Connection between Aboriginal culture and mathematics

​The section will provide an introduction into the connection between mathematics and Aboriginal Culture.


In doing so, I must first recognise Dr Mandawuy Yunupiŋu, the first Yolŋu principal at Yirrkala School, who set a vision that all students at Yirrkala School will receive bilingual education that encompassed two-way learning. To achieve this type of education, Dr Yunupiŋu worked with Elders and a range of academics and educators to explore the connection between Yolŋu knowledge and Western knowledge.

From this extensive work, Dr Manadwuy Yunupiŋu stated that the closest connection between Yolŋu knowledge and Western knowledge is mathematics and went on to say that Yolŋu mathematics is Gurrut-u. Gurrut-u is a kinship system that connects all people to all the elements of the world (e.g. animal, plants, wind, fire, water and so on).

In essence, it is a system that connects people to the environmental system of a particular Place on Country, which creates complex societal structures that are inherently mathematical. For an introduction to Gurrut-u and its connection to education at Yirrkala, please refer to three articles I wrote for ACER’s Teacher Magazine.

Pattern thinking is Aboriginal thinking

The philosophy that underpins any Aboriginal kinship system is that everything in the world is interconnected through a network of relationships. From this worldview, “pattern thinking” and “systems thinking” are essential skills and have obvious connections to mathematics and mathematics education. Note that the linear equation pedagogy outlined above is a good example of this, particularly when the pattern relates to processes and relationships on Country.

“Pattern thinking is Aboriginal thinking. There is no big boss. Patterns are about belonging. Nothing is separate from anything else”, David Mowaljarlai, Elder from Derby, Aboriginality a Gift: Spirituality for a Nation.

It is also represented beautifully in the quote by David Mowaljarlai, an Elder from Derby, that was documented in the book Aboriginality a Gift: Spirituality for a Nation. David Mowaljarlai clearly states that “Pattern thinking is Aboriginal thinking”. He also continues to state there is “no big boss” and “patterns are about belonging”.

This means that under an Aboriginal philosophy and knowledge system there can never be one person who controls everything since everyone belongs in the system and has their own agency and responsibility to strengthen and maintain the system. The last part of the quote “Nothing is separate from anything else” is a statement about how all the elements of the world are interconnected.

This is a sophisticated way to see the world and demonstrates that Aboriginal knowledge systems are about sustainability and an understanding of why Aboriginal people are the oldest living culture in the world.

A metaphor for mathematics

I also see this as a metaphor for mathematics and mathematics education. In my opinion, mathematics and mathematics education have been a process of disconnection that ensures only a few make it through the “rigour” of mathematics education.

We need a mathematics education that connects with people, embraces diversity of thinking and ensures that all people belong. To achieve this, I would encourage educators to teach mathematics from a cultural perspective so that:

  • Creativity is a focus in the teaching and learning of mathematics that allows students to express their culture, their worldview while learning key mathematical concepts. Also, creativity leads to innovation.
  • Students have their own voice in the mathematics classroom, which allows positive relationships to develop throughout the classroom.
  • Students experience and learn to value a diversity of worldviews.
  • Aboriginal Culture is valued in the classroom and students develop an understanding that mathematics is part of Aboriginal culture.

If we can achieve this, then we will truly see a difference in mathematics education for Aboriginal students.

Activity 4

Read the second article “Indigenous perspectives in mathematics: Understanding Gurrut-u”and attempt the teacher/student activity.

The activity is about drawing a family tree, using Western structures, and then connecting the tree to Gurrut-u. What patterns do you see?