Tipi Math: Traditional Teachings by the Numbers

Mathematics is a language of numbers that can describe almost everything in the physical world. Increasing the skills of First Nations students within this dialect of figures and equations is important so they have this valuable tool to build a good life. That means training teachers in how this complex language can be made more relatable to students. Recently, the Resource Centre held a Mathematics Roundtable where teachers were taught mathematical principles using First Nations technology, like the tipi and the star blanket.

Chun Ong is a Numeracy and Assessment facilitator with the Resource Centre and says math is a part of everyone’s life. “Math is always a part and parcel, through numeracy, of any culture or group, and it has been a part of Indigenous peoples lives from time immemorial through hunting, fishing, gathering of food, and interaction with the environment. Numbers, patterns and relation, shape and space, and statistics and probability are mathematical concepts and skills that were always used and applied in daily life.”

Ong says the best way to teach math is by relating basic concepts to relatable events, processes, and things in a student’s experience. By doing this, it is possible for a teacher to create building blocks of concepts and skills that can become the foundation of future learning.

“All math concepts and skills are better understood by students when they can relate to things and happenings in their environment—things they have encountered or experienced. For example, the order of operations (BEDMAS) is the opposite of solving equations (algebra). For example, you put on your winter jacket and boots last, just before you leave the house, which is like the order of operations. However, you take off the jacket or boots first when you come home after work. Order of operations (BEDMAS) is doing or moving forward, and solving equations (algebra) is undoing or reversing,” Ong says.

Ong uses the tipi and star blanket to teach basic mathematical principles integral to their creation. Using these tools is important, not only for their relevancy to First Nations students, but also to teach cultural concepts and values to educators who may not be Indigenous. He says the shapes, space, and patterns of the cultural items or objects—including the tipi, star blanket, and drums—are a good starting point for teaching and learning mathematical topics, concepts, and skills in a culturally responsive manner. Relating and applying math to everyday life is the essence of numeracy.

The tipi could be used to teach the basic geometry of 2D shapes and 3D space. For example, by using the equation, πrl, you can derive the curved surface area of a tipi, using the convex, polygonal shapes that form the covering of a tipi, which creates a cone, and thus a circular base, when more poles are added to make the tipi strong. On the other hand, the construction of the star blanket, from a 2D shape to a completed 3D space object, involves almost all the math concepts and skills in geometry. It involves the basic unit of diamonds, forming eight bigger diamonds to complete the eight-point[1]ed star in the centre of the blanket. If you fill in the bigger diamond with the numbers in a certain manner, you will create what is called by mathematicians, the ‘Chinese or Pascal triangle.’”

Ong says Resource Centre events like the Mathematics Roundtable are important to ensure educators are relating lessons to First Nations students in a way that produces positive results, instilling in them the joy of teaching and learning mathematics. “Teacher capacity building and mentoring in Indigenous culture is very important for reclaiming what has been lost through colonization as well as for student and teacher engagement. It is important that teachers and students create a connection socially, academically, and intellectually in math, ELA, science, and social studies, to increase student attendance and academic performance in a cross-curricular manner. These culturally responsive specific lessons and activities also build pride and learning of First Nations values and teachings.”

Ong says it is all about ensuring that First Nations students absorb what can be a difficult subject, with concepts that are sometimes very precise and difficult to explain. Providing teachers with culturally specific ways of teaching helps with this process and creates a better experience for the learners. “In my experience, students always feel proud and are often awed by the many math concepts and skills that they can relate to and understand easily. The tipi, star blanket, and drum, to name a few, are culturally responsive math tools that are very engaging socially, academically, and intellectually. Math, numeracy in action, is no longer the domain of the academics and mathematicians, but it can be a part of everyone’s life.”

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