About Maths, Naturally!

What is Maths, Naturally!

Maths, Naturally! is a bilingual maths method for the first four years of primary school (starting at kindergarten level). It was designed together with teachers, parents and village authorities of indigenous and Maroon communities in the interior of Suriname. The method is currently used in six villages in Suriname: four indigenous communities (Galibi, Donderskamp, Powakka and Washabo) and two Maroon villages (Jaw – Jaw and Kayapaati). It is also used in schools and public centers in Mexico.

Maths, Naturally! is a collaboration between the Rutu Foundation, the Association of Indigenous Village Leaders in Suriname (VIDS), the Association of Saamaka Authorities (VSG) and the Roman Catholic School Board (RKBO).

Who designed Maths, Naturally!?

The team that has designed the method consists of Hans Hensen (author), Els Terlien (supervisor), Julie Sutton (graphic design), Carla Madsian (coordination/text editor), Ellen-Rose Kambel (coordination), Greta Pane-Kiba (teacher), education consultants from the Roman Catholic School Board, and local illustrators.

Hans Hensen has written over 25 math and science books for secondary education in the Netherlands. Together with the Amstel Institute, which forms part of the University of Amsterdam and with the Comenius College in Hilversum, he developed the didactic concept of ‘Maths, Naturally!’. This concept has been tested with positive results in several schools in the Netherlands.

Els Terlien is connected with the Hogeschool Utrecht and specializes in numeracy education for young children. In 2010 she received a royal honor for her contribution to numeracy education in the Netherlands.

What makes Maths, Naturally! special?

  • Maths, Naturally! is a new maths method based on maths education from different countries, including the Netherlands and Singapore. The method is based on the assumption that students’ skill in certain math techniques will fade over time if they do not repeat the exercises regularly. To prevent this, ‘Maths, Naturally!’ is divided into two equal parts. Part A is taught during the first semester and covers all aspects of the curriculum, including addition, subtraction and proportions. Part B is taught during the second semester, during which the exercises from part A are repeated and extended. In this way, the material is more likely to take root.
  • An essential part of the project is that the teachers themselves are involved in the design of the material. They indicate whether certain tasks are clear and whether the illustrations fit well. This is also an important contribution to the further professionalization of teachers. Villagers also participate actively in the design; translators and illustrators are generally from the areas where the maths books are used. Thus, the local capacity is built as well as the community’s commitment to improve education.
  •  The material is presented in two languages: the national language (Dutch or Spanish), as well as an indigenous or maroon language. The books are currently available in the following languages: Kari’na (or Karaibs) , Lokodyan (Lokono or Arowak) and Saamaka (Saramaka). In Mexico the books have been translated into Zapoteca and will soon be available in Otomí.
  • Illustrations are drawn from the local environment: animals, plants and objects from the indigenous cultures are reflected in the materials. Specially trained illustrators from the villages give their own interpretations.
  • The books are purposely designed in black and white to reduce printing costs as much as possible. The children love coloring in their books themselves.
  • Children are encouraged to work independently, which gives the teacher more time to help students who need more personal attention.
  • The method is open source/creative commons. The materials may be used, translated and adapted to their own contexts freely by indigenous groups. Commercial use is forbidden!
  • In August 2013 , a pilot program was started in Mexico, using a specially designed e-tool which allows teachers to customize text and illustrations themselves. This is done in collaboration with the Autonomous University of Querétaro.

How did it start?

The Maths, Naturally! project started in October 2010 at the request of indigenous communities in Suriname. Previously, a study was carried out in the area of how indigenous communities used their territory from generation to generation in a sustainable way (see Marauny Na’na Emandobo Lokono Shikwabana [“Maroni, Our Territory”]). The study found that indigenous community members were worried that their ancient knowledge was no longer being passed on to the children and that their language and culture were under threat. After visiting an intercultural bilingual (Maya) school in Belize, the teachers and village leaders from Suriname were convinced that intercultural multilingual education was both a possibility and a necessity for their own communities.

Why maths?

It was the local teachers themselves who indicated that math was a real stumbling block for their students. For that reason, it was decided to develop a bilingual maths book. The perception of the teachers proved to be consistent with the findings of a researcher who studied the causes of early school leaving among indigenous youth in Suriname (Michiels 2010):

“[The young people] regularly indicate that they had to repeat classes, because they had bad grades for maths. Math was the most difficult and least enjoyable subject for each of the young people interviewed. The teachers and the Research and Planning Unit told me that most children have trouble with math, that this is a national problem. In my spare time I regularly assisted my host sister and neighboring girls with maths. This really made it clear to me how difficult math is for the children. They get questions and math exercises, while they do not master the foundations. They can’t do tables, addition and subtraction, odd and even numbers […], so they don’t know how to solve any of the exercises. Also, the students have no idea what they are learning. My host sister of the fourth grade did not know how big a meter, decimeter or centimeter was until I showed her. But she was doing her math exercises.”

Math is a national and a global problem

A diagnostic test conducted in April 2012 by the Ministry of Education clearly showed that math is a national problem. Only 11% of the 5th graders mastered fractions and equations, and only 19% were able to correctly calculate circumference (De Ware Tijd, May 15, 2012, “Results diagnostic test appalling’).

Internationally as well, there is a growing awareness that math presents a major stumbling block especially for children in developing countries. The average student scores lower than the lowest 5% of children from richer countries (Results for Learning Report 2012). A global campaign has been initiated to reverse this trend (Numeracy Campaign GCE).

Why bilingual math?

Research in the US has shown that the educational performance of migrant children from low income backgrounds who were educated from the start in a language other than their mother tongue without any support, is extremely poor. “At 17 years they can hardly read and write, and many have long since dropped out of school by then” (Teunissen).

Children who are able to learn in the language they speak at home learn better and faster. They do not need to learn a second language, but can start right away with learning math, reading or writing.

It has long been known that language is a major barrier for children in the interior of Suriname. The Ministry of Education itself points at language as one of the causes for the poor educational performance in the interior:

“The language barrier and the curriculum that is not adapted to the context, means that students perform poorly” (MINOV 2010).

Where is Maths, Naturally! used?

Maths, Naturally! is used in schools in Galibi, Donderskamp, Washabo, Powakka, Jaw-Jaw, and Kayapaati.

In Mexico, a pilot program with Maths, Naturally! started at a bilingual primary school and at a public library in Juchitán , Oaxaca. Other schools and libraries are to follow soon.

We have also received a request from the indigenous organization Apitikatxi to start a project in the Tumuchumaque park, home to the Tiriyó indigenous peoples, who live on the northern border of Brazil with Suriname.

The map shows where the method is used.

And the results?

The results of the project Maths, Naturally! have been assessed by an independent researcher. The results will be published in 2016. So far there are only positive experiences in the classroom; both children and teachers are enthusiastic. The students and teachers especially appreciate the use of illustrations:

“Math has become fun again!”


Benson, Carol,  ‘Designing Effective Schooling in Multilingual Contexts: Going Beyond Bilingual Models’. In: Skutnabb-Kangas et. al, Social Justice Through Multilingual Education, Multilingual Matters, Bristol, 2009, pg. 63-84.

Kambel, Ellen-Rose and Caroline de Jong (eds.), Marauny Na’na Emandobo Lokono Shikwabana (Marowijne, Ons Grondgebied), Traditioneel gebruik en beheer van het Beneden-Marowijnegebied door de Kali’na en Lokono. Een Surinaamse case study in het kader van artikel 10c van het Biodiversiteitsverdrag, [Marowijne, Our Territory. Traditional Use and Management of the Lower Marowijne Area by the Kali’na and Lokono. A Surinamese case study in the framework of article 10c of the Convention on Biological Diversity], Wan Shi-Shia, 2006.

Ministry of Education and Culture with UNICEF and VVOB, School mapping ten behoeve van planning en beleid in de Republiek Suriname [School Mapping for planning and policy in the Republic of Suriname], Paramaribo, October 2010, pg. 7.

Michiels, Liene, Skoro na lasteng, Onderzoek naar voortijdig schoolverlaters in Para
[School is a waste of time. A study on early drop out in Para, Suriname], scriptie Katholieke Hogeschool Leuven, 2011, pg. 29.

Teunissen, Frans, Met open oren. Vreemdetalenonderwijs aan jonge kinderen op Aruba
[With open ears. Foreign Language Education to young children in Aruba], Departement van Onderwijs Aruba, Oranjestad, 2008, pg. 129.