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Capital University News, California State University, Sacramento
Prof: Diversity helps with math
sees a bonus benefit in California’s immigrant population – it
may help its students with math.
Comparable populations worldwide have fewer problems with mathematics than
students in the United States, says Orey, a professor in the teacher education
department and Learning Skills Center. He suggests it’s because American
children often think there’s only one way to solve problems.
“The way people look at language in the United States is echoed in
math,” he says. “We tend to think there’s only one language
to learn.” But math is a language with its own culture and norms,
and children who learn more than one language find it easier to learn math,
For the past several years, Orey has been a proponent of ethnomathematics,
which identifies the techniques and practices used by members of distinct
cultural groups. In addition to working with local immigrant populations,
he regularly travels to Brazil, a world center of ethnomathematics research. “It’s
the out-of-school application of math, the day-to-day uses,” he says.
For example, almost all cultures do some sorts of grouping. In the United
States, a dozen is universally understood to be 12 similar objects. In Guatemala,
a mano or handful means five of a kind.
To demonstrate the value of ethnomathematics, Orey has developed the Algorithm
Collection Project to give his CSUS students, many of whom are future teachers,
a sense of how math works in other countries. It was created as a way to
understand the relationship between language and algorithms – methods
such as addition or subtraction for solving certain kinds of problems.
Orey also says the project is a way to take advantage of immigration. “Northern
California is one of very few places with this much diversity,” Orey
Part of the project involved making a vocabulary “wall” on Orey’s
website (www.csus.edu/indiv/o/oreyd). Orey’s students interview newly
arrived immigrants and compile a list of words used for common mathematical
functions – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division – in
the new arrivals’ countries of origin as well as visual examples of
how they carry out the function.
It’s grown into a collection representing more than 21 languages currently
spoken in the Sacramento region and confirms that other countries do the
same basic things mathematically but often using different patterns. Common
day-to-day algorithms differ by culture and by national origin. Orey says
there are at least four major patterns used for long division by immigrants
in this region, which he has named: North American, Franco-Brazilian, Indo-Pakistani
There are subtle differences linked to linguistics. For example, Latin-based
countries put the modifier after the noun when speaking while North Americans
put the modifier first. So, when Latin-based countries do long division
they don’t have to do the mental reversing North Americans do – they
already think “four into 20” rather than “20 divided by
Each indicates there’s more than one way to solve a problem.
Another aspect of the project looks at how people with varying degrees
of language acquisition – monolingual, bilingual and multilingual – interact
with their algorithms. For example, he’s found many people in Sacramento
from the former Soviet Union know at least three languages. At the same
time, they’re more flexible when given a problem and have less of
a tendency to stop trying. To them, Orey says, algebra is just one more
By looking at how other countries do math, Orey has also determined that
the way it is taught in the United States is designed – unintentionally
or not – often holds some people back. He suggests that the United
States treats math in an elitist fashion, breaking it up into categories
and, eventually, filtering people out. He opts for Brazil’s more holistic
approach. They don’t divide math into algebra, trigonometry and calculus.
“Calculus is where it all comes together,” he says. “If
people never make it to calculus, it’s like building a car, but never
getting to drive it.”
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