By Prof. Dr Abu Bakr Khalid Saadullah
Ethnomathematics can be defined as the cultural anthropology of mathematics and its teaching methodology; it is the study of mathematical processes and concepts and their relationship to culture and social life.
According to experts, ethnomathematics is a representation of a genuine folk culture that is worth protecting and, if properly adapted for educational curricula, it can also help to make mathematical and scientific concepts more accessible to children.
Ubiratan D'Ambrosio, a leading Brazilian mathematician, introduced ethnomathematics in the 1970s. However, interest in the idea grew in the late 1980s. At the International Congress on Mathematical Education in Budapest in 1988, scholars from the United States, Brazil, Mozambique, Palestine and Britain met to discuss the potential benefits of ethnomathematics.
We can consider ethnomathematics a branch of mathematics and ethnology, (a branch of anthropology).
D'Ambrosio explained that the term ethnomathematics describes the relationship between culture and mathematics. It is both time and place-dependent. ‘Ethno’ refers to the factors that shape a society’s cultural identity: its language, symbols, values, everyday communication, beliefs, food, clothing, customs and ethnic features. ‘Mathematics’ refers to general mathematics, which includes calculus, geometry, ordering, classification, matrices and modeling.
Some Western experts are hesitant to add elements of ethnomathematics from Third World countries to their curricula, because they are unable to predict what impact this might have on their students. They are concerned that it might affect their students’ ability to think scientifically, and they fear the ideological and political repercussions of these issues on Western society, which is a melting pot of multiple races and nationalities.
However, ethnomathematicians are tasked with analysing the impacts of cultural and social factors on the teaching process and mathematics instruction. They must also contribute to a nation’s mathematical knowledge, particularly in previously colonised nations, by searching for cultural elements that still prevail post-colonisation. They then integrate these cultural elements into the curricula.
Experts have noticed that ethnomathematics creates new opportunities for teaching philosophies and other activities in previously colonised countries. This encourages students to see the connections among the local culture, their families and what they learn at school, which makes them proud of their folk culture, homeland and society.
Sociologists see a society’s cultural identity as a source of inspiration for all development efforts. Therefore, they believe that students should be educated about their own local culture. Students should view science and mathematics as tools that allow them to understand the local culture. Ethnomathematics does just this.
It was obvious that initially some academics championed ethnomathematics because they saw it as a way to liberate people, to help them value their folk cultures, and to enhance national identity.
For instance, one group of academics called for support for social mathematics in Africa. Then academics emphasised the importance of oral mathematics in the belief that in all human cultures, there is mathematical knowledge that is transmitted verbally from generation to generation. This strengthens the argument for ethnomathematics.