Maths and culture in PNG

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Disruptions due to landslides and road blocks, diverse languages and poor telecommunications are some of the challenges a Charles Sturt University (CSU) researcher has faced while working with teachers in remote villages in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Workshop in the remote Simbu province with lecturer from the University of Goroka As a teacher educator in CSU's School of Teacher Education in Dubbo, Dr Kay Owens is exploring how tapping into cultural concepts of number, space and measurement can help engage Indigenous children in mathematics.

Dr Owens, colleagues from the University of Goroka in PNG and linguist Dr Cris Edmonds-Wathen have been running workshops for teachers in remote villages.

"The project aims to give elementary teachers, those teaching up to Year 2 at school, the understanding, skills and resources to teach mathematics better by being mindful of environmental and cultural aspects," said Dr Owens.

"We've developed a model for further professional learning for these teachers who often have limited use of English skills and little formal training.

"Using a small touch screen computer, solar panel and battery we've been able to provide professional learning for these teachers in their own villages. Dubbo businesses have supported us in putting these kits together."

At the heart of the project is helping teachers recognise mathematical ways of thinking in cultural activities and then incorporating that into teaching.

"School mathematics tends to have developed from cultures in Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe but Indigenous cultures have distinctly different systematic ways of referring to space and thinking mathematically about spatial activity," Dr Owens said.

"For example there's often no obvious reference to the measurement of area, such as a square unit like square metres; rather Indigenous cultures have other ways of recognising and talking about area drawing on the environment around them.

"Teaching the mathematical concept of area by examining the area pattern of a garden plot is one way of incorporating a cultural activity into learning.

Dr Kay Owens and lecturers from Madang Teachers College PNG"There's also different ways of grouping numbers such as groupings of four or five, rather than ten which we traditionally see in Australian schools. Words for numbers like 6 may be 5 + 1 or 73 may be in language 20 x 3 + 5 x 2 + 2 + 1. Thus children can learn much about arithmetic from comparing words in their language with English words."

Dr Owens' recently published book, Visuospatial reasoning: An ecocultural perspective on space, geometry and measurement education examines visual reasoning, culture and identity for geometry and measurement education. It is available in hard copy and as an e-book here.

"Tapping into a student's sense of cultural identity and linking it to school identity means that children feel like they belong and that the school appreciates their culture," she said.

Dr Owens is a member of CSU's Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE) and she has more than 40 years experience with education in PNG.

The project, Improving the teaching of mathematics in Papua New Guinea elementary schools using local languages and cultural practices is funded by an Australian Development Research Award.


Media contact: Ms Emily Malone, (02) 6933 2207

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Photo: Workshop in the remote Simbu Province of PNG with University of Goroka.

Photo: Dr Kay Owens from CSU with lecturers from Madang Teachers College in PNG.