Context counts: Using culture as a lever for equity in mathematics

Bronwyn Gibbs, Massey University

New Zealand’s education system is ranked as one of the worst in the world for equitable outcomes. Deficit theories, systemic bias, and assumptions that mathematics is culture free are all detrimental to Māori and Pāsifika learners. Interventions typically focus on “closing the achievement gaps”, and students, their families, and communities are framed as the problem to be fixed. Instead of expecting Māori and Pāsifika students to perform within a system designed to perpetuate the status quo, what happens when we draw on students’ cultural capital in the mathematics classroom?

My Masters research

The aim of my Masters research was to explore the ways Māori and Pāsifika students represent and generalise culturally located algebraic patterns. I chose algebra because it functions as a gatekeeper subject. Without opportunities to succeed in algebra (for example, due to being streamed into low-expectation classes), Māori and Pāsifika students have fewer avenues to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. In the United States, equitable access to algebra has been demanded as a civil right due to the doors it opens to higher education, economic, and citizenship opportunities.

In the New Zealand context, Māori and Pāsifika peoples have a rich history of algebra in geometric growing patterns. However, in mathematics classrooms, students are much more likely to be presented with algebraic problems involving decontextualised visual growing patterns rather than tasks drawing on the mathematics embedded in cultural contexts.  

Above: Māori tukutuku panel
Above: Samoan ngatu pattern

A group of Year 7 and 8 Māori and Pāsifika students from a low socio-economic, urban primary school took part in this design-based research. The students participated in a series of eight algebra lessons, using problems involving growing patterns from familiar cultural contexts.

For example:

This is the 1st, 2nd and 3rd position of a growing ngatu pattern.

How many stems and leaves will there be for the 7th position?
What about the 13th  position?
What about the 47th position?

Can you show how the pattern grows in different ways?
Can you find a rule so we know how many stems and leaves there are for any position number?

What I found

I found that when Māori and Pāsifika students were given opportunities to draw on their cultures to make sense of challenging mathematical tasks, three things happened.

(1) The students developed increasingly sophisticated and abstract representations and generalisations.

Students initially thought about the growing patterns in concrete, factual ways. They represented them by counting or drawing the variables:

By the end of the series of lessons, these Māori and Pāsifika students were thinking abstractly, using letters as variables to express generalisations symbolically:

(2) The students showed significant growth in the ways they represented and generalised both culturally contextual and decontextualised growing patterns

The pre and post-assessment data indicated that the culturally contextual tasks scaffolded students to sense-make from familiar to abstract ideas.

(3) The students strengthened their cultural and mathematical identities 

When cultural contexts were known and meaningful in the problems, students felt empowered as learners and doers of mathematics. These Māori and Pāsifika students shared their cultural expertise, and learnt about the cultures and traditions of each other through the tasks. For example one student reflected:

“It’s challenging as. It’s exciting. It made my brain twist. We were solving a problem about a Samoan fala and my parents are Samoan and so it made me feel like an expert. When people try and solve a problem about my culture I feel comfortable and strong about my culture in maths. I think when people understand what my culture is about it makes me strong too. And you learn some things about other cultures. I learned that some of them they have some of the same names as our things. When Maia was talking about the ili, the fan, that’s what we call it too. And the titi. We call it that too.”

Why these findings are important

New Zealand is becoming increasingly diverse, and Māori and Pāsifika peoples are two of the fastest growing population groups. For our education system to enable every student to meet their potential, we must challenge deficit perspectives of Māori and Pāsifika students and build on the cultural knowledge and strengths students bring to mathematics. Recognising the inherently cultural nature of mathematics is a key lever for equity.


Bronwyn Gibbs is a mentor with the Developing Mathematical Inquiry Communities (DMIC) team, providing professional development to teachers involved in the DMIC project. Prior to becoming a mentor, Bronwyn was a classroom teacher in an urban Wellington school.

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