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Ethnomathematics in Action

Milton Rosa, Cristiane Coppe de Oliveira eds.
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Spencer Bagley
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Ethnomathematics in Action is a collection of work from 22 ethnomathematics researchers from across Brazil, including research reports, literature reviews, and philosophical reflections. However, before getting much further into describing the contents of this book, it may be helpful to discuss what ethnomathematics is.
Ubiratan D’Ambrosio, one of the pioneers of ethnomathematics, provides a brief foreword to this book explaining the historical and philosophical underpinnings of ethnomathematics as a research field. Here he defines ethnomathematics as “a broad theory of the evolution of ideas, of knowledge, and of practices developed differently by the human species in their different natural and sociocultural environments” (p. viii), which I think is as successful and succinct a definition of the field as is possible. 
It is helpful for me to think about ethnomathematics as a counterweight to the common (and colonialist) idea that mathematics is universal, neutral, and value-free (which is itself a product of the ethnomathematics linked to the cultures of western Europe). It allows educators to restore confidence and dignity to students, particularly those from undervalued cultural backgrounds, by assigning value to their tacit knowledge (p. 5). 
The meat of the book is four sections of two to three chapters each. Each section focuses on a particular type of identifiable community: the first section examines diverse Africanities; the second examines Indigenous diversities; the third focuses on urban diversities; and the last explores diverse cultural practices, by which it means to broadly conceptualize what constitutes a “culture.” An introduction by Milton Rosa, one of the editors, situates readers outside of Brazil in the relevant history and social forces shaping the diverse mathematical practices in the Brazilian context, provides an accessible introduction to the core concepts of ethnomathematics, and explains how ethnomathematics research intrinsically promotes the dual goals of improving mathematics education and “valuing and validating students’ real-life experiences” (p. 3). Cristiane Coppe de Oliveira, the second editor, summarizes each contribution, synthesizes common meanings, and points to directions forward in a conclusion section.
The book earns its title: while its contributors don’t shy away from theory, most of the contributions show how ethnomathematics can address very practical, actionable questions. What does it practically mean to break down dichotomies and question the centrality of one form of mathematics? How does an ethnomathematical lens help us understand the production of identity? When we talk about decolonizing the curriculum and centering cultural knowledge in the classroom, what does that actually look like in practice?
This last question deserves some more attention, because I think it is a real strength of this collection. Chapter 4 reports on efforts to integrate identifiable African culture into the mathematics classroom. Chapter 5 shows how ethnomathematics provides the analytic power to distinguish between “school education for the Indigenous” and “Indigenous school education” (p. 74), and chapter 6 focuses on training Indigenous people as teachers who are proficient in both European and Indigenous ethnomathematical traditions. Chapter 8 focuses on Deaf culture, demonstrating how centering sign language in Deaf schools can drive understanding of financial mathematics (which resonates with other researchers’ work on embodied cognition). Chapter 11 discusses how “ethnomodelling” can help students make meaningful connections to the distinct cultural groups in their community. Each of these chapters, as well as others that I haven’t listed here, are practical guides to putting into action the often frustratingly vague idea of decolonizing the mathematics curriculum; anyone who is interested in decolonial mathematics education will find these to be helpful models for their own practice.
There are a few places in this book where the translation between Portuguese and English causes some issues for an English-speaking reader. See, for example, the repeated word “no” on p. 183, which should have been translated from Portuguese as “in the” rather than rendered directly into English; however, a sufficiently-motivated reader will be able to grasp the intent of the writers.
For readers who are new to ethnomathematics, this book is a valuable introduction: D’Ambrosio’s foreword and Rosa’s introduction are helpful for getting the lay of the land, and the chapters provide examples of variations on the theme. For readers who are more familiar with ethnomathematics, this book provides a deeper understanding of the field and a library of practical applications. I was challenged throughout to take a broader view of both what counts as “-mathematics” and what counts as “ethno-”, and this challenge helped me see applications of ethnomathematics to places I would not have expected. More broadly, this book helped me understand the urgent problem of colonialist forces in education, and gave me concrete and practical ideas for valuing the diverse backgrounds of students.


Spencer Bagley is an associate professor in the Mathematics Department at Westminster College. He lives in Salt Lake City with his husband and three cats. He was previously an assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics education from San Diego State University and UC San Diego. He promotes active learning pedagogy in his teaching and research. He enjoys cooking, baking, good food, and a nice cup of tea. Email him at, find him on Twitter @sbagley, or read his blog at