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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

Helping Teachers of Mathematics Integrate the Knowledge and Culture of Families Into Their Practice 

FINE Newsletter, Volume VIII, Issue 2
Formula for Success: Engaging Families in Early Math Learning

Todos Mathematics for ALL! logo

TODOS: Mathematics for ALL (TODOS) is an international professional organization that advocates for equity and high-quality mathematics education for all students, particularly those who are Latino or Latina. By offering math educators high-quality professional development opportunities—through webinars, in-person conferences, publications, and online resource banks—TODOS helps educators establish equitable, rigorous, and coherent mathematics programs in their classrooms. 

Harvard Family Research Project had an opportunity to speak with Diane Kinch, president of TODOS, and Marta Civil, vice president of TODOS and a professor of mathematics education at the University of Arizona, to talk about ways to develop and support mathematics educators to engage families in their teaching practices. Below are four interrelated ideas that persist throughout their work:  



    photo of mom helping her preschool son with math

    boy making a puzzle 
    photo of boy building block tower
  1. Mathematics is cultural.
    Mathematics is often viewed as a discipline, consisting of correct numbers, formulas, and algorithms that exist in a vacuum, without consideration of language, culture, and time. For this reason, mathematics is sometimes equated with intelligence in our society—that there are abstract ideas and symbols that people either grasp or don’t. Consequently, mathematics is often used as a gatekeeper in schools and applied to sort those who succeed and those who don’t. What TODOS helps mathematics teachers understand is that mathematics is an activity that exists largely outside of school, and it involves interactions among people in a community, based in part on their values, beliefs, and culture. Families, in particular parents who have been schooled outside the U.S., are likely to bring different ways to do mathematics. For example, families might use a comma, instead of a period, to indicate decimals.  Differences might also extend beyond simple functions.  For example, families might view that the long division algorithm traditionally taught in the U.S. is “inefficient” because students should be able to do the subtraction in their head. When designing initiatives for family engagement in mathematics, it is important that both schools and families are aware of these cultural differences and learn about and from them. 

  2. Families have many mathematical strengths and are assets for their children.
    Too often research on mathematics and low-income families compares mathematics practices between families from upper- and lower-income homes. Results of these studies often conclude that families from low-income homes don’t do as many math activities with their children as upper-income families do, or that the ideas they present are not as complex. TODOS helps teachers set aside these ideas, and instead, develop the disposition of being able to look into all communities and understand what they are doing, and the strengths that they do have.

  3. Mathematics exists in myriad ways in the everyday lives of families in their home and community.
    Teachers of mathematics need to understand the ways that families use mathematics concretely in their everyday lives. This can range from calculating gas mileage to identifying geometry in folded art designs. Based on the funds of knowledge approach—an approach that argues for putting the knowledge residing in the family and community at the foreground of children’s learning and school educational experiences—teachers need to take time and build mutual trusting relationships with families to uncover and recognize how math is situated in their lives. Although this can be done through holding family mathematics workshops, inviting families into classrooms, and going on home visits, what is most critical is that teachers become embedded in the community in which they teach, and take the time to truly recognize mathematics and schooling through parents’ eyes. What questions do parents have that they want heard? What does math dialogue between children and families feel and sound like? This knowledge can then serve as the foundation for curriculum in the classroom, and also, for reaching out to families to expand their mathematical knowledge and repertoire for supporting their children’s learning. 

  4. Learning is most powerful when families, students, and teachers are co-learners.
    Teachers are best served if they develop the mindset that everyone is a mathematics learner. Whether parent, student, teacher, or researcher, every person has his or her own values and beliefs about what “counts” as mathematics and how it should be taught and learned. There are a number of creative approaches for teachers to explore different beliefs in a constructive way. One way this can be done is through tertulias, or get-togethers, where groups of families and teachers, without a power hierarchy, can talk about math and discuss not only the content of problems, but their values, and reasoning behind them. These types of opportunities are also ways for families to build networks among one another to support children’s math learning in the community. Another approach is for teachers to host parent panels to hear their students’ parents discuss their view about mathematics and their expectations for their children’s education. Teachers can also invite parents into their classrooms and ask the parents—and their children—to share their personal experiences with using math in everyday life. A final, particularly immersive approach is for teachers to be placed in a situation where they experience “difference” in mathematics, for example by learning about algorithms from other parts in the world, or by participating in a mathematics class in a language other than English.

SNAPSHOT Contributors:

Margaret Caspe is a senior research analyst at Harvard Family Research Project.

Laura Alves is a research assistant at Harvard Family Research Project and holds an Ed.M. in Education Policy and Management from Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Related Resources:

This resource is part of the May 2016 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit To subscribe to the FINE Newsletter, please visit our subscription center

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