A common thread

For as long as anyone can remember, women around the world have knitted and sewn for peanuts while men have profited from their labour. It has been assumed that women are not natural mathematicians, yet "women's work" such as fabricating geometrical textiles or weaving tapestries involves a complex, intuitive understanding of mathematics.

In her pioneering book, Common Threads: Women, Mathematics and Work (Trentham Books, 1977), the feminist educationist Mary Harris argues that women are very mathematically gifted. Inspired by Harris's work, Dympna McGahern, co-ordinator for ethnic minority achievement at Hornsey School for Girls, north London, and maths teacher David Kaplan, brought these two normally disparate subjects together to create a series of key stage 3 maths lessons based on African fabrics and pattern making. The intention was to raise interest and achievement in maths among ethnic minority pupils. McGahern was impressed by that fact that Harris asks why maths is difficult for everyone to learn. Maths has always been labelled highbrow, but it is also often taught out of a context that children can understand, she argues. Hornsey is a typical London school: 11 per cent of students are from refugee communities and 16 per cent are of African heritage; 60 per cent are bilingual. McGahern says: "The bilingual children are excluded by language, and the black African heritage children are excluded culturally. Since maths is perceived as a high status subject, it's no wonder there are problems with under-achievement." She is keen to challenge ethnocentricity in the national curriculum and to introduce practical teaching that stems from real life situations. "I attribute under-achievement to the lack of a rich, global approach to teaching. The pressures on teachers mean that this kind of work is pushed out. At least at key stage 3 there is some room for manoeuvre."

The Hornsey maths project initially grew out of an African art exhibition. Kaplan borrowed bronzes, masks, carved chests, musical instruments, jewellery and a huge range of West African fabrics from a teacher who had lived in West Africa. "It was evident that geometrical shapes and tessellation were a strong feature in these pieces, and this sparked the idea for the geometry lessons," says McGahern. Between spring and summer 2001 McGahern used African cultural artefacts to create six lessons and one personal social education lesson based on an old Open University video about South African Ndebele art - Ndebele women are internationally renowned for their boldly coloured geometrical murals which they paint on houses and churches.

The Hornsey maths worksheets incorporate photocopies of the decorative designs on artefacts ranging from mats to mosaics from every African country, and these are used to teach students about line symmetry, rotational symmetry etc. "I picked some lovely patterns focusing on texture, material and colour in order to show the richness of artefacts," says McGahern. At the time, Hornsey had a number of Congolese refugee students who spoke limited English, so photocopies of 18th century Congolese fabrics from the British Museum were included. Pupils use mirrors to find the lines of symmetry in designs, rotate motifs to learn about rotational symmetry, and use pictures of Ndebele walls to learn about mirror images. Children make their own rotation patterns using African designs for homework. "The students concentrated really hard," says McGahern. "The lessons gave high profile to the African heritage students, and cross-curricular links were reinforced."

McGahern went on to win a Millennium Award to work as a global teacher in South Africa where she looked at enrichment of the materials for her African geometry project.

Tel: Dympna McGahern on 020 8348 6191 for more about her lesson pack

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