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Blog post Part of special issue: Practitioner research in mathematics education

Is mathematics the same everywhere? Cultural affordances in mathematics education

Mariam Makramalla, Assistant Professor at NewGiza University

Because of the Covid-19 crisis, the virtual synchronous and asynchronous instructional reality of the mathematics classroom has become more popular when compared to the time prior to the pandemic. While many educators have acknowledged the benefits of this new form of instruction (Alhat, 2020; Posey et al., 2010), to many it also meant the shifting of cultural pedagogical boundaries (Biswas et al., 2020; Makramalla & Tilley, 2022). Scholars have claimed that the classroom pedagogical norms, which – in turn – are part of the wider societal and cultural norms of the environment where the classroom is situated, are more difficult to maintain once the physical boundaries and location of the classroom have shifted (Makramalla & Tilley, 2022).

In this blog post, my aim is to emphasise the culturally laden nature of mathematics instruction, first by pointing out how the contextual situatedness plays a role in the way the teaching and learning experience unfolds; and, second, by pointing out how mathematical teaching and learning constructs vary in their perceived meaning among educators from different cultural contexts. To address the first point, I use the example of a consultancy project, which involved displaced learners being exposed to mathematics instruction outside of their familiar social and cultural context. To address the second point, I use the example of a curricular reform initiative which resulted in challenging teacher beliefs about their perceived meaning of mathematical pedagogical constructs.

Cultural variations in perceived meaning of mathematics

The displacement of many learners due to unrest in their home countries has often resulted in sudden interruptions of some learners’ study plans. Physical classrooms that were usually filled with students that live together in the same neighbourhood often had to be replaced by virtual classrooms where learners from different backgrounds come together to learn about mathematics. At the receiving end, many classrooms had to make space to accommodate displaced learners that often were unfamiliar with the local society and culture of their new peers in their displaced classroom location (Richardson, 2018). With this shift of situatedness came a shift in the experience of the way mathematics was perceived by learners and taught by educators (Richardson, 2018). One interesting case study, that I have been involved in as an educational consultant was with displaced learners between the Ukrainian and the Romanian contexts. Teachers on both sides expressed that it was the subtle cultural associations made to the practice of mathematics across the two groups of learners that made the integration of displaced learners more difficult.

This growing trend of cross-boundary exchange of mathematics teaching and learning experiences necessitates a discussion about whether mathematics education can be considered a globally unanimous practice (Apple, 2012). This brings me to my second point. Having considered how learners might struggle with a pedagogical experience of a mathematics classroom that is alien to their local culture, let us now think of how educators could have different perceptions of mathematics as a subject matter and of the constructs that support the teaching and learning of mathematics.

‘The growing trend of cross-boundary exchange of mathematics teaching and learning experiences necessitates a discussion about whether mathematics education can be considered a globally unanimous practice.’

Cultural variations between mathematics educators

In my recent engagement as an educational scholar with the study of educational curricular reform initiatives, my intention was to explore how educators related to the integration of mathematical teaching and learning constructs that are culturally foreign to a local educator. For example, let us consider the integration of problem-solving in a teaching and learning culture, where the mastery of mathematical procedures is considered of very high value (Makramalla & Stylianides, 2019).

Most teachers in this post-reform context, when briefed about the problem-solving process (Schoenfeld, 2014) expressed a concern that problem-solving could cause anxieties among students. As a result, the integration of problem-solving in the daily classroom was considered to be disruptive to student learning. Most teachers reportedly expressed a preference to play it more ‘safe’ and only include procedural applications in their instruction of mathematics (Makramalla, 2022).

In conclusion

With this in mind, it becomes vital to come together as mathematics education researchers and practitioners around the world to discuss how our cultural heritage affects our understanding of mathematics as a subject matter and how this relative understanding affects our day-to-day practice of mathematics instruction. We also need to consider how much of our daily practice has subtle cultural connotations that we are often unaware of and what we can do so that we can be prepared to face the existing reality of a global classroom.


Alhat, S. (2020). Virtual classroom: A future of education post-Covid-19. International Journal of Education, 8(4),101–116.

Apple, M. (2012). Education and power. Routledge.

Biswas, R., & Nardi, S. (2020). Teaching in virtual classroom: Challenges and opportunities. International Journal of Engineering Applied Sciences and Technology, 5(1), 334–337.

Makramalla, M. (2022). Redefining distance learning for the fourth industrial revolution: Lessons learnt from Egyptian educators. In Brantina Chirinda, Kakoma Luneta, & Alphonse Uworwabayeho (Eds.), The fourth industrial revolution and mathematics education in Africa (pp. 293–306). Springer.

Makramalla, M., & Tilley, E. (2022). Cultural perceptions to the teaching of mathematical problem solving: A case study of a curricular transfer experience between UCL and NGU. British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics. 

Makramalla, M., & Stylianides, A. (2019). The contextual power dynamics in defining and utilizing problem solving tasks: A case study at an Egyptian private school. Eleventh Congress of the European Society for Research in Mathematics Education, Utrecht University.

Posey, G., Burgess, T., Eason, M., & Jones, Y. (2010). The advantages and disadvantages of the virtual classroom and the role of the teacher. In Southwest Decision Sciences Institute Conference (pp. 2–6).   

Richardson, E. (2018). Teachers of refugees: A review of the literature. Education Development Trust.

Schoenfeld, A. (2014). Mathematical problem solving. Academic Press.