Five ways maths is used in Aboriginal cultures

Five ways maths is used in Aboriginal culture from counting, patterns in season and weather, symbols, storytelling and land markers.

 
 
 

Story telling


Man talking to chlldren in a circle round a camp fire

Aboriginal cultures are steeped in storytelling. But how is this used to solve maths problems?

The numbers and operations in equations become symbols or characters. These characters then take part in a story. For example, the actions might bring characters together in a story (addition and multiplication) or take them apart (subtraction and division).

Animals and birds can be used to symbolise individual numbers. Physical movement or dancing is also important.

Dr Chris Matthews of the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Maths Alliance describes how Aboriginal children turned the equation 4 x 2 = 8 (4 twos is equivalent in value to 8 in total) into a dance about flying brolgas. A group of two children, acting as brolgas, flew together, and then linked up with another group of two, and then two more groups of two to become a collection of eight in total.

Story telling is a vital part of many cultures and it’s something that many children will respond to. So using Aboriginal story telling will really be of value to the learning of many students.

 
 
 

Counting in fives


Hand prints on desert sand

Some Aboriginal cultures use a counting in five system for keeping track of their count. It’s sometimes known as 'body tallying'. 

This visceral, physical method of counting is a great way of helping children to explore mathematical ideas.

This counting in fives system has been used by some Aboriginal cultures for thousands and thousands of years.

 
 
 

Seasons and weather


Sunset over a bush landscape

Aboriginal people have developed a complex and intricate understanding of the weather and seasons for countless generations. 

The Gooniyandi people in Western Australia study weather and seasonal patterns to tell them when is the best time for hunting and collecting different plants and animals. 

Many Aboriginal nations have their own calendars according to the unique geography and climate of its region. This helps with understanding sequences of time and mathematical language.

Further Reading:

 

 
 
 

Using land links to understand maths


Woman with backpack walking across stones in creek

It takes the powerful connection that Aboriginal people have with the land to connect content to specific places. 

For maths purposes, this is called 'Land links'. Land Links means working with plants and natural phenomena, such as rocks, or fauna, to find and solve maths problems, connecting science, art and cultural history with mathematics.

 
 
 

Using symbols and visuals to work with maths


Girl writing down on a table

Does your child find maths hard to visualise? They may find maths easier to do with a hands-on approach. 

One strategy that’s been used by Aboriginal cultures for thousands of years uses symbols. 

The learner enters a maths problem via an image. This holistic image is used to refer back to when working with number sequences and simple equations. This means the learner can work out where the sequences are going. This also applies to patterns where symbols can be used as part of storytelling. 

You can encourage your child to come up with their own symbol. For instance, creating a symbol for a group of three and then a symbol for a group of six. 

Then what happens when they’re added together? What symbol is created out of that story?

Further reading: