Adelaide students discover a new way to learn maths


In one Adelaide classroom, maths is being taught in a new and interesting way.

Like so many teens before her, Tamia Blackwell was once a reluctant maths student.

“Initially I thought, it’s boring, it isn’t interesting.”

A chance meeting with mathematician and Indigenous educator Dr Chris Matthews at a conference helped change the Year 11 student’s perspective.

Tamia is a performer with an Indigenous dance group, and Dr Matthews' model of explaining maths through storytelling caught her interest.

“Using letters to represent movement and numbers to represent beats, they work really well together,” she says.

“Not only does it change your perspective on maths but it opens up opportunities to have fun during learning maths, as well.”

Tamia leads a workshop with the students.
Tamia leads a workshop with the students.
SBS News

The idea also drew the attention of fellow dancer and student Bryce Cawte.

“It’s great,” he says. “I never really enjoyed maths, myself, so I found a way to enjoy it, and that’s through dancing.”

Together, Bryce and Tamia have developed their own maths workshop, teaching algebraic equations to other students using cultural dance. They’ve toured the concept to a number of schools across South Australia.

During a workshop at their own school, Woodville High in Adelaide, they teach Year 8 students to interpret parts of a complex equation with individual steps and movements.

In one equation, 3b turns into three head bobs, while 2p becomes two imaginary emu pecks.

Woodville High School students
Tamia Blackwell, left, and Bryce Cawte lead a lesson in mathematical dancing at Woodville High School.
SBS News

Zandra, one of the participants, says it’s been a memorable lesson.

“It may not be as logical as some maths things are, but it’s still teaching us the fundamentals that we need to learn,” she says.

Dr Matthews says there are similarities in the way maths and dance use symbolism to explain ideas.

“All around the world people have done this, we observe the world around us and we go through an extraction process to understand what we’re looking at,” he says.

“Maths is just another example of that, where we’re actually creating this symbolic world where it’s connected to processes in the world around us.”

It was Indigenous Education Officer and artist Kargun Fogarty who first took Dr Matthew’s model and turned it into a dance.

“Mathematics has just been a big part of our culture, and I suppose what Chris and I are trying to do is reach out to these young fellas and to help them understand how intelligent our people were here,” he says.

Bryce Cawte says developing their own version of algebraic dance has helped him explore how Indigenous Australians have long used mathematical ideas.

“You can throw a spear, but with an extra half a metre piece of wood, you can go three times further,” he says. “So we’ve got that aerodynamics and that physics sort of thinking.”  

Tamia hopes the workshop will help make maths and Indigenous culture more accessible to students of all backgrounds.

“The whole purpose of our workshop is to change stereotypes and give Aboriginal young kids, and anyone, the message that you can do anything,” she says.

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