Mathematics Education Research Journal

, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 531–553 | Cite as

The role of indigenous traditional counting systems in children's development of numerical cognition: results from a study in Papua New Guinea

  • Rex A. S. Matang
  • Kay OwensEmail author
Original Article


The Government of Papua New Guinea undertook a significant step in developing curriculum reform policy that promoted the use of Indigenous knowledge systems in teaching formal school subjects in any of the country's 800-plus Indigenous languages. The implementation of the Elementary Cultural Mathematics Syllabus is in line with the above curriculum emphasis. Given the aims of the reform, the research reported here investigated the influence of children's own mother tongue (Tok Ples) and traditional counting systems on their development of early number knowledge formally taught in schools. The study involved 272 school children from 22 elementary schools in four provinces. Each child participated in a task-based assessment interview focusing on eight task groups relating to early number knowledge. The results obtained indicate that, on average, children learning their traditional counting systems in their own language spent shorter time and made fewer mistakes in solving each task compared to those taught without Tok Ples (using English and/or the lingua franca, Tok Pisin). Possible reasons accounting for these differences are also discussed.


Ethnomathematics Papua New Guinea Languages and mathematics Elementary schools Ecocultural mathematics Transition to school 



This paper is published posthumously. Following the sudden death of Rex Matang as he was finishing his doctoral studies, Kay Owens has generously taken time to go through his files and find his draft thesis and a draft conference paper, checked data information, and collated a literature review from his files to put this paper together for Rex, using his own words as far as possible.

The research reported here would not have been possible without the kind assistance and generosity of many people in Australia and Papua New Guinea. In particular, Rex wrote, I wish to acknowledge the following individuals and organisations for their untiring support during my data-collection fieldwork undertaken entirely in Papua New Guinea during the 2006 and 2007 academic year.

-The Australian Government for fully funding this research project through the International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (IPRS) administered by the Graduate Research College of Southern Cross University, Lismore Campus, Northern NSW, Australia;

-My principal PhD research supervisor, Professor Bob J. Wright for his valuable insights on all academic- and research-related matters relating to my PhD study;

-All academic advisors and support staff of Graduate Research College, School of Education, and SCU Library for providing all the necessary assistance during my consultation visits to Australia and frequent email contacts while in PNG;

-The Mathematics Department and The Glen Lean Ethnomathematics Research Centre (GLEC) at the University of Goroka for providing the immediate study facilities in conducting the entire research project in PNG as an external PhD research candidate;

-The PNG National Department of Education and its Provincial Divisions of Education for their permission to conduct this research in all the participating provinces and schools;

-All students and teachers in participating elementary and primary schools for sacrificing their time during my school visits to their schools;

-All my immediate and extended family members for the encouragement and valuable physical support in assisting me to travel to some of the most remote schools not accessible by road transport to collect the data for this study;

-ABOVE ALL, I thank the GOOD LORD for being the source of ALL wisdom and knowledge and His unending protection and guidance during all my research fieldwork in PNG travelling to some of the remote schools on foot and by road, sea, and air transport.


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Copyright information

© Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia, Inc. 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Southern Cross UniversityLismoreAustralia
  2. 2.The Glen Lean Ethnomathematics CentreUniversity of GorokaGorokaPapua New Guinea
  3. 3.Charles Sturt UniversityDubboAustralia

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