Mathematics in a multicultural setting
“Diversity in this school should be an asset, not a barrier!” These were my words during a heated conversation with one of my colleagues in the Mathematics department. The reason for my outburst had been the topic of discussions for a long time. My school serves a large community with a high level of immigration, which comes with many challenges. A large number of our students speak an additional-language, which means that communication can be problematic and this inevitably compromises their learning. The school has introduced many traditional literacy initiatives with some degree of success. However, I have been feeling that it is time for something different. What if we try to use the “universal language” of mathematics to improve participation and communication across the school?
Using a scheme within the school that encourages improving communication, I offer the idea to the head teacher. He agrees to allocate some time and budget to our multilingual Mathematics project and a team of like-minded, enthusiastic teachers is put together. The idea of the project is to help students across the school develop a “common language” around mathematics. To keep things relatively simple, we decide to focus on percentages and fractions. Our aim is to get all our students to explore authentic questions and challenges which involve these mathematical concepts. The novel and exciting element is that the activities will be informed by research carried out by additional-language students, and they will be worked through in multiple languages.
We start the project by giving personalised support to additional-language students, so that they learn the basic mathematical concepts well. These students work in their own language and also translate the concepts into the first language. Students then use the internet and social bookmarking tools to collect links and learning resources on the mathematical concepts. Students search for these resources from the different countries represented in the classroom and add these resources to the social bookmarking tool so they can be shared with classmates.
The second phase involves the additional-language students explaining what they had found to their classmates through structured presentations and question and answer sessions. My colleagues and I facilitate these sessions, addressing misunderstandings and communication issues.
To ensure all students understand the mathematical concepts, they use an online template created to help them reflect on what they learned and identify further questions that could be answered using percentages and fractions. I create groups that include students from different countries and these groups work on authentic questions like calculating the number of students leaving school with qualifications in different countries or the relationship between eye colour and gender in the classroom. The groups use the first language and the additional language as necessary. Students record this activity and findings in an online collaborative document (eg Google docs), so it can be shared with the rest of the students.
As a final step, the students use a social networking tool to make contact with a group of students and teachers in the home countries of students in class. They share their experience of multicultural mathematics and ask for some feedback.
At the end of the experience, the students’ confidence is visibly higher, as are the levels of interaction and participation amongst the students. Additionally, interest and engagement in mathematics also significantly increase. Because this was a success in the Mathematics department, it is also adopted as a model in other departments.
This post is also available in: Turkish