Iman Chahine to Help South African Teachers Use Culturally Relevant Math Lessons

Assoc. Prof. of Education Iman Chahine won a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to do ethnomathematical research in South Africa Image by Katharine Webster
Assoc. Prof. of Education Iman Chahine won a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to do ethno-mathematical research in South Africa.

By Katharine Webster

Iman Chahine, an associate professor of education, has received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to pursue ethno-mathematical research in South Africa for nine months.

Beginning in January 2020, Chahine will train South African teachers in high-needs districts in how to incorporate indigenous Zulu and Ndebele arts and culture into the high school math curriculum.

Then she will observe and support the teachers in the classroom as they use the mathematics lessons and teaching materials she developed so that she can evaluate what works – and what needs to be changed. She will also look at whether faithful implementation of the lesson modules leads to academic gains by students.

“We’re going to use indigenous games and beadwork from Zulu culture and geometric designs from the murals that Ndebele women paint on their walls,” she says. “The goal is to relate the math and science curriculum to knowledge produced by the culture itself. We need to find ways to help demystify these fields for students and help them engage.”

Fulbright U.S. Scholar Awards support international research by faculty with exemplary records of academic and professional achievement, service and leadership potential. Chahine was one of more than 100 U.S. citizens selected by the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for the 2019-20 academic year. She is collaborating with researchers at North-West University’s campus in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Chahine, who joined the College of Education faculty in fall 2018 as part of a global hiring initiative, specializes in using mathematics to describe cultural practices and in using hands-on cultural practices to teach math. Beadwork and baskets with repeated geometric motifs, origami and weaving are all embodied forms of mathematical thinking, Chahine says.

“When we analyze a motif of a single, repeated pattern – not only for 3D objects but in flat designs like Ndebele murals – we are teaching algorithmic and computational thinking,” she says.

South Africa now requires schools to incorporate indigenous knowledge systems into the K-12 curriculum, an important part of moving away from its colonial heritage and rebuilding its post-apartheid economy, Chahine says.

Until recently, most schools in South Africa used European textbooks. But research shows that children learn better when they can relate their schoolwork to what they already know and experience. Research also shows that students who don’t do well in science and math have more limited career possibilities and that economies suffer as a result, she says.

“Neuroscience tells us that to retain knowledge, you have to make connections. You have to anchor that knowledge to something, or else it will disappear – you won’t remember it,” she says. “If students can use math and science concepts to explore their own culture and beyond, we think they will be motivated. We want them to feel they can be participants in producing knowledge. That way, they can own it.”

While there are fairly obvious ways to incorporate indigenous culture in teaching language and social studies, educators struggle to do it in mathematics and science, especially when they shift from concrete to abstract concepts, Chahine says. Too often, teachers focus on covering the content they’re required to teach instead of engaging their students and encouraging a positive disposition to learn.

Chahine collaborated under a previous grant with professors at North-West University to develop engaging, hands-on lessons drawn from indigenous cultural practices that could be integrated into the high school curriculum. The North-West University faculty worked primarily on science, while Chahine spearheaded efforts in math.

The Fulbright award will pay for Chahine to travel to and live in South Africa while she works on implementation with the same colleagues. They plan to train, observe and evaluate 100 to 120 teachers working in 50 schools with a mix of cultures and languages.

In addition to drawing on the culture and arts of South Africa’s indigenous tribes, Chahine says the lessons will relate to other subjects the students are studying in school, including language and history. Math teaches logical, strategic and critical thinking skills that apply to solving problems of any kind, she says.

“We need students to understand math in the context of everyday life,” she says. “By seeing math in the context of its uses across different disciplines, we hope students will develop a confident disposition toward math and toward themselves.’”