Language, Culture & Math

I just spent the last 3 days at a Summer Academy for Purposeful Math Planning. I was very intrigued when we were discussing number sense and the need to become more flexible with numbers and how we use them in our world. Only one person brought up the issue of culture and how numbers are perceived. It really gave me pause to deeply consider the impact our culture has on how we perceive math as well. Particularly in the areas of spatial sense.

In the article ‘Does Your Language Shape How You Think’ by Guy Deutscher, I was really drawn in when I read that speakers of geographic languages appear to have almost superhuman senses of orientation, and simply ‘feel’ where the directions are. I couldn’t help but consider how language has deep connections to visual and spatial sense and how we ultimately perform – especially with English when used in our Eurocentric, settler based curriculum.

As the article said:

The convention of communicating with geographic coordiates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives, and to develop an accurate memory of their own changing orientations at any given moment”.

The language we use compels our students to pay attention to different cues in the environment. Our language thus shapes our habits in ways that make our spatial understandings feel like second nature.

I was struck by the fact that different languages lend themselves to different languages of space. Some languages explore directions from a more egocentric point of view – ie., directions given in relation to ourselves, whereas others are more geographically oriented. This may not sound like a big deal, until you consider how deeply language shapes our realities and how we perceive and learn about the world around us depending upon the language we have learned.

More questions I have include:

What ‘habits of mind’ form due to the spatial language that we use?

How is our ability to succeed in math class affected by our language?

What if the instructions we give in say a math class is what is preventing a student from understanding instructions?

What about our English Language Learners who may be confused based on instructions that are more egocentric or more geographic?

Do we assume that the student has learning difficulties?

Also, what happens when we are trained via language to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory?


This is another example in the article that was very powerful to me – basically, if I walked into an adjoining hotel room that is opposite of mine, I might see an exact replica of my own room. However, if my friend who spoke a more geographical language walked into my room, they would not see an exact replica – rather they really would see that everything is reversed, and would have the language to describe that. This has big implications therefore in how we commit events to memory, recall them, solve problems, and critically think about the world around us.

The language we use compels our students to pay attention to different cues in the environment Our language thus shapes our habits in ways that make our spatial understandings feel like second nature.  It therefore will compel our students to think differently about math.

We make so many decisions each and every day about the world around us – so much of this is spatial. We just simply don’t know our language and habits impact our ability to succeed in math.

We really are at the center of our own worlds. If we determine that subjects like math are linear and one-dimensional, with set algorithms and languages to describe, know and understand, then we are absolutely missing the worlds of many of our students. To dismiss language, culture and our identities of our students could very well mean the difference of success and achievement vs failure.


Deborah McCallum


Socially Transforming the Classroom

What does it mean to be normal? How can we tell if new and innovative tasks and pedagogies are truly authentic – or just considered authentic because it fits into our privileged views of what normal is?
Innovation. New Pedagogies. Digital literacies. 21st Century Learning Skills. How do we make sure we are not just perpetuating the same values, ideas, knowledge, experiences etc. of dominant culture?

Education is essential to empower those who are ‘othered’, or oppressed.

Oppression exists across many different axes in our schools and society, and includes (but not limited to) sexism, racism, classism, heterosexualism, gender and more. How these axes intersect very much depends on the social dynamics of any given context. But white, male, settler privilege continues to prevail as dominant culture. While we all experience oppression and privilege across different axes, our public education system is harmful to those who are oppressed.

Sometimes, we see the ‘oppressed’ as ‘not normal’.

What is normal?

It is the way we think people ‘ought’ to be. It is the way we think things ‘ought’ to be. It involves what we choose to include and not to include in our curriculum, which leads to the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum leads to exclusion, invisibility, marginalization and more.

We simply cannot afford to continue to make assumptions that our students are all ‘normal’, or should fit in to the normal.

We simply cannot afford to assume that our innovations, new pedagogies, digital literacies 21st, century learning skills, etc., could do anything but promote dominant cultures of privilege. Critically thinking about our worldviews around our innovations is essential. My hope would be that new innovations and new pedagogies etc., will help us to promote equality, and not privilege. But this is really hard work.

Oppression also goes beyond our ideas and knowledge, values etc., but also spills over into our physical environments.

I think about all of the structures and policies around us in our educational settings, and how they promote oppression. One thing that I think about is ‘lates’, and policies to deter students arriving late to school. Perhaps this shouldn’t matter if we are demonstrating empathy and understanding of the needs of families and learners, ie., not assuming that being late equals laziness. This just reminds me of that white, male, privileged, protestant work ethic. Therefore, the practices for deterring lates can lead to shame, and further oppression that perpetuates schools as harmful places for those who may already be oppressed.

I also think about how to create welcoming environments. What do parents see when they drop their kids off at school? There are pylons, people on duty and signs. Signs telling us not to enter, not to park. I understand this is all for student safety, but for those already oppressed by the school system, it can feel quite intimidating. At the front door, there are many signs on the front door. You must buzz in for permission, you must sign in, maybe the Principal doesn’t say hello, there may even be a sign telling parents to stay out of the hallway. There are no spaces/rooms for parents to welcome them in a neutral space in the school.

All of this can feel unwelcoming, and can further oppress those who may not already feel trust and safety with our schools. Even though the majority of education workers are just trying to do our best, and do what we believe is ‘right’. We just don’t yet understand what or how to promote equality, and help make schools truly ‘safe’ for the ‘other’, and not just the privilege.


I am not sure that we have the services and supports available to help educators and learners handle the emotions that go along with changing one’s worldview.

This means we have to unlearn what we have previously learned as normal. This can be very upsetting. Our privilege is disguised as authenticity. It means that we may have to have others help us to ‘check’ our innovations, and make sure that we our ideas are not disguised as authentic. Therefore, we often unknowingly promote racism, sexism, classism, heterosexualism and

Guiding Questions:

What would it look like if we could have spaces in our learning environments that are supportive, empowering, with lots of information available?

How can we incorporate home cultures into our classrooms and pedagogies that are culturally sensitive, and culturally relevant?

What strategies serve to create culture of power for the ‘other’, so that they can understand themselves better. Beyond merely seeing them reflected in their teachers and other education staff.

How can we make sure that our New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, and Innovations are not promoting white, male, straight, settler perspectives that continue to oppress the ‘other’.

What if we changed the idea of what it means to teach? Without perpetuating dominant culture? 

How can we integrate the curriculum?

How can we understand that the curriculum is more than a document we follow.

In what ways am I privileged? In what ways am I oppressed?

What is my worldview? How can I change it?

What are the implications of answering these questions?
Deborah McCallum

The impact of Innovation on Power & Privilege

Innovation is truly an evolution of ideas. It is so much more than the great ideas that spring from our ‘aha’ moments. I think that we are in the midst of an evolution of old ways of doing things in the library, toward new models of meeting new demands, exploring new ways of allowing ideas and knowledge to be shared. But we don’t really know what that looks like yet. We try new things, celebrate successes, learn from mistakes, and understand that what succeeds in one environment won’t necessarily succeed in another.

But what I really think is important to focus on, is how Innovation evolves depending on the privilege and power status of those trying to innovate, and in the populations that we are serving.

If we are content where we are and what we are doing, why would we care about power & privilege issues? How do we listen to ALL voices when we innovate, and not just those that enhance our own power and privilege? We are socialized to measure our self-worth in the ways that our leaders and other roles of authority deem important and respond to the most. The most privileged become part of the agenda that leads all innovation. Why would we care about others if our own agenda benefits us so perfectly?

The following are just a few ideas that can be explored as we consider all voices in the evolution of innovation:

  • Ensuring fair strategies to tap into the perspectives, knowledge and practices of ALL educators, not just the ones most similar
  • Consult all voices in strategies that help innovation to evolve
  • Engaging community with activities that build solidarity and help all deal with learning processes more effectively
  • Build and promote empathy with all interactions
  • Building empathy for your own pain so that you can better see it in others.


Empathy and building of meaningful relationships will be at the helm of new ideas. But this also means that those who are ‘more well liked’, will be the ones whose ideas will be privileged enough to move forward.

By contrast, we can also consider the saying ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. How you may ‘want’ to innovate will simply not work if your school or community is against it, or if it is perceived as a threat, a barrier to the current status quo. With this in mind, the less power and privilege you have, the greater the risk involved with your innovation strategy.

Can we at the same time continue to provide the services that have always worked, in addition to taking more risks and making changes? Is it possible for all voices to be heard?

Do you have any strategies for balancing power and privilege as it pertains to innovation?


Deborah McCallum

c 2015



Play for Innovative and Resilient Learners


Innovation through ‘Play’ is essential for all students. It promotes a growth mindset and is inclusive of all student values, identities, voices and cultures. This includes all students with FNMI backgrounds. When learners can engage in play, their potential for learning will dramatically increase. A big part of this is because play not only has the ability to connect all aspects of a student’ life, but it is a the heart and soul of innovation.

We  can incorporate play into our learning environments through creating time and space for innovation and play.

It is increasingly essential for educators to help learners to be in constant pursuit of innovation. This includes helping students to understand how to locate and access the appropriate resources that will enhance and promote the learning experience. Educators can help students, including our FNMI students, to become innovators, to make sense of our world in the 21st Century. We can do this by:

  • Allowing time for PLAY!!
  • Helping students to set appropriate goals
  • Continually assessing and reassessing goals
  • Reflecting and thinking about goals.
  • Locating, Accessing, and properly using important resources.
  • Identifying Student Values

Our students come to the classroom with values, experiences, cultures and knowledge that is essential to their learning. If we over-identify with the classroom itself as the primary environment for learning, this will marginalize other wonderful aspects of a students life. Play is a great way to help promote identity, values and voices of our students. Then we can innovate to help them integrate learning into important knowledge, culture and experiences that they live with.

Educators play a large role in by helping students create balance by:

  • Helping students to set priorities in their lives.
  • Supporting a balance between school-life and home life.
  • Facilitating learning opportunities that help students to process and examine important topics in society.
  • Enabling students to identify and understand explicitly what is important to the student in his or her own life.
  • Providing time for students to Play and Innovate.
  • Promoting Personal Safety

It behooves our students to be able to reason, look at all viewpoints, consider options, and know how to ask for help. Educators can help students to set priorities, make plans, but also to be flexible and adaptable to sudden changes. For this to happen, students also need to feel safe to try new things, safe to take risks, and safe to be themselves.Educators can facilitate this by acknowledging all of the important variables that affect student safety, and how they effectively learn in our Schools. These include:

  • FNMI connections, culture and knowledge
  • Ethnicity
  • Culture
  • Gender
  • Family
  • Relationships
  • Time for play
  • Time for innovation
  • Poverty
  • Special Needs

Caring and dedicated Educators can be aware of, and proactive, to promoting equality and understanding within the classroom. This is also essential to spurring on innovation!

Certainly, many new changes exist as our ever-changing workforce continues to change to meet new cultural norms and expectations, including globalization. The experiences that students will face during key developmental years, will play large roles in helping our students to develop their own self-esteem, skills, and careers. Helping children to integrate school work and play together in a continuous and fluid manner is one way to achieve these goals.

This is very similar to helping individuals to integrate their life roles together through work and play later on down the road.

Right to Play  is a powerful organization that strives to engage students, spark innovation, and also promote healthy communities.On May 10 I watched them give a powerful presentation about how we can use play to overcome poverty, conflict and disease in disadvantaged communities. Research has indicated strong links between playful adaptability in children and characteristics including creativity, innovation, spontaneity, personal success, goal achievement, sense of humour, competence and resilience! These have always been important aspects of FNMI cultures.

Further, all of the aspects are also essential in the workplace, (and a shame that many of us as adults of have lost touch with these fun aspects of life!)

Teachers can strike an optimal balance within the classroom by setting aside time for play and innovation.If individuals have not gained adaptability skills in their youth, this will undoubtedly affect future resilience, acceptance, growth, and the ability to adapt to an ever changing world. The future of Canada and Canada’s economy also will be stronger with more resilient students. I am very privileged to be a part of such powerful PLN’s that support Innovation and Play in learning.


Deborah McCallum


© Deborah McCallum and Big Ideas in Education, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Deborah McCallum and Big Ideas in Education with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

5 Considerations for Welcoming Environments in our Schools


Fostering welcoming environments in education is essential for improving learning and engagement. Schools can help acknowledge students by representing their cultural diversity. This can be done by embedding cultural symbols, and practices into our buildings, classrooms, and online environments that serve to help make students and parents feel welcome and important.

However, it is a challenge to continually create Welcoming Environments in our schools.

Educators are faced with increasing demands surrounding school report cards, test scores being linked to school funding, and demands for increased accountability for educators and students. Educators, parents, and students often feel overwhelmed, and forget that creating a welcoming environments can be the most powerful tool in our quest to improve student learning.

The following 5 categories are important when considering how to create welcoming environments within your education contexts:

  • Ongoing, and Open communication
  • Physical Environment
  • Practices and Policies
  • Personal Interaction
  • Written Materials and Communications


1. Ongoing, and open communication with parents is crucial.

Parents and families of different cultures and special needs, warrant extra communication to foster a feeling of being welcome in our schools and Classrooms. Whether parents are requesting this communication, or whether extra communication is warranted to further engage students and support their learning. Communication is perhaps the number 1 role of an educator. Though more personalized communication is best done in person, there are aspects of communication that can be met via 21st century technologies. For instance, email, blogs, webpages, wikis etc., are all useful tools to support the communication that already exists, and can provide tools, links, and symbols to integrate and share valuable information.  But this should never replace place of person-to-person communication and real-life, real-time interactions that are absolutely necessary to engaging our students.

Parents, staff, community, and students will only become invested in their schools if they feel invited and welcome, and believe that the teacher is willing to reach out to communicate the families, and integrate culture into the process.

Welcoming environments can be created and improved upon by attending to the P© Deborah McCallum and Big Ideas in Education, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Deborah McCallum and Big Ideas in Education with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.hysical Environment, School Practices and Policies, Personal Interaction, and Written Materials and Communications. Here are just a few ideas that can be used:

2. Physical Environment:

  • Embed Culturally significant symbols, ie., Medicine Wheel, 7 Grandfather Teachings, Dream Catchers, into hallways, classrooms, offices, libraries, websites & blogs, social media ie., School Twitter account.

3. Practices and Policies:

  • Promote strong sense of Community, Culture & Caring Policies. Co-create them and post them on school websites.
  • Continually refer to these co-created rules on blogs and other forms of social media.
  • Restorative Practices explained on social media and web-based platforms.
  • Character education models
  • 21st Century Technologies and digital citizenship policies
  • Involving Parents in decision making perhaps through Google-Docs surveys or other assessment tools
  • Online Parent Groups

4. Personal Interaction:

Calling parents, setting up regular meetings, and engaging in open communication with families, whether explicitly requested, or due to the necessity to engage all learners, cultures and special needs.

  • Catching parents after school to touch base. It doesn’t take much to make families of all cultures and special needs feel welcome and included.
  • Leaders in the school working on teambuilding with technologies to bring staff together & recognize accomplishments;
  • Co-create and share visions at Staff meetings by brainstorming key ingredients of a Welcoming Environment, include the ideas on a website or blog.
  • Do the same with parent groups;
  • Staff as friendly and inviting to students, staff, and parents, and then inviting them into this digital school community as well.
  • Call parents!  Set up regular meetings, and engaging in open communication with families, whether explicitly requested, or due to the necessity to engage all learners, cultures and special needs.
  • Make it a general rule to talk positively at school about students, families, cultures, and special needs. There is nothing that will make a family feel more unwelcome, and disrespected, then to know that they and the students are being spoken of in negative ways. The world is a very small place. What is said usually does get back around, so make it positive and helpful!
  • Put yourself in the position of a learner, and not an ‘Expert’.  To help families and their children feel welcome, realise that they are in fact equal partners, and equal experts in the process of educating their children. Be open to learning new things with each new classroom and each new student that comes into your care!
  • Personally research the cultures and special needs that you are working with. One cannot assume that the learning that occurred in a University Degree will be applicable to the current situation. Teachers are wonderful and welcoming, because they are equals with the parents and community. They appreciate the diversity of all students, and are real champions of those who have historically experienced more prejudice, racism, bias, and un-preferential treatment.

5. Written Materials and Communications:

  • Regular Classroom & School Newsletters, Phone calls, meetings, in whatever format the parents and community wants or needs. Not all people have internet access! Not all parents check their email!
  • Classroom & School Websites
  • Recognize parent & community volunteers
  • Write articles about staff members, volunteers & students
  • Parent Handbooks
  • Twitter Feeds
  • School Facebook Page
  • Evernote
  • Dropbox
  • Ministry Learning Management Systems
  • Telephone answering machine messages
  • And always remembering to limit educational jargon, and write communications at a 6thto 8th grade reading level
  • Good Old Fashioned person-to-person communication with the families in need!


All parents and families need to feel welcome, and understood in order to increase engagement and Learning. Welcoming environments can be created by attending to the needs of different cultures and special needs, and keeping the lines of communication open. It is when these lines of communication and strategies to welcome all types of learners break down , that students and families lose trust and faith in the school system, and disengage from the education process.  For populations including First Nations, Metis & Inuit, the experiences of the Residential school system, and residual effects of this system still exist with our FNMI students today. The last Residential School shut down in the 1990’s.  We need to strive to create welcoming environments, and create school systems where families feel safe to learn and grow.




Seeing your school as others see it.: Welcoming Environments.

© Deborah McCallum and Big Ideas in Education, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Deborah McCallum and Big Ideas in Education with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.