After being caught cheating in a maths class while completing his two-times table Dr Christopher Matthews never thought he’d be just one of a handful of Aboriginal people to earn a PhD in mathematics.
“My journey in maths was a long and difficult one; I wasn’t very good at it in primary school. I don’t think I was very good at it because the education then was about learning facts, quick recall which caused anxiety for me. That’s not learning maths that’s just memorising facts,” he said.
“The thing that switched me into liking maths was algebra – it was my step into the world of maths, it was easy and like a lightning bolt hit me. I taught myself the maths I missed in primary school by doing algebra, it made sense to me.”
Dr Matthews is from the Quandamooka people of Minjerribah, but he grew up in Toowoomba and says one of his first education projects was with his people in Stradbroke Islande.
“One of my first education projects was when I was home in Stradbroke Island - what I had to think about there was connecting maths and culture… People forget the connection with people in maths. You learn how to do mathematics and not how to do it. When you look at why we do it, you see culture and maths together.”
Maths as storytelling:
Dr Matthews says instead of learning the facts, he creates stories around it, as mythology, song and dance are far more memorable than just a list of facts.
“We actually got Aboriginal kids from together and tried the idea of connecting maths and story with a dance performance as well...Here we split the kids up into 4 groups and gave them different operations to solve. So each group had their own equation and then all numbers added up to an element of their story and dance.”
Dr Matthews of Griffith University says the interesting thing about this process is that the kids do amazing things.
“I can finally connect myself as an Aboriginal person and the doing of mathematics.”
“My favourite was the time when kids came out as a cloud, they danced over the land and two, representing rain drops left the equation to form their final figure,” he says.
“It really shows a different way of viewing maths and how they connect it with what they know and see around them… It’s better than comparing apples and oranges, because now you’re engaging the student’s creative process in understanding mathematical ideas.”
Dr Matthews, who now heads up the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mathematics Alliance (ATSIMA), says the kids seem to really enjoy this new teaching method.
“Most of the students say stuff like ‘I like the new way of doing maths,’ ‘I’m happy to be away from the desk and the whiteboard’… There was one student that actually said ‘I can finally connect myself as an Aboriginal person and the doing of mathematics,’ you see they were learning the symbolism of maths as well as their own identity.
Studies show aboriginal cultures can remember things for over seven thousand years, however Dr Matthews says maths and science are very much seen, from an Aboriginal point of view, as a “white fella thing."
“Science and maths has been used against us historically. There is a disconnection of science and maths for aboriginal people. Science places aboriginal people as primitive people with non-valuable knowledge,” he said.
“It’s changing now with people taking more interest in things like Aboriginal astronomy and bush medicine, but I think we still have a long way to go in terms of how we as a people, think of maths and science and how we’re going to connect with these subjects in our community.”