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Kanwal Singh Neel

EdD grad improves aboriginal math skills

May 29, 2008

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By Diane Luckow

During a stint as president of the B.C. Association of Mathematics Teachers, Kanwal Singh Neel discovered that aboriginal student math performance was lower than that of non-aboriginal students in almost every region of the province.

So when Neel, then a Richmond teacher, started a doctorate in education at SFU several years later he focused his thesis research on finding ways to address the problem.

Working closely with members of the Haida Role Model Project and others in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), Kanwal came up with an innovative teaching idea. He figured, "if we could teach mathematics differently — make it community-based and something that carvers, foresters and fishers use, for example — then possibly learning would improve and consequently attitudes would improve."

Kanwal’s hunch proved correct. He found, for example, that Grade 8 and Grade 9 first nations students learned math concepts such as symmetry and congruency more easily when they studied the art on button blankets.

After six weeks of interviews and observation in the community and a year and a half of analysis and writing, Neel came up with 36 different numeracy practices that can be taught using community-based examples.

This June — in addition to convocating
with a PhD in education — he’ll present his research at the World Education Forum in Adelaide, Australia where educators are
keen to know if his research ties in with their local aboriginal needs.

Neel first embarked on his PhD while teaching mathematics in Richmond and then moved to SFU to work full-time as a program coordinator in the education faculty’s professional development program.

He was also busy collaborating on a new textbook series called Math Makes Sense, published by Pearson Canada, in which he shared some of his new ideas "so that we can make some of these changes in how and what we teach in schools."

Now, he says, "I hope to return to the community and try some of these ideas."

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