The Cultural Implications Of Pseudocontext

Gail, blowing my mind:

This is what textbooks publishers and teachers seem to think is an authentic way to address the struggles of First Nations students (and other ethnic groups) with mathematics. It is important that students be able to “see” themselves in the resources and in the classroom, but the assumption is that this picture, with the highly culturally-stripped question, is somehow worth a check mark in that column. There is great significance in the dance, the dress, and even what the jingles might be made of, yet none of that is mentioned. Instead, all that’s done with it is to make an excuse for doing some Western mathematics.

Tyler Rice, likewise:

A majority of my students are American Indian. Many of them do travel to pow-wows and participate — some dance jingle. I know them well enough to guess what their reaction to this would be. They are culturally savvy enough to see when someone is “culture dropping.” Believe me, I tried it a few times my first couple of years. Can you say lead balloon? My guess is that this would actually be more of a distraction for my students than anything. In fact, some might find it mildly offensive in that a textbook has taken something culturally significant and distilled it down to “who has more cones?”

Pseudocontext is always an unforced error. Math, itself, is always available for context.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. This is even an issue in Western culture when teaching science and math to young women. I’m embarrassed to say that when I first started working at an all-girls school, I began filling my example problems with Susans and Emilys because I thought that was the thing to do. And very quickly, my savvy students called me on it. The gender of the person sliding down the frictionless hill is meaningless and having every name be female is just as ridiculous as having every name as male. The young women I teach want intellectually challenging problems, not artificial attempts to engage their interest through a weak appeal to their gender.

  2. cantor's nightmare

    October 5, 2010 - 4:20 pm -

    An interesting example of pseudo-context is given by Richard Feynman in his excellent autobiography “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman”. He recounts his experience of being part of a committee choosing new mathematics books for his local education department. Here is the part relevant to pseudocontext:

    Finally I come to a book that says, “Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars.” I turn the page, and it says, “Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . .” — so far, so good. It continues: “Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number).” There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It’s vaguely right — but already, trouble! That’s the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don’t quite understand what they’re talking about, I cannot understand. I don’t know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

    Anyway, I’m happy with this book, because it’s the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I’m a bit unhappy when I read about the stars’ temperatures, but I’m not very unhappy because it’s more or less right — it’s just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, “John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?” — and I would explode in horror.

    My wife would talk about the volcano downstairs. That’s only an example: it was perpetually like that. Perpetual absurdity! There’s no purpose whatsoever in adding the temperature of two stars. Nobody ever does that except, maybe, to then take the average temperature of the stars, but not to find out the total temperature of all the stars! It was awful! All it was was a game to get you to add, and they didn’t understand what they were talking about. It was like reading sentences with a few typographical errors, and then suddenly a whole sentence is written backwards. The mathematics was like that. Just hopeless!

    I highly recommend reading the whole book, or at least the section this is taken from: