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Teaching algorithms through kente cloth: a case for Culturally-Situated Educational Software

By Lindsay Poirier on May 21, 2012


For the past year, I have been participating in research on how software, cultural design, and creative production can be used to teach kids mathematics. There’s quite a bit there, so let me break it down.

The whole concept stemmed from the work of Dr. Ron Eglash, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Eglash’s work is centered on the idea that indigenous groups incorporate mathematical algorithms into their design work. This can be seen everywhere – transformational geometry in African cornrows, four-fold symmetry in Native American beadwork; there are even elements of rotation and trigonometry in Urban break-dancing.

The crafters of these artifacts may not label their work with math terms simply because they do not recognize it as math. However, the thought processes needed to create the designs are essentially the same as the thought process needed to solve any math problem. Crafters have an innate understanding of the mathematics behind their work; they need it in order to be able to construct their designs well.

The software that we develop simulates the mathematical thought process that goes into design, all while enhancing a student’s intrigue by relating it to their culture. It consists of different design tools, each representing a certain artifact from a region of the world. Students are challenged with virtually recreating the artifact by experimenting with values and positioning of objects on a grid. In doing so, they gain practice that helps them develop the instinctive mathematical thought process that goes into design work.

A recent focus of the research has been placed on kente cloth design in Ghana. Kente cloth weavers instinctively use certain algorithms to produce the geometric designs that you see in the cloth. Our goal is to simulate this algorithmic thinking in the learning software by having students enter coordinates and iteration values in order to place thread patterns on a grid. The students experiment with the different inputs, eventually producing their own virtual cloth.

In July, we will be traveling to Kumasi, Ghana for one month to test the software out with students in a local elementary school. We will also be interviewing kente cloth weavers to get a better understanding of how they develop their algorithms. During our time there, we are hoping to discover ways to improve the software – ways to make it more honestly depict kente cloth design and ways to better simulate the thought processes that go into it. Most importantly, though, we are hoping to gain feedback on how this approach to math education is benefiting student learning.

I joined this research group because I really appreciate this approach to delivering education through technology in developing countries. Rather than implanting educational software that has been useful in other parts of the world, it focuses on design in a culturally specific way. This makes learning a lot more meaningful for students. They can relate to it and understand why it’s important. At the same time, they develop instinctive mathematical thought processes that they may need in a career. I’m excited to see how it works out in the local setting.

If you’re interested in hearing more about our research, please feel free to email me at [email protected].


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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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One Comment to “Teaching algorithms through kente cloth: a case for Culturally-Situated Educational Software”

  1. John Hawker says:

    This is a great story, for years I have been talking to any visiting software mate how the ladies who make silk woven cloth in my village are really “Programmers”

    I wish I could add photo’s here to show what I mean, but when you do Thai Dying the traditional way, by tying knots in silk that is wound up, then dying it, then unraveling it, then weaving it in a totally different direction, the weaver knows exactly what pattern she will create at the time of tying those knots.

    One programer I explained my theory too not only agreed, but also pointed out I wasn’t the first to notice this, but it’s also believed that weavers have been involved in early calculation devices.

    I need to call him now for references.

    Great article!