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Aboriginal early numeracy: Recognising and accommodating different starting points in number

Project Title

Aboriginal early numeracy: Recognising and accommodating different starting points in number

Project Coordinators

Dr Sandra Frid, Ms Kaye Treacy (Steps Professional Development)



Funding Agency SiMERR WA



Previous work has shown that some Aboriginal children are able to solve, without counting, what from a Western perspective are 'counting' tasks. This finding indicates that the nature of some early numeracy teaching and assessment activities being used in classrooms may be culturally inappropriate for some Aboriginal children. They may not build upon the children's ways of interpreting and functioning within their environments, and in this way do not effectively support or enhance their mathematics learning.


This project aimed to investigate the strategies Aboriginal children use in situations considered to be 'counting' situations from a western perspective; in particular, to see how Aboriginal children solve a problem where they are asked to make an equivalent set.
Eighteen Aboriginal students, in Years 1 to 11 at a remote community school in the Goldfields of WA, participated in task-based interviews based on 'counting' tasks. The tasks involved: fetching 'maku' (bardie grubs) to have enough to give all the people in a picture a maku; identifying a hidden quantity when a part of a collection of maku are covered; and standard counting tasks. The tasks were developed with, and the interviews conducted by, an Aboriginal Research Assistant, to ensure appropriate cultural and language contexts.
A main finding, from a Western perspective, was that most of the students did not choose to use counting to make equivalent sets, instead using what seemed to be a process of 'estimation', even though they were able to count. That is, the students regularly fetched a quantity of maku that was 'close' to what was needed, rather then counting.

Benefits to Rural and Regional Education

To support the numeracy development of Aboriginal children from a perspective that is culturally appropriate, it is essential that teachers and curriculum developers understand the ways these children interpret the purpose of numbers and counting. For example, Western perspectives and school curricula value and emphasise exact numbers and accuracy when counting with relatively small numbers. Others might not share these values and related skills, or they might have different yet equally valid means of achieving the same end.
The findings of this project indicate there is a need to develop activities that explicitly recognise, value and cater for the differing ways in which children interpret their experiences both in and out of school. While the breadth of this project does not cater for the diversity present across Aboriginal cultures in Australia, it nevertheless provides a valuable 'snapshot' of one community's approaches to numeracy.

Contact Dr Sandra Frid