Our Ways of Knowing: Learning Math through Verbs and Space

Our Ways of Knowing: Learning Math through Verbs and Space

Dr. Lisa Lunney Borden works with Mi’kmaw communities in Atlantic Canada, and is the John Jerome Paul Chair of Equity in Mathematics at St. Francis Xavier University. She believes that equity in mathematics involves identity and power: that students must be able to see themselves, their culture, and communities in their math; that they should be able to use math to tell their story.

To develop identity and power, she argues that we must decolonize math and elevate Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing. This means we educators must change how we think about math.

Lisa looks at four ways to help students make "meaningful personal connections to math":

  • Learning from language
  • Ways of learning
  • The importance of cultural connections
  • A question of values

In her workshop at the NWT Teachers’ Association Educators’ Conference last week in Yellowknife, she focused on:

  • Verbs instead of nouns
  • Spatial patterns or spatial reasoning

Language is one way to make meaningful connections. It embodies how people think – even if they don’t speak their language. Like other Indigenous languages, Mi’kmaw is a verb-based language: it uses verbs over nouns or adjectives. In the NWT, in Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı̀ to describe someone as “stingy”, you say, “he holds on to the money”: the verb puts the focus on the process or action involved in being stingy.1 But in English, and in math, we often use nouns or adjectives. That removes the process.

Lisa’s second focus—spatial reasoning—aligns with visual-spatial learning, a characteristic of Indigenous ways of learning. This holistic approach focuses on connections: relating the whole to the parts, relating to people, things, and places in the community, visualizing relationships using patterns. Through hands-on activities, students explore patterns and relationships. Lisa showed us how to use area models to calculate complex algebraic equations. Spatial reasoning contrasts with number reasoning—the norm in mathematical education.

We’re embracing these concepts as we develop resources for adult learners. You can learn more about Lisa’s work at https://tinyurl.com/y8foqwug, or view her videos at https://thelearningexchange.ca/projects/lisa-lunney-borden-coming-together/.

 —Helen Balanoff

1Thanks to Jim Stauffer, community adult educator in Whati.

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