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What Does It Mean to be a Culturally Responsive Math Educator?

There’s an episode in the first season of Ted Lasso in which Rebecca’s ex-husband (Rebecca is the soccer team’s owner) challenges Ted to a game of darts in a local bar. The ex-husband, blind by his ignorance and arrogance, underestimates Ted and thinks he’s got the game in the bag.

As the match nears the finish, Ted’s last toss will determine who wins the game. Before he throws the dart, Ted reminisces aloud.

“Guys have been underestimating me my whole life, and for years I never knew why,” he says. “One day I was taking my boy to school and on the wall, there was a quote by Walt Whitman that said, Be curious, not judgmental. All those fellas who underestimated me, not one of them was curious. If they were curious, they would have asked questions. Questions like, ‘Have you played a lot of darts?’ To which I would have answered, ‘Every Sunday at the sports bar with my dad.’

Ted throws the dart, hits the bull’s eye, and wins the game.

Lessons Learned

There are at least two lessons we can learn from the Ted Lasso episode…be curious and don’t make assumptions. These two lessons are important principles that guide the work of culturally responsive math educators. These educators strive to understand how their students see the world, and they are curious about their students’ experiences, families, languages, interests, immigration trajectories, and communities. Most importantly, culturally responsive math educators use this cultural knowledge to adjust and synchronize their teaching to better serve their students. In this post, we’ll explore a few examples.

Be Curious and Don’t Make Assumptions

In her book, Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children (Delpit, 2018), Lisa Delpit reminds us of the power of getting to know our students and their experience. She says, “I will never forget my six-year-old student, many years ago, whom I could not get, despite all my efforts, to successfully complete worksheets on coins and their values. When I got to know this little boy better, I found out that he was perfectly knowledgeable about using coins, making change, and paying for items with ease. He could do money; he just couldn't do worksheets about money!”

I think many of us can relate to Delpit’s story. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions about our students and allowing our biases to shape our expectations.

These assumptions come in many forms, and they often negatively affect our most vulnerable and marginalized students. In fact, research reveals that both math and English teachers are more likely to perceive their class as too difficult for students of color compared to white students (Education Week, 2017).

Math Contexts Can Be Mirrors and Windows

One way to use your cultural knowledge of your students is to provide math contexts that are age appropriate and relevant. Contexts that depict the cultures of non-white, ethnically diverse people are especially important since these students traditionally haven’t seen themselves mirrored in the mathematics that they engage in.

In a recent blog post, Dionne Aminata describes math contexts as being windows or mirrors for children. She quotes Emily Style (Style, 1988) who explains that “A mirror is a story that reflects your own culture and helps you build your identity. A window is a resource that offers you a view into someone’s else’s experience.”

This is a powerful analogy, and one that culturally responsive math educators make use of when they write or rewrite math story problems to reflect a variety of students’ experiences in their class. One example is from student teacher Cathy Huynh’s fifth grade class, where her students were about to begin a unit on fractions.

To build her cultural knowledge of her fifth graders to create relevant math story problems, Cathy had the class make an art piece titled, Our Quilt Identity: who we are…a special memory of what matters to us.

Cathy’s class created quilt squares that reflected their interests, home life, and what matters to them: Venezuela, traditional foods, lakes, the zoo, family, art, college, home, pets, Congo, LGBTQ, California, friends. Cathy learned a lot about her students from this art project and used this cultural knowledge to create math story problems for a fraction unit.

Cathy also used the class quilt to pose questions such as, “How many students out of twenty-one have lived in the Congo?” “How many students out of twenty-one like traditional foods from their home country?” Such questions can lead to interesting conversations and help students think about fractions while building their cultural knowledge of their peers.

Multicultural Children’s Books

Another way to help your students see themselves reflected in the math you teach is to share children’s books that involve varied contexts and diverse characters. My favorite is Amanda Bean’s Amazing Dream by Cindy Neuschwander (Neuschwander, 1998). The main character is Amanda Bean, who is good at counting anything and everything. The problem is that she only counts things by ones, which can take a long time! Amanda has a dream in which she discovers the power of counting things in groups, allowing her to use multiplication, which is faster and more efficient. Aside from its mathematical benefits for children, the book highlights a Black girl who is good at math, serving as a role model for all students, and a mirror for girls and for children who look like Amanda.

Visual Representations of Culture

Friend and colleague Lilia Bannister, who teaches transitional kindergarten, uses visual representations of culture to stimulate her students’ math thinking and learn more about how they see the world. These visual representations can be drawings or photographs that depict things, people, or events from a variety of cultures or ethnic groups.

For example, Lilia uses Talking Math (Talking Math blog post) and shows her students photos and then asks them questions. For example, after showing her students this picture of a figure made using origami, Lilia asks questions such as, “What do you notice about this origami figure? What do you wonder? How many triangles do you see? What does this make you think of?”

The Talking Math website includes a slide deck of photos with questions to ask students at different grade levels. These photos can serve as mirrors and windows for students and provide interesting contexts for thinking mathematically.

Culturally Responsive Ways of Teaching

Building cultural knowledge also includes learning about students’ ideas and the way they think and solve problems. Teachers who use activities such as Number Talks (see our Number Talks blog post) are teaching in a culturally responsive manner as they elicit the diversity of student ideas and approaches to solving problems.

Zaretta Hammond (see her video here) proposes that inquiry is the great equalizer, and that offering all children a rich, inquiry based learning environment is the most effective way to teach in a culturally responsive manner. She urges us to ask the question, “How do we get all students to be curious about mathematics and leaders of their own learning?” We can begin to answer Hammond’s question by posing math tasks that have a low floor and high ceiling, that elicit multiple perspectives, that allow children to make choices, and that have contexts that serve as mirrors for all our students.

Back to Ted

This brings us back to Ted Lasso. His message about the importance of being curious and asking questions is really the key to culturally responsive teaching. Learning about our students without judgment or making assumptions can help us see, appreciate, and use the assets they bring to math class, and possibly change how we go about teaching mathematics.

If you have ideas for teaching in a culturally responsive way, please share them with us!

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