Can I be a multicultural educator in math?

In recent deliberations about the role of Affirmative Action in higher education student recruitment, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia asked “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” This statement reflects larger narratives that claim objectivity across STEM.
We often hear statements like the following: “Math is a neutral subject.” “Math is just numbers and algorithms. It has nothing to do with culture or politics.”

Most of all, we hear that mathematics is not appropriate for multicultural teaching.

None of those statements are actually valid, but they are often presented as if they were absolutely truthful. In fact, too often, math is misrepresented as a neutral, apolitical subject, suggesting that advancing multicultural education in math education is unnecessary, inapplicable, or impossible.

Take a moment and reflect on the following questions:
  • Do certain students more than others avoid math or feel disconnected from the subject?
  • If you haven’t tried teaching math as a multicultural educator, what do you imagine to be the challenges?
  • If you have tried teaching math as a multicultural educator, what challenges have you experienced?
One way educators approach math from a multicultural perspective is by highlighting particular people or achievements from various racial, ethnic, or gendered groups. Usually this strategy is used to diversify the mathematics curriculum that typically elevates the primacy of a Eurocentric or male focus. While this approach has some value in diversifying the curriculum, in the absence of a critical stance to teaching math, the approach can fall short of a more comprehensive understanding of the role of multicultural education in math.

Review the Young People’s Project/Miami Dade (5:55 min) below. This video provides some insight into the Young People’s Project (YPP) approach to mathematics, which centers the learning on students and developing their agency as learners and transformers within a democratic society.

  • What do you notice about the roles and engagement of the student/learner during this video demonstration?
  • How is this approach different from or the same as other classrooms you have experienced?
  • What do you feel are the reasons this type of teaching is possible?

In order to open and extend fruitful learning opportunities for all students/learners, being a mathematics multicultural educator is important, relevant, and doable. Multicultural educators in mathematics generally engage the following stances when implementing mathematics in the classroom:
(a) Attention to and use of culture towards understanding the cultural contexts that shape mathematics;
(b) An equity-orientation that facilitates access to math for all students; and
(c) Efforts to leverage the skills and content of mathematics to advance justice in schools and communities.

These stances are not mutually exclusive, but each serves as a general way to think about facilitating multicultural education practices in mathematics and math related content areas. Below is a brief discussion of how math has been facilitated through culture, equity, and justice.


Building on the use of culture in mathematics, educators have (1) shared the mathematics developed in various cultures (e.g., ethnomathematics); and (2) developed students’ mathematical understanding by using their cultural and social referents to center their experiences in the learning process (e.g., funds of knowledge).

Ethnomathematics: In many Westernized nations such as the U.S., Western views of math and mathematics education are typically foregrounded and have become normalized as the only ways to view how math is defined, practiced, and valued. Beyond highlighting individuals or achievements, engaging the field of ethnomathematics can help educators recognize that mathematics is comprised of culturally dynamic bodies of knowledge that span the globe, not just Europe. Ethnomathematics stresses mathematics’ origins in multiple forms throughout history and around the world from basic to highly complex formulations. D’Ambrosio (1997) remarks that, “ethnomathematics invites us to look into how knowledge was built throughout history in different cultural environments. It is a comparative study of the techniques, modes, arts, and styles of explaining, understanding, learning about, and coping with the reality in different natural and cultural environments” (p. xx). It is usually a matter of politics and power that render some mathematics (and mathematicians) to be positioned as more valuable than others.

Consider how many students can identify the number symbols used in the U.S. For example, Arabic numerals (1,2, 3…) are primarily used in U.S. schools, while Roman numbers are commonly recognized via football Super Bowls (e.g., Super Bowl VII) and government policies (e.g., Title IX). Even the predominant use of the metric system (e.g., centimeters) in most of the world except the U.S. is noteworthy, confirming that mathematics is developed culturally and socially; however, the value placed on some math systems versus others can be politically determined. Initially efforts to bring the cultural richness of mathematics into the classroom came in the form of introducing different number systems and cultural artifacts to teach mathematics. Here are some concrete examples (Bazin, Tamez, & the Exploratorium Teacher Institute, 2002; Lipka & Andrew-Irhke, 2008; Irvine & Armento, 2001):
  • Demonstrating various ways that groups of people, such as the Kamba, Taita, and Massai use fingers to represent numbers (Zaslavsky, 1996)
  • Examining different numeration systems among Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, and Mayans;
  • Studying patterns, symmetry, and measurement in mandalas, basket-weaving, and border-patterns on clothes and rugs;
  • Creating and analyzing tessellations within African-centered print patterns, particularly West African/Asante Kente cloth; and
  • Studying geometry and architecture of various home building styles (e.g., round house, four corner homes, tipi, and so forth); and other cultural artifacts representing form, function, and engineering.
So why bother with different mathematical understandings when it’s clear that in the U.S. we use what we use in schools? One reason is doing so can help students of all backgrounds recognize that mathematics is not a discipline that strictly belongs to particular types of people or racialized group, such as White males (Pennington, 2000). A broader and more accurate reflection mitigates a type of ethnocentrism that undermines deeper and more informed perspectives about the development of mathematics. It can also expand teachers’ and students’ understanding of various repertories of math practice, building from strengths rather than presumed deficits.

For example, Math in a Cultural Context is an initiative among Yup’ik elders, mathematicians, educators, researchers, and Alaska schools that has demonstrated its ability to improve Indigenous students’ school math, as well as deepen their respect for the knowledge their elders hold. In one example, a math educator designs and creates a border pattern for a parka but constructing a square from uneven material, using her body to measure, make proportions, and determine the center point, and checking her work, all embedded mathematics used by and learned from previous generations. Mathematical understandings are not created in a vacuum but are expressive forms and symbols that serve particular purposes in helping make meaning of one’s environment and vice versa.

Funds of Knowledge: On another level, multicultural math educators utilize actual personal and cultural experiences to draw out and explain the purpose and function of mathematics. In this way, multicultural educators position culture as foundational to understanding math by determining and leveraging students’ backgrounds, experiences, and familiar cultural/social referents. A prime and often cited example are the teachers who worked with Luis Moll to build a funds of knowledge approach (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). A funds of knowledge approach has led educators to seek the activities and experiences of students, their families, and communities that can foster students’ mathematical development within meaningful contexts.

Lemons-Smith (2009, 2013) builds on funds of knowledge in concert with culturally relevant teaching and calls for approaching math instruction through contextual anchoring. For example, you can go beyond using students’ names in math problems by approaching math instruction through contextual anchoring, whereby teachers anchor relevant mathematics concepts using students’ communities as reference points. Lemon-Smith’s examples of contextual anchoring might be:
  • Focusing on geometric terms and positionality explored by anchoring the creation of a map, based on the students’ drawing of a neighborhood map, with their home as the point of origin and landmarks they view as significant. Such maps can provide opportunities to learn about points, rays, and a variety of lines (e.g., perpendicular, parallel), or angles (e.g., obtuse, acute, right, and so forth).
  • Exploring students’ family constellations to examine numbers and operations such as fractions, percentages, and decimals, by asking specific questions regarding the languages spoken among family members, those that live in-state, out-of-state, outside the country and having them create the mathematical relationship.
Leonard (2008) also offers specific practices and opportunities in creating culturally specific pedagogy in the mathematics classroom. Through the Benjamin Banneker Project, Leonard describes cultural conduits for learning include multicultural media such as literature and computer simulations, and culturally specific software. Leonard and others (Dornoo, 2015; Jao, 2012; Pennington, 2000) provide a variety of ways to advance mathematical knowledge through an explicitly cultural and social way of learning that potentially mitigates learning math as disconnected or a disjointed series of abstract problem-solving procedures.

Implications and consequences of understanding how students make meaning of oft perceived apolitical simple math problems was brought to bear in Tate’s (1994) example of a test question about the least expensive option for travel: a straight payment for all anticipated trips or a weekly pass. On one side of town, the students got the answer “right”, based on test designers’ implicit assumptions embedded in the answer to the problem—one person taking one daily round trip on weekday work days. However, on the other side of town, students got the answer “wrong” because they had other rationales, such as, a weekly card could be shared, and it could also be used on weekends. Tate’s example underscores the point that understanding mathematics from a multicultural perspective is important because culture and context can have deep and consequential effects on perceived math proficiency.

The main caveats to a cultural approach are 1) that teachers must fundamentally first believe that students’ cultures and communities have value that can be applied mathematically, and 2) that the balance between recognizing the cultural fortitude that students’ and communities bring to leveraging math skills and avoiding stereotyping a particular cultural approach as appropriate for students in a given demographic group.


An equity orientation to mathematics often begins with addressing the question: Why are certain groups overrepresented or underrepresented in mathematics classrooms or careers? Attached to that question is who deserves access to quality math experiences? Males? Advance placement students only? English-only speakers? The perception of who has a claim on mathematics achievement is made evident though Lisa Delpit’s (2012) book Multiplication is for white people. The title was drawn from a Black/African American student’s perception of the role of mathematics in her life. Although a student’s aptitude for math may be an actual factor, in many cases it’s an issue of systemic denial of opportunities or quality teaching/learning environments that hamper students’ participation in meaningful math experiences

Specifically, equity-based math educators concern themselves with students who are woefully and disproportionately underrepresented as capable proficient math students. Researchers have highlighted a variety of reasons why particular students, usually based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, and proficiency in speaking English, have been consistently denied the opportunities to show themselves to be competent in math (e.g., (Gutstein, 2006; Jao, 2012; Moses & Cobb, 2001; Nasir & Cobb, 2007; Schafer, Williams, Truscott & Stenhouse, 2014; Ukpokodu, 2011). Consequently, math becomes a gatekeeper that allows certain students “in” and keeps others “out.” Such issues have been pervasive enough that the National Council for Teaching Mathematics (NCTM) has the following position:
Creating, supporting, and sustaining a culture of access and equity require being responsive to students’ backgrounds, experiences, cultural perspectives, traditions, and knowledge when designing and implementing a mathematics program and assessing its effectiveness. Acknowledging and addressing factors that contribute to differential outcomes among groups of students are critical to ensuring that all students routinely have opportunities to experience high-quality mathematics instruction, learn challenging mathematics content, and receive the support necessary to be successful. Addressing equity and access includes both ensuring that all students attain mathematics proficiency and increasing the numbers of students from all racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and socioeconomic groups who attain the highest levels of mathematics achievement.


As a tool for justice, math educators utilize their content to not only support students’ academic mastery but also support teaching students how they can use their content in powerful ways for change. They can use their skills to identify and analyze real issues and take action. Three examples of strong curricula that work justice in mathematics are:

  • The Algebra Project (AP) and its after school offspring the Young People’s Project (YPP). The Algebra Project founder, Bob Moses shares that mathematics literacy is a conduit for access and agency. According to Moses, “The Algebra Project is not about simply transferring a body of knowledge to children. It is about using that knowledge as a tool to a much larger end” ( Moses & Cobb, 2001 p. 15). AP and YPP are not chasing the misnomer of an “achievement gap” but have broader aims to engender mathematics literacy through emancipatory educational process for learning. In the video below, watch as YPP youth participate in a Flagway © Tournament math game (2007):
  • Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers (1st and 2nd edition), written by and for teachers edited by Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Bob Peterson.

  • Radical Math. This website provides resources for educators interested in advancing social and economic justice through mathematics teaching. Resources are accessible by math topics (e.g., fractals, tessellations, symmetry, probability); by issue (e.g., banking, standardized testing, ethnomathematics, profiling, labor); and by resource type (e.g., book, article, curriculum, film, graph).
In the overall analysis, strong multicultural educators embody a cultural, equity-oriented, and justice-focused stance in their teaching of their content area. No curriculum content is neutral. Curriculum is not free from a point of view and a set of values that shape how subject matter is constructed. Neither are teachers who teach the curriculum.
Next Steps


Math and citizenship (9:03min) (Bob Moses). This youtube video features Bob Moses discussing the relationship between math, citizenship, and the origin of the Algebra Project. Identify how Bob Moses addresses the culture, equity, and justice orientations in his teaching of math? Note specific instances and support with evidence. Compare your responses to others.

Reflect on the following questions:
  • How do you learn about your students and connect the relevance of mathematics to their daily lives?
  • How do you affirm students’ identities as capable math students? Do you feel this way about the capability of all your students regardless of where you teach (school or community) or where your students come from?
  • Have you ever deeply explored math from a non-Western perspective? How might doing so make you a stronger mathematics educator?
  • Given what you have learned from this FAQ, what are two next steps you will work to accomplish in your mathematics teaching?
Examine the following additional curriculum resources*:

Math in a Cultural Context
School of Education
University of Alaska Fairbanks
According to its website, Math in a Cultural Context (MCC):
is a long-term and ongoing set of interrelated federally funded projects. Central to MCC is its long-term collaboration with Yup’ik elders, teachers, and Alaskan school districts to develop culturally based curricular materials, especially supplemental math curriculum for elementary school students. At this time, MCC has published ten different supplemental math modules: three at the second grade, one for grade 3-5, and six at the sixth grade (most of these are applicable to 7th grade students). The modules also include supporting materials such as DVD clips of teachers’ implementing exemplary lessons, written case studies, a Guide to Implementing MCC, literacy activities and stories that develop cultural, mathematical, and contextual connections for students.
You can explore some of its curriculum, tools, modules, and videos.
Gutstein, E. & Peterson, B. (Eds.) (2013). Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers: Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
Articles include why a social justice perspective on mathematics is relevant to the success of all students. Discussions, ideas, and resources provide concrete approaches to building mathematical proficiencies through meaningful, relevant issues affecting local and global communities. Topical content includes, but is not limited to: Racial profiling, issues related to labor in the U.S. and globally, home buying, issues of representation, maps, and health. These topics encompass math concepts that include, but are not limited to geometry, linear equations, algebra, integrals, and percentages.

Radical Math (2007)
This Website contains over 700 resources (Browse by topic, issue, resource, or title) to support thinking and teaching about mathematics and issues of justice. Take 10 minutes to scan and review the options available and select one that interests you, personally or professionally and try it out.

Grant, C. A. , & Sleeter, C. E. (2013). Turning on Learning: Five Approaches to Multicultural Teaching Plans for Race, Class, Gender, and Disability (5th edition).
A book dedicated to multicultural lesson planning in content areas, including mathematics.

* Suggested resources should always be critiqued. These are offered as a means of extending the discussion for those who desire to start or deepen their contemplation about mathematics as a multicultural educator.


Bazin, M., Tamez, M., & Exploratorium Teacher Institute. (2002). Math and science across cultures: Activities and investigations from the Exploratorium. New York: The New Press.

D’Ambroio, U. (1997). Foreword. In A. B. Powell & M. Frankenstein (Eds.), Ethnomathematics: Challenging eurocentrism in mathematics education. New York: State University of New York Press.

de Oliveira, L. C. (2011). In their shoes. Multicultural Education, 19(1), 59-62.

Delpit, L. (2012). “Multiplication is for White people”: Raising expectations for other people’s children. New York: The New Press.

Dornoo, M. (2015). Teaching mathematics education with cultural competency. Multicultural Perspectives, 17(2), 81-86.

Greer, B., Mukhopadhyay, S., Powell, A., & Nelson-Barber, S. (Eds.). (2009). Culturally responsive mathematics education. New York: Routledge.

Gutstein, E. (2006). Reading and writing the world with mathematics: Toward a pedagogy for social justice. New York: Routledge.

Gutstein, E., & Peterson, B. (Eds.) (2013). Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Irvine, J. J., & Armento, B. J. (Eds.). (2001). Culturally responsive teaching: Lesson planning for elementary and middle grades. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jao, L. (2012). The multicultural mathematics classroom. Multicultural Education, 19(3), 2-10.

Lemons-Smith, S. (2013). Tapping into the intellectual capital of Black children in mathematics: Examining the practices of preservice elementary teachers. In J. Leonard & D. B. Martin (Eds.), The brilliance of Black children in mathematics: Beyond the numbers and toward new discourse (pp 323-339). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishers.

Lemons-Smith, S. (2009). Mathematics beyond the school walls project: Exploring the dynamic role of students’ lived experiences. In C.E. Malloy (Series Ed.) & D. Y. White, & J. S. Spitzer (Vol. Eds.), Mathematics for every student: Responding to diversity, grades Pre-K-5 (pp. 129-136). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Leonard, J., Moore, C. M., & Brooks, W. (2014). Multicultural children's literature as a context for teaching mathematics for cultural relevance in urban schools. The Urban Review, 46(3), 325-348.

Leonard, J., Brooks, W., Barnes - Johnson, J., & Berry, R. Q. (2010). The Nuances and Complexities of Teaching Mathematics for Cultural Relevance and Social Justice. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), 261-270

Leonard, J., & Guha, S. (2002). Creating cultural relevance in teaching and learning mathematics. Teaching Children Mathematics, 9(2), 114-118.

Leonard, J. (2008). Culturally specific pedagogy in the mathematics classroom. New York: Routledge.

Lipka, J., Andre-Irhke, D. (2008). Ethnomathematics applied to classrooms in Alaska: Math in a Cultural Context, p. 8—10.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.

Moses, R & Cobb, C., Jr. (2001). Radical equations: Math literacy and Civil Rights. Boston: Beacon Press.

Nasir, N. S., & Cobb, P. (Eds.) (2007). Improving access to mathematics: Diversity and equity in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Pennington, H. J. (2000). Issues in mathematics education with African American students. Multicultural Education, 7(3), 36-41.

Schafer, N. J., Williams, B. A., Stenhouse V. L., & Truscott, D. M. ( 2015). Inspiring STEM for teacher trainers, inservice teachers, preservice teachers, and students using a four-tier model. Teacher Education & Practice, 28(2/3), 372—392.

Tate, W. F. (1994).Race, retrenchment, and the reform of school mathematics. Phi Delta Kappan 75(6), 477-80, 482—484.

Ukpokodu, O. N. (2011). How do I teach mathematics in a culturally responsive way?: Identifying empowering teaching practices. Multicultural Education, 18(3), 47-56

Zaslavsky, C. (1996). The multicultural math classroom: Bringing in the world. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.