The success of this project then led to further collaborations across the country, all of which have unique contexts. For example, we’ve worked with Lakeview School, which is a community-based school in M’Chigeeng First Nation, and we’ve worked in Guelph and Thunder Bay where there’s not only one First Nations community, but several, so we’ve collaborated with multiple community partners. We have been to 11 sites in Ontario and now we have sites in Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

Can you tell me more about the projects?

These projects make a connection between Indigenous artistry and technology and the math curriculum. We ask our community partners what they would like to see happen and then we form an advisory panel and a research team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers. Community partners bring cultural activities with experiential connections to math. For example, when learning to loom beads, students investigate repeated patters, proportional and spatial reasoning. The classroom reflects on what they have learned, we share findings, and then go through the process again. Mathematical thinking is more than just memorizing work sheets. A lot of rich math understanding comes out of these projects because students are really engaged with it and, more importantly, they also get to know community partners. Relationship building is at the heart of this work.

After the first site, every place we have been to, we have been invited. It is typically the school board First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education Lead who invites us and other times we’ve been invited by teachers in First Nation schools. It depends on the context. For example, in Thunder Bay, the advisory panel was very big – over 30 people. The core team consisted of ten people including classroom teachers, board consultants, and an administrative team.

Last year, we did two projects with Code to Learn, one with Conseil scolaire catholique Franco Nord (French school board in North Bay) and the Upper District School Board. In both projects, we had a Métis artist, Natalie Bertin, teach the students finger-weaving along with teachings from Metis culture. This led to lively discussions about patterns and finger weaving, transformational geometry, and Cartesian quadrants (particularly when the students wrote Lynx coding procedures for their designs).

Above photos are an example of Métis finger weaving (3-colour 12-strand) and a pattern on the Lynx coding platform.

Another project taught loom-beading to students in grades 3 to 8. The artist, Christina Ruddy from the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, taught math through Algonquin culture. The students created bead work designs, which tapped into multiplicative thinking, and spatial, proportional, and algebraic reasoning. They then wrote code using

the Lynx coding platform to further investigate the mathematical structure of their designs and, finally, beaded their creations.

In all this work we have researched and documented the math inherent in cultural practices. Specific research projects within the larger study have focused on areas like the role Anishinaabemowin plays in teaching and learning mathematics, the interactions between Lynx coding and Indigenous design, technology and artistry, the impact of incorporating Indigenous pedagogical practices, and the long-term outcomes of this approach for students, teachers, and community partners. We have also worked to disseminate this work in a good way, with the hopes of minimizing cultural appropriation. For example, we organized a conference at Lakehead University in May 2019, and have another planned for May, 2022, and we’ve collaborated on a nine-part webinar series with Nelson Canada, which is now free on demand.

What project impacts have you observed?

The project partners continue to be connected after we leave. The students form strong relationships with community partners and each other. Many students we worked with have graduated high school and most have gone on to further education. We teach them that anything is possible when First Nation and Métis culture are infused with math education. First Nation and Métis students get to see their culture reflected in math lessons and all students can reconsider who does math, whose math is valued in the classroom, and who is mathematical. Community research partners have built on their self-reflexive skills and have become co-applicants on SSHRC Grants; co-planned an Indigenous Education and Mathematics Conferences; co-authored book chapters and papers in academic journals and conference proceedings; and co-presented at provincial, national and international academic and practitioner conferences (including keynote sessions). This year, four research sites are working together to compile culturally responsible practices based on what they have learned.

What are some wise practices for decolonization that you have learned?

The projects are grassroots and directed by the community. A lot of trust needs to be established before you do this work. As a white researcher, I would never do this work without partnerships. Our legacy in this country is horrific, both in terms of research and education. Indigenous communities have experienced so much research done on them and they often never see the results. I have learned that the attitude of co-learning, and to be very open to critical feedback are very important. It holds me to be accountable to community and to ensure that this work is done in a good way. I believe, educational researchers have a responsibility to work with community to prioritize Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing. Although the content in the project was mathematics, what emerged significantly was the centrality of reciprocal relationships.

Thank-you so much! Can you share some publications/resources for people to learn more?

Webinar Series: Culturally Responsive Math for Primary/Junior Educators

Journal Article: Relationships and Reciprocity Towards Decolonizing Mathematics Education

Journal Article: Indigenous Pedagogy for Early Mathematics: Algonquin Looming in a Grade 2 Math Classroom

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