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Cultural Diversity in Mathematics Teaching and Learning in Zimbabwe: Can It be a Resource

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Mwangireni Ivy Chikodzi

Submitted: 22 June 2022 Reviewed: 03 August 2022 Published: 30 August 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.106916

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Many Zimbabwean Mathematics classrooms have student populations from diverse cultural backgrounds, language, race and Shona dialects. Most of the mathematics teaching is not related to the children’s world or everyday experiences and therefore becomes very abstract and meaningless to the leaners. Teachers therefore, have a fundamental role in making sure that learners, in this diverse setup, understand the mathematical concepts. This paper explores the possibility of using cultural practices in the teaching and learning of mathematics and identifies the challenges. A qualitative approach was used to identify the cultural examples used to explain mathematical concepts. Four teachers and their classes from four different primary schools with an average of 40 learners of mixed ability were observed teaching mathematics over a period of 12 weeks. Findings indicated that it is possible to use the cultural examples when teaching mathematics to a diverse group though with challenges. The teachers are not trained to manage learners of cultural diversity and it is really a challenge. Trainings are therefore necessary.


  • cultural diversity
  • mathematics teaching and learning
  • multicultural context
  • culture
  • ethnomathematics

1. Introduction

Over the years, mathematics has been viewed as a difficult subject where success in the subject is limited to the minority. There is great interest among researchers in trying to find reform strategies after the realisation of the high failure rates of students in mathematics which also affected the students’ interest to learn the subject [1]. One factor that contributes to quality delivery of mathematics is when language, familiar to the learner, is used to promote good communication and understanding in the classroom and when real life applications are put in place. There is therefore need for teachers to move from the traditional one size fit all teaching approach that focuses only on the dominant group.

Zimbabwe has different types of schools. These include the mission which is run by the church denominations; the council school run by the municipality, private schools run by individuals or corporates, government rural and government urban schools under the Government Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education. The Zimbabwean community now prefers to send their children to private schools even if it is expensive because these are the schools where adequate teaching and learning take place. Government schools do not pay teachers adequately resulting in learners not being properly taught. This has resulted in the increase in diversity of learners in terms of culture, language, race and dialects in private schools. This implies that such schools are attended by learners with high socioeconomic status unlike the public schools. Therefore multiculturalism and multilingualism should be seen as resource for teaching and learning

Zimbabwe has a Shona speaking group which is over 80% of the population [2]. The Shona language has variety of dialects, namely Karanga, Korekore, Manyika, Ndau and Zezuru. According to Chivhanga and Chimhenga [3], a dialect is a variety of a language spoken by a group of people united by geographic, social, ethnic, historical, psychological or other factors. Dialects differ in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Dialects are also based on regions and this gives rise to different cultures. Zimbabwe has 16 officially recognised languages with Shona being the most widely spoken indigenous languages.


2. Purpose of the study

The study examined the possible out-of-school activities that can be used in the teaching and learning of mathematics at primary school level in Zimbabwe. The following questions were addressed: (a) What are the possible out-of-school activities that can assist primary school mathematics learners? (b) What are the untapped resources learners bring into the mathematics classroom (c) What tension comes about when different cultures are brought into the classroom


3. Theoretical perspectives

This study is based on multiculturalism, ethnomathematics and multilingualism models. Culture includes and is not limited to ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language, geographic origin, leaning manner and abilities and gender [4]. Thus multiculturalism involves all these. Cited in [5] is that bilingual and multilingual education is the use of two or more languages as medium of instruction. According to Benson and Kosonen [6] bilingual/multilingual education is the systematic use of more than one language for instruction and literacy learning. There are three categories of bilingual education identified by [7] which are:

  1. Instruction given in both languages for any part or the entire school;

  2. Instruction is given first in the first language until such a time when the learner is able to use the second language and

  3. The largest part of instruction is given through a second language

3.1 Multiculturalism education

According to [8], culture is a shared frame of reference for interacting with one another and for interpreting the world in which one lives. The common frame of reference includes communication, values, beliefs and interpretations of experience. Culture is reflected in customs, artefacts, rituals and ceremonies, legends, myths and stories. From culture, multicultural arises where people from different cultural groups who are part of same nation come together. There is therefore need to try multicultural approaches in the teaching and learning. Teachers’ attitudes towards cultural diversity become key to motivation and education of leaners in a particular class. Multiculturalism and multilingualism should not necessarily imply disadvantage but should be a resource for teaching and learning. This would then create an environment of multicultural education which can bring marginalised groups into the mainstream. Multiculturalism assist to build empathy, develop open mind, and it becomes a great way of communication through cooperative learning [9].

Multicultural education has dimensions which teachers must be familiar with. These according to [10] include content integration, equity pedagogy, knowledge construction, prejudice reduction and empowering school culture. Content integration involves the use of content and examples from a number of cultures to explain key concepts, principles and theories in a particular subject area being taught. Teaching techniques and strategies should be modified so as to avoid the traditional one size fit all teaching approach. Knowledge construction helps cultural groups to gain knowledge about each other distinct practices by having shared beliefs and practices. Thus the minority and oppressed groups of the society are brought into the mainstream. This is strength because it allows learners to accept their own diverse culture. Along the way, the mind-set of the teachers and learners will change towards collaboration.

3.2 Ethnomathematics

Ethnomathematics acknowledges that there are different ways of doing mathematics by considering different ways in which different cultures negotiate their different practices [11]. Thus ethnomathematics is the art or technique of understanding, explaining and knowing items that make up the cultural identity. This means that all mathematical practices of particular groups that are described by a language are referred to as ethnomathematics. It is clear that traditional people practice mathematics but the challenge is that people believe mathematics is only available within the boundaries of the formal education system. An example is when one wants to construct a rounded kitchen and uses equal strings or sticks to form diameters. Another example is weaving patterns that can be used to teach geometrical concepts such as shapes and lines of symmetry. To note is that the finished product may not be mathematical important but is the planning, structure, imagined shape and abstracting process that are of significance to mathematics education.

Ethnomathematics can only be used effectively if the role of a teacher is re-defined from being an authority and transmitter of mathematical knowledge to a facilitator of the teaching-learning process [12]. The teaching emphasis should then shift from procedural to conceptual understanding. Teaching should be student-centred as opposed to the traditional textbook syndrome which is teacher-centred. Learners then become the active participants instead of passive recipients of information while the teacher builds on the learners’ knowledge they bring from every day experiences.

Wager’s [13] study cited a framework for incorporating cultural and out-of-school practices. The first one is that of out-of-school context where teachers use students’ experiences as a context for word problems. The teacher starts with the mathematics and then finds the context to fit. This framework requires minimal time and it is easy for the teacher to modify his or her lesson. Secondly there is out-of-school activity related to mathematics. The teacher selects what mathematics is in the activity first. An example is when a teacher discovers that learners are interested in drum majorettes and decide to use their marching as a way to calculate distance or their waving of sticks to introduce the concept of parallel lines. The third one is the embedded cultural mathematical practices where the context drives the mathematics. Lastly there is the teacher initiated framework where the teacher develops the activity. This one is suitable for a diverse class but is time consuming and the teacher may find it difficult to link to out-of-school activities.

Matang [12] further reiterates that ethnomathematics provides the necessary linkage between the everyday cultural practices of mathematics and the teaching of the related but abstract concepts found in school mathematics. The principle of teaching from the known to the unknown is automatically catered for. Therefore teachers have a big role to play so that the mathematics classrooms provide an environment where students are able to discuss their own thinking, thus enabling cognitive development to take place according to each learner’s pace. This is only possible if learners use the language they are most comfortable with, using familiar experiences and examples so as to develop conceptual understanding.

On the contrary, some learners may know very little about their traditional culture. The teachers themselves may also have cultural backgrounds different from their students’, thus making it difficult for teachers to make use of cultural backgrounds to facilitate teaching and learning of mathematics. While this is so, Zhang and Zhang [14] see this as an advantage when they highlighted that when mathematics is brought into the classroom by different cultures there are greater chances of learners getting rich background knowledge, sharing results created by people of all ethnic groups, admiring mathematical achievements with different mathematics cultural tradition and understanding how calculating tools influence mathematics and people’s daily life.

Indigenous games also provide learners with opportunities for mastery of skills and practices [15]. The critical element of these games is guided participation. An example is of one Shona game “nhodo”, which was analysed as an indigenous way of knowing and learning numeracy. In this game, each player is expected to throw a stone in the air and then pick one single stone at a time from a hole or drawn circle on the ground before catching the thrown stone. This is repeated until no more stones remain. The stones are returned in the hole and the player repeats the throwing of stone while picking those in the hole in twos, then in threes and so on. In doing so the player learns to count in an orderly manner in an ascending order. The multiplication is also learned as repeated division and as repeated subtraction.


4. Method

Qualitative method was used. Non-participant observations of instructional practices used during the teaching and learning of mathematics at primary school level in Masvingo in Zimbabwe were done. Observation of the instructional practices focused on different cultural activities used by both teachers and learners. Questionnaires and interviews were administered to teachers so as to increase reliability of the results. The questionnaire and interviews were used to get views from the teachers on their experiences when they teach a multilingual and multicultural mathematics class. Four teachers and their classes from four different primary schools each with an average of 40 learners of mixed cultures were observed teaching mathematics over a period of 12 weeks. The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, Heads of Schools and teachers gave their consent before participating in the study.

Purposive sampling of schools was done so as to include private schools that would have learners from different cultures. The primary school teachers were also purposively selected to ensure that they had a minimum of two years’ experience with minimum qualification of a Diploma in Education.


5. Mathematics and culture

Mathematics is viewed as a branch of study that deals with logic, decision-making, deductions, assumptions, precisions, clarity of thought and the ability to solve problems in a calculative manner by following a series of steps [16]. Mathematics language used in everyday experiences shows that all groups of people do mathematics in their own way. Usually learners learn mathematics best if they start from the simple concepts that make use of concrete examples before moving on to abstract concepts. The concrete examples are best taken from the learners’ environment which they see and talk about daily. Mathematics is a language with its own vocabulary and meaning which may differ from that of the English register.

Mathematics is not a culture free discipline and therefore if learning has to take place, cultural differences must be considered. The education system should therefore create a relationship that links cultural heritage of students to the teaching of mathematics.


6. Findings and discussions

Of the four teachers observed teaching, three made use of Shona examples including out-of-school experiences and activities. The teachers used the Shona examples because they themselves were Shona speaking. This was done in classes with Shona speaking, Ndebele speaking, Venda speaking, English speaking and Ndau speaking learners. Although the learners came from different dialects, the majority could speak and understand Shona. Being multilingual does not mean complete understanding of the different cultures. In the process these teachers identified mathematical content embedded in the activities and experiences. It was easier for them to start with the mathematical concept and then find the cultural or out-of-school context to fit in as opposed to identifying the out-of-school activity first then introducing the mathematical content. The researcher discovered that this approach made it easier for teachers to engage learners more. An example was when one of the teachers introduced the formula of area of a rectangle (length + width) times 2, using a mat. The learners had ideas of mats in different forms. Some knew the one carpets made of vinyl or rubber sold in shops while others knew mats made of baobab. Another example was when one of the teachers used beads to explain division and groups or sets. This was a very good example that was appreciated by the majority of learners, not because they knew how to make the beads but that it was an item that was familiar to them. Those who attend the Roman Catholic Church knew what is referred to as ‘rosary’ that is made up of beads and also most women wear these beads. The beads were blocked in groups of fives or tens so as to find out the number of fives or tens from the total number of beads. Those beads with different colours were also used to explain groupings. One teacher used examples from the textbooks which were mostly not so familiar with the Zimbabwean culture. From the questionnaire it was noted that teachers teaching upper grades such as Grade 6 used examples from the prescribed textbooks religiously. The major reason was that examinations are taken from the prescribed texts and syllabi and therefore these teachers are forced to follow the text for students to get used to the system.

Teachers responded that they were afraid of confusing learners if they use more out-of-school activities and experiences. The confusion would come about because of the different cultures in Zimbabwe. What is acceptable in one culture may not be acceptable in the other. Also teachers have to be knowledgeable of the different cultures if they are to make use of these out-of-school examples and activities because the learners have different cultural backgrounds. Lack of knowledge of other cultures can be a source of misunderstanding. From the findings teachers were not sure of the different cultural mathematical knowledge that learners have that could be of assistance during the learning of mathematics. The reason could be that the cultures of the teacher and learners differ. Objects or items are referred to with different names. For example in Ndau, “uswa” means mealie meal while in the other dialects it means grass. Some teachers gave reason of not finding those examples that related to the learner’s environment in the textbooks. They find it difficult to think and link out-of-school activities to mathematical concepts. Another challenge is that the use of artefacts is not an easy task for teachers. An artefact is a representative or witness to the society we live in, of the culture we belong to, of the means and ways of communication that are peculiar to our age. There are so many of these in the environment and teachers just need to put more effort in trying to identify these.

When learners were given work to do in groups, it was noted that they used their familiar languages other than English as they discussed and different examples came from different learners. In some instances, the examples were not familiar to them all and having a common understanding became a challenge. This showed that a lot of resources are available out of the classroom that can be used in the teaching and learning of mathematics. When learners discussed using their own language, they built confidence when communicating with each other and even expressed themselves fully. This in turn gives the learner the right to exercise right of free expression. This is supported by Maseko and Ndlovu [17] who indicated that everyone has a freedom of expression and that each and every cultural group should be afforded the opportunity to practise its own culture, mirrored in its language. The imposition of a foreign language is tantamount to cultural violence and linguistic imperialism. Free expression is only possible when one can freely register one’s ideas and opinions using a language of one’s choice. This justifies the notion that language and culture are interconnected. It was also observed that learners performed better when they were given the chance to use their language during discussions before putting information on paper. The performance was noted when learners were given work to do as individuals after the group discussions. While this was so, there were instances where some learners in groups could not contribute because they could not understand each other and the only way out was to use English. This reflected tension or conflict of cultures. Once there is a multicultural classroom then most likely the social conflict is inevitable and these conflicts should be taken positively. Conflicts are twofold. They can be referred to as problems or disagreements that need to be solved or they can be taken as potentials for learning.

From the questionnaires and interviews, teachers highlighted the benefits of using learners’ cultural experiences. Among these were issues like grasping concepts easily and accommodating experiences coming from the community. The interviews showed clearing that the teachers are aware that they can make use of the leaners cultural activities although they did not use them. They mentioned the following as examples that could be used:

  • ‘Kupura’ (thrashing wheat using long sticks) to teach counting

  • Clearing of the land in preparation of seeding in the fields or garden to illustrate area

  • Sharing of fruits or hereditary items to introduce fractions

  • Fencing or building wall around buildings to illustrate perimeter or area.

  • The game “dunhu” is when two or more people get in the middle of two rows of other people who will be standing parallel to each other. Those outside will throw a ball aiming to hit those inside. The one hit will go out until only one is left. The game continues while counting up to 10.

  • Ceramic or clay pots found in the family hut can be used to explain shapes and volume or capacity. If a person is not hit after the tenth throw, his/her counterparts will re-join the game. This game can be used to teach counting and subtraction.

  • The other game ‘tsoro’ that was highlighted by one respondent can be used to teach addition and subtraction while training learners to do critical thinking. ‘Tsoro’ is played on the ground where 24 holes are created. Two stones are placed in each of the six two inner holes.

From the information, it is clear that teachers are aware that they can use different culture examples to teach mathematics effectively. The major reason they cited for not making use of these is that they do not have any reference point in textbooks and that some are not aware of these out-of-school activities and how they can be linked to mathematics. Also they feel it is time consuming and may not be able to complete the given syllabus. This reflects lack of training in the area of multicultural teaching.

Generally it was noted that it is possible to use cultural or Shona out-of-school activities and experiences to teach and learn mathematics. The major challenge is that not many people are aware of the mathematics that surrounds them and yet mathematics helps in everyday life with a bigger part of people’s lives involving mathematics. For example, mat weaving done by some cultures in Zimbabwe can be used to explain mathematical concepts especially when the process, the pattern, colours and choice of material is explained. This is supported by [18] who emphasised that cultural heritage should be used to connect mathematics to personal experiences of learners. They are not even sure of how to connect out-of-school situations to formal mathematics in schools. All this reflects on the type of curriculum available and its planning.


7. Conclusion

The motivation to carry out the study was a result of realising that most schools in Zimbabwe are now multicultural and that the education system should now take advantage of the cultural diversity. Mathematics lessons were observed over twelve weeks noting instances when both teachers and learners used their individual languages and when out-of-school activities, songs, games or artefacts were used. These were then analysed qualitatively. The theoretical insights of multilingualism, multiculturalism and ethnomathematics were used. A questionnaire and interviews were used to source more data from teachers to complement data noted from observation. The questionnaire included questions that sought examples of out-of-school activities that can be used in the teaching and learning of mathematics and any challenges one may come across. Their views on whether learners benefit from the cultural mathematical knowledge were sought and whether both teachers and learners have informal mathematics or out-of-school activities that can be used during the teaching and learning of mathematics. The study affirms the issues raised by Bishop et al. [19] that mathematical learning process cannot be free from societal influence. Mathematics therefore cannot be taken as abstract and culture free. d’Entremont [20] supports this by highlighting that all cultures are rich in artefacts that exhibit mathematical concepts. While it is possible to use the cultural diversity in the teaching and learning of mathematics, it is not evident from the education system that multiculturalism teaching would be implemented. Also, the teachers are the ones that looked for the different cultural artefacts, activities and games and not the learners. Therefore there are chances of the education system not tapping from the resources the learner brings into the classroom. Also the learners are not very much exposed to a variety of experiences and cultural resources that other learners may bring.

Generally, the study confirms that the use of different cultural languages, games and activities is of importance in the teaching of mathematics. Thus ethnomathematics becomes a necessary tool. While responses indicated that cultural activities and examples can be used, some challenges were highlighted. Firstly, most cultural games, activities and examples are not documented, resulting in only a few teachers making use of them. Secondly, some teachers may fail to link these cultural activities to mathematics. Due to modernisation, some learners may not understand some of the activities. Some of the Shona activities have evolved because of the change in socialisation. New games, songs and activities are developed from the old or borrowed from other communities. Mathematics curriculum is not flexible so as to accommodate ethnomathematical knowledge gained from everyday practices of mathematics as cited by [12].

Lastly, Zimbabwe is a multicultural society with both teachers and learners coming from different cultural backgrounds and this can hinder the use of these examples from the learner’s environment. Though it is possible to use out-of-school activities, games and songs during the teaching and learning of mathematics, it would be recommended that there be written sources with all the possible examples. Teachers should also be trained to use multicultural teaching methods so as to manage learners of cultural diversity. Multiculturalism is unavoidable especially when we live in a global village and therefore teachers should be equipped to teach confidently in cultural responsive manner. This can only be done if the teachers are exposed to others’ culture [21].



The author is very grateful to the Zimbabwe Ministry of Education Sports and Culture for allowing the research to be carried out in their schools. The teacher, Heads of Schools and learners who agreed to participate in this study are very much appreciated. The author is acutely aware that without their participation, this work would not have been possible.


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Written By

Mwangireni Ivy Chikodzi

Submitted: 22 June 2022 Reviewed: 03 August 2022 Published: 30 August 2022